Automation at this year's NAB once again has lived up to the old adage of “different things to different folks.
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By Jim Boston

Automation at this year's NAB once again has lived up to the old adage of “different things to different folks.” To a lot of folks, automation this year appears to be controlling multiple stations from one location, or “centralcasting.” Like many systems in play in the television industry today, the delineation between automation and other technologies is blurring, mainly due to centralcasting.

NAB attendees looking for automation for centralcasting operations found many solutions by companies not traditionally inthe automation field.

Servers, both video and multimedia, are central to all centralcasting topologies. A number of server companies cut their teeth on controlling the content of servers, such as Crispin and Odetics, before morphing into full automation packages. Today, many video server vendors have applications that come close to being full automation solutions. Among them are Sony, Pinnacle, SGI and the Grass Valley Group component of Thomson.

A central part of centralcasting is media management. This is an application, or suite of applications, that come with full-fledged automation packages. But there are many companies that specialize in building and maintaining large databases, with ample metadata as part of each asset's record. Media management is crucial when one location is controlling others via either the centralized playout or distributed control approaches to centralcasting. In the centralized playout approach, a central location acquires, stores and delivers a complete program stream to the local stations that the central site serves. The local stations might switch away for local programming, such as newscasts, or in a few cases the locally produced programming is actually fed back to the central site for integration with commercial breaks. The distributed control model for centralcasting has a central point that controls the assemblage of program stream(s) via remote control of the local automation package.

Both of these approaches rely on another technology, telephony. Telephony provides the connectivity, wideband in the case of centralized playout, that allows either a central automation package to build the necessary program stream for the dependent stations, or a WAN-based automation system with components spread out geographically, either regionally or nationally, to be controlled remotely.

So to look at automation at this year's NAB we must think geographically, as in centralcasting, and locally, as in the case of the stand-alone, single-station system. Putting aside the large, third-party asset managers and WANs, we still have various solutions to machine control via suites of software applications. Some vendors offer specific applications that comprise a larger system, and some vendors that offer complete solutions are evolving these systems into specialized areas. The bottom line in any automation system is the building, care and feeding of one or more databases that are parsed out to “device servers” as needed. These device servers issue the proper machine control commands to the appropriate sources, switchers and routers at the proper time. With all this in mind, let's take a look at some of what was offered this year.

Aveco is a new player in the U.S. market that has installations throughout Europe and Asia. Aveco perceives the future merging of automation and servers; therefore, their systems are able to control some of the MPEG encoding/decoding and display cards used to build many video servers. Aveco's architecture is compact and the whole system, which can control up to 56 devices directly (additional device servers can be added through common network connectivity with other device servers), fits into a single automation server. Client applications that need to be physically dispersed run on diskless PCs that boot up from the central automation server. Another interesting Aveco product is a 1RU barcode reader that can be installed above a rack-mounted VTR. This allows stand-alone VTRs to be used in conjunction with a centralized barcode system.

Blueline has developed a derivative of their automation system that a couple of PBS stations are using to deliver content to local schools, called Blueline Video on Demand. Schools can order programming from the PBS station via the Internet, and the station transfers the various programs requested by terrestrial DTV transmission between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. to MPEG servers located at the requesting school. An interesting thing about Blueline's traditional automation package is that it is comprised of Java applets and an SQL database. This means that Blueline's automation can run over a number of operating systems, including Linux, OS X and Windows.

Blue Order and Dremedia announced a partnership that combines Blue Order's media asset management platform, media archive, with Dremedia's media analysis engine. The engine can be used when media is ingested or imported into Blue Order's media asset management system. The system uses speech recognition to automatically generate metadata transcripts, which can be used to retrieve archive content using natural language- or concept-based searches.

Crispin continues to enhance their RapidPlayX 2000, which is the front end of their growing suite of automation applications. RapidPlayX 2000 now has the ability to provide distributive control of multiple locations via WAN. Their AssetBase 2000 has a Web browsable facility that allows anyone with the proper permissions to manage the database over the Web.

DNF Controls customized its ST420 Shotbox for ParkerVision's Digital CameraMan system. The control panel provides one-button recall of camera presets. The system can control up to 16 Cameraman systems, working in conjunction with ParkerVision's Digital Shot Director. It utilizes virtual alphanumeric keyboards to assign preset labels.

