Piecemeal approaches meet DTV and consolidation challenges
Automation, whether for master control or production, promises everything from smaller staffs to a more consistent-quality on-air product and fewer make-goods. It's made an impact in small- to mid-sized stations as well as larger players.
What's available for smaller stations, and how are the technical people who run these operations approaching the possible investment? Almost all broadcasters are at least considering some kind of automation, even if full-on master control automation is not necessarily in their immediate futures.
The needs of smaller broadcasters are not radically different than those of larger stations: Keep headcounts in check and put out a quality product with as few costly mistakes as possible.
The difference is that smaller market stations often don't have the financial means - or even the business case - for automating the entire station. Because of this and because needs vary from market to market, piecemeal approaches are common. Some stations want a quicker news turnaround, some want a more consistent production standard and some want to run more than one station from one location.
SERVERS, BANDWIDTH AND CONSOLIDATION
The master-control part of the automation market has been fueled by the advent of video servers and decreased bandwidth costs that allowed centralcasting to become a reality.
Both of these drivers involve smaller broadcasters directly: Centralcasting often ties smaller stations within a group to a highly automated central facility, and many smaller stations have not lagged behind in implementing servers. Indeed, some smaller broadcasters even led their bigger brothers in deploying the software to automate server technology because they could skip a generation of technology.
"[Some of the] smaller stations had not yet invested in Beta carts, so they became early adapters of servers and the software to control commercial playback off those servers," said Robert Johnson, president of broadcast automation company Sundance Digital. He added that small greenfield installations, such as those affiliated with UPN or WB launches, also jumped right into servers.
That being said, there are also a lot of stations just beginning the upgrade process. "We're still seeing the cart machine replacement market as a piece of the business," said Brian Lay, director of product marketing for Harris Automation Solutions, which introduced its single-channel Claro automation system at NAB this year.
ECONOMIES OF SCALE
Smaller stations often have automated master control when operations are combined with other stations - typically when they are part of multistation centralcasting schemes, but also when they are operated in smaller combinations.
The two small stations that Steve Schrader serves as chief engineer - WJTV and WHLT in Jackson, Miss. - are examples. The parent media company decided to combine the operations of the two stations to reduce operating costs.
Although programming was often the same on both stations for much of the day, except for commercials, it was difficult for the operators when two different programs ran. The solution was a two-channel Florical AirBossNT system with cache management and ingest from library tapes, which has been operating since 1999.
Schrader said the hardest part for his team was getting operators to trust the new process. "At first we made the transition from a cart machine to 'spots only' to get the operators used to the new system," he said. After a period of this basic level of operation, log importation to the automation and "as run logs" export to the traffic system for reconciliation was put into operation.
"Then we started using partial automation, i.e., clock starts for network [programs]," Schrader said. "Then we went fully automated on-air with the exception of live events such as news and sporting events."
Schrader's stations are an example where the business case for automating made sense because multiple stations that had some variety in programming were involved. For WJTV and WHTV, the move led to a more consistent air product with fewer on-air mistakes. "A large revenue loss reduction has resulted from us automating," he said. "The less human intervention, the less chance you have of error."
The savings become even more pronounced when more than two stations are involved. Certainly large centralcasting facilities that control several small stations require automation if the significant cost-savings of this strategy are to be realized. But what about a true solo operation: Is automation always economically feasible? Is automating master control always the first piece of a smaller station's automation strategy?
No, says Stuart Bell, director and TD at Notre Dame University-owned NBC affiliate WNDU, operating in market number 87, South Bend, Ind.
"Of course we've talked about [automation]," Bell said. But the cost-benefit analysis doesn't work out for WNDU just yet, at least partially because the operation is already running lean.
"We looked at manpower, and a lot of automated operations have the same manpower that we run for a manual operation," Bell said. "They seem to always have people staffed who are just updating the log instead of just sitting there rolling the breaks. We have the equipment to do it, but we haven't taken the next steps because we don't see it saving us that much money."
And, other concerns, such as streamlining the station's impressive six hours of daily news production, take precedence in this market. WNDU has beefed up its news production to stay competitive because that's where station management decided the benefits were greatest. For WNDU, that meant a recent investment in an iNews newsroom integration system and Vibrint editing.
Bell is a director in the production department as well as the station's technical director, so he's also concerned with another piece of the automation puzzle, camera control. Again, the business case for WNDU doesn't point toward an overwhelming "go" because of the steady supply of interns and entry level help from the university's television production department.
Bell said he was also concerned about handling breaking news with production systems that are too formatted, and the temptation to have one operator doing too much is also a concern. Controlling too many cameras in a production can overwhelm one operator and allow bad shots to air, he said.
But some say that one of the main benefits of production automation is increased consistency. ParkerVision president and COO Richard Sisisky said he's seen smaller broadcasters use the ParkerVision news or camera systems to improve consistency when employee churn is a problem.
"In many of these small markets, operators learn the trade and then move to a larger-market station," Sisisky said. "So production automation can help them be more consistent."
WNDU is not part of a larger group - it's the only station Notre Dame University owns - so schemes to combine multiple station operations are off the table there. But group ownership and concepts such as centralcasting have certainly allowed some playback and insertion aspects of automation to reach more and smaller players.
Dave Netz, vice president of marketing and planning for automation and traffic control company Encoda Systems, said that many smaller broadcasters either were or may become part of a station group, and the group corporate level was where a lot of the decisions on automation come from.
Although Encoda has experience in automation and traffic management for very large enterprises throughout the globe, this year the company launched its DAL Channel Manager A-6500, a product designed for smaller stations and single-channel operations that also can be used in multichannel applications.
Netz said that one major application of the new software in its single-channel mode has been in states where union requirements require duopoly owners to maintain dedicated staffing for each station. "We had to have single channel capability for these situations," said Netz.
As for the use of automation in smaller independents, Netz said that automation was an upfront investment that should be considered in a smaller broadcaster's budget analyses going forward. In his experience, the first area of savings for many broadcasters over a multiyear period was deploying servers in place of VTRs. The second area is often automating master control.
Netz said that the costs of operation in smaller markets with a fixed pool of advertising dollars determine profits. "In a 200,000 population market with four affiliates, the stations that operate with smaller staffs will be more profitable."
Manufacturers have responded to the needs of smaller broadcasters with scaled- down systems that are simpler to install and less expensive than full systems, but often upgradeable if a station sees the need for a more advanced system in the near future.
Encoda's A-6500, for example, is billed as scaleable and flexible for any broadcasting environment including multichannel operations, although it is also being sold in a single channel mode for simpler current needs.
It also doesn't force too much on smaller cash-strapped operators. CPU redundancy, something that isn't always needed for smaller players, is optional.
Many manufacturers say smaller players sometimes pass on redundancy to save money.
"Smaller market broadcasters might forego the added expense of building redundancy into the system because system downtime is not an important enough issue to justify the added expense," Sundance's Johnson said. Sundance's FastBreak system is designed to be scaleable in terms of features. Johnson said it was common for stations to automate master control, and then consider areas such as redundancy, ingest, and news production.
Harris Automation's recently debuted Claro entry-level product features a subset of the features found on Harris' regular product. Claro is single-channel and drives a server for playing back commercials and VTRs for program recording and playback.
"It uses the same core technologies as our larger systems, but with fewer configuration options on site," said Harris Automation's Lay.
As for feature differences, Lay said that one of the main differences between the scaled-down product and larger systems was less flexibility on secondary events; "In terms of driving devices that do things like voiceovers or keys, you're limited to using GPI triggers, there's no intelligent control of those devices." Expandability was also limited - Claro is intended to be single-channel, single-operator.
One concern at many small stations is the complexity of the install and operation; Claro addresses this directly. Because it is a standardized bundle, the company says the product can be installed with little support, using an "Install Wizard" just like any other software.
"We made the install as simple as possible," said Virgil Moore, product marketing manager for Harris Automation. "Most stations might not have to have on-site training, which is more mandatory with larger installations."
Rick Post, product manager for Leitch's AgileVision division, makers of the AGV-1000 "DTV-in-a-box" product, said that simplicity was very important in many smaller stations when they made equipment choices. "Products like these have to be easy to use and relatively turnkey," he said. "Smaller operations don't always have extensive engineering resources."
For many commercial stations, multicasting several channels of digital terrestrial could be a driver for rapidly increasing the extent of automation at their stations.
If a station goes from one analog to several digital channels, the complexity of the operation will increase dramatically. This scenario doesn't seem imminent for commercial broadcasters because of the lack of a compelling business case and other concerns.
Multichannel DTV might drive automation deeper at PBS stations of all sizes, however. Many of these stations see a multichannel future, and they don't worry about spreading advertising dollars between multiple stations, so they will likely become more automated. These stations - many quite small - will need to go from one channel to four or five without staffing increases. That's where automation can shine.
Piecemeal approaches meet DTV and consolidation challenges