Encoda introduced a new automation solution based upon their D-Series technology. It supports the device interfaces of the high-end D-Series products developed by Drake Automation, which Encoda acquired in 1999. Encoda also demonstrated the A-7900 satellite recording and receiver system designed to support scheduled satellite recording functions within the TV station. Encoda is currently rolling out the Link Product Family, which includes an Oracle database designed as a “broadcast database” to support data import and export and roll up reporting for a variety of activities including basic exchange between traffic and automation. It can also be used for metadata import from a variety of sources like spot delivery systems and syndicated programming delivery systems.

Webware announced that Scripps Networks has selected Webware's MAMBO software to create a unified, secure archive for its library of digital assets. The MAMBO asset management system allows companies to integrate their digital assets to create unified brands.

Florical demonstrated Sharecasting, which already has a number of installations. This approach to centralcasting allows either a central hub or a local station, or spoke, to control device servers throughout the system. Thus, a local station can assume control of its own operations, or even the operations of other stations if the hub needs to go off-line. This is accomplished by Florical's DCOM technology, which in essence lets the various device servers be controlled by clients anywhere in the entire multiple station enterprise. As with many centralcasting systems, Sharecasting keeps track of the various propagation delays that video and audio incur between the hub and the spokes.

Harris is heavily involved with wide area automation. To allow their customers to implement centralcasting, they have added new applications to their suite of software. They have a new protocol based on XML for controlling a wide variety of devices such as servers and character generators over WANs. They also point out that this new protocol already supports Pinnacle's Dekocast. Harris sees a merging of automation and telco connectivity. As such, they have products that are making it easier to tie broadcast infrastructure to WANs. Harris is also addressing areas that have been outside of the automation sphere up to now, but which will have to be addressed in the centralcasting world. With their own SNMP software applications, Harris can also control and monitor the whole facility, ATSC encoding/multiplexing, transmitter, fire and other alarms. Basically, anything that has a SNMP Management Information Base. Even their ADC device servers are now SNMP-enabled.

Odetics introduced a new simplified GUI for their AIRO automation package. They have also developed an enhanced database architecture for AIRO with many new attributes that position it for the future. Odetics points out that the television station is slowly evolving from the current push model to a viewer-pull model. When viewers are able to request video (or material) on demand from a broadcast station, the automation will need to perform new tricks and keep track of new types of transaction. They stress that the databases being built by automation, and as we have already mentioned, by numerous vendors outside traditional automation, must be robust enough to evolve as your operation does.

Omnibus introduced their Hy-Brow desktop browse technology based on their global asset and media management applications (GAMMA) technology. This is part of what they call “knowledge management,” and it is based on an SQL gateway or Informix Blade technology. It allows a customer's existing database to be interfaced with the Omnibus system. The browse technology also allows online material to be mirrored on browse servers to show that many people can view material simultaneously.

Sundance added the Titan large-scale automation system to their automation lineup. FastBreak is still their mainline product for customers requiring 10 to 20 channels under control. The Titan architecture is such that it can be scaled to control thousands of channels if desired. This is done via Listprocessor servers at each controlled location, which directly control the local devices. The Titan air controller client application that controls each Listprocessor can have multiple instances, which means control can be from many locations, either centrally, locally or remotely from another station in the group. The central database replicated the records necessary for each local Listprocessor to run independently if required from the central database.

For those still concerned about controlling playout of multiple VTRs, Tiltrac's V-100 video library manager is a basic automation system for controlling VTRs, either as stand-alone machines or in Tiltrac's robotic server and archive units.

Thomson has folded Philips automation into its ever-widening offering of broadcast solutions. Their systematic approach uses the geometric shape of a tetrahedron as an analogy. A tetrahedron is a four-sided pyramid with all sides being equal. These four sides represent scheduling or traffic, storage, the catalog or media management, and the actual automation system. Thomson stresses that these four sides should work tightly together to ensure efficiency and reliability. To facilitate the tightly required coupling, Thomson embraces using open protocols between the four sides: RNP between automation and traffic, AMP between automation and the media manager, and AQP between automation and storage.

In looking at the exhibits guide when planning this year's coverage, various automation vendors listed themselves in broadband technologies, computer products, data broadcasting, digital/high-definition television, systems integration, Internet and Webcasting categories. Conversely, over 60 companies were listed in the TV/radio automation category. Many of those companies wouldn't have considered themselves part of the television automation universe a few years ago. Convergence is not just happening between separate industries, as the often-mentioned television-telephony-computer example notes. It is also happening inside those industries. We are seeing separate groups of technologies applied to television as single discipline.

Jim Boston is a West Coast consultant.

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