It sounds like an ideal if implausible scenario: Beat the competition across town, and cut costs while doing it.
For some, that solution is being found within an oft-overlooked but key component of a station's infrastructure: traffic and billing. Built as a catch-all repository for the business-side of the business, the old traffic and billing scenario often required separate staff to be responsible for logging ads, setting schedules, tracking spots and confirming ads.
"The problem with the way the system used to work was that master control would have to physically pick up the phone and call traffic, and then traffic would have to make another call over to sales," Sarah Foss, president and CEO of VCI Solutions in Springfield, Mass.
All that is changing thanks to a new SMPTE standard and a spate of new technologies that are revamping this long-standing way of doing business. It's serving to elevate traffic and billing technologies from a backroom workhorse to a more centralized solution.
A big part of that success comes from the adoption of the BXF standard—or SMPTE-2021 Broadcast eXchange Format—that is a protocol for data exchange that allows otherwise incompatible systems to communicate.
Sarah Foss, president, VCI Solutions "One of the great features of BXF is its ability to maximize the efficiency of traditional communications and introduce all sorts of extra capabilities to the workflow," said Rick Stora, product manager for Avid Sundance Digital. "The nature of BXF is that it supports an extremely comprehensive data set. With more information moving between systems, more efficiently, many clever and useful enhancements can be discovered and initiated."
As a result, the newest batch of traffic and billing solutions is making enterprising leaps into new territory, such as providing broadcasters with the ability to monitor a signal to determine its signal quality in real time. That gives the station's automation system the ability to make a judgment call on what additional steps to take. New traffic and billing technology is also giving real-time notification when a spot mistakenly doesn't air. The result is greater interactivity between billing and on-air master control and automation.
"Traffic has such rich data about what's going on in [a broadcaster's] business," VCI's Foss said. "There's a deep visibility [within the traffic & billing systems] that wasn't being tapped. So the traditional traffic model has evolved."
The result is a more centralized traffic hub designed to better gather and disseminate information. "The technology is becoming ever more strategic given that it's truly a middleware between the front-end and the distribution of content," Foss said. "Previously traffic would simply hand off [information] to automation."
The introduction of BXF, however, has led to tighter integration between traffic and automation.
VCI has responded to market demands with technologies such as Orion, which provides sales, traffic and accounting functionality; and Verity, a real-time management system for managing sales, traffic and billing.
"The goal is to be smarter and more efficient," Foss said. "We need to reduce head count and improve integration between traffic and automation. Now, when automation says 'what do I do,' there are contractual rules in place, almost as a 'self-healing' system. That reduces labor because you don't have people simply around to solve problems."
Harris has seen its technology evolve based on how the economic markets have changed, said Ed Adams, a vice president and general manager with Harris.
Harris has responded with the newest version of its OSi-Traffic, a traffic system that includes accounting, sales and reporting components, and is focused on live programming in back operations. "The challenge for broadcasters is bringing it all together and improving data flows through an operation," Adams said. The newest spate of technologies on the market now "have the ability to work with [many different data flows] to create more tightly integrated systems by linking [advertising] agencies and rep firms together."
This new integration allows the advertising model to become more creative with features like so-called "pod positioning" when organizing advertising flows. "That allows broadcasters to actually create selling positions," he said, "which allows broadcasters to become more efficient and create more centralized operations."
Harris technologies also address forward-thinking issues like automatically informing advertisers when their spot ran, which gives broadcasters a more direct link to advertisers.
Traffic and billing technologies are also providing support for broadcasters by addressing multiplatform issues, according to Michael Atkin, president of BroadView Software in Toronto.
"From programming to traffic, to sales and business analysis, this is all done with a single technology platform and integrated data model," he said. "This provides efficiencies to broadcasters that just cannot be achieved with multiple products, even ones from the same vendor. Whatever [the end result], broadcasters increasingly want one solution that they can use across all their business lines."
BroadView's Version 6.2 of its traffic, sales and programming suite offers sales analysis tools to improve data mining abilities to better leverage information and operating efficiencies.
Across the board, automation systems are looking at BXF as the key for interfacing with traffic and billing technologies. "BXF gives that notification immediately," said Shawn Maynard, vice president and general manager of Florical Systems. "To make this business more competitive and to reduce operational costsÉ traffic truly needs to become more [involved] with on-air production." One of Florical's solutions is the BXF Live Log interface, which works to convert traffic logs to on-air schedules and convert as-run logs to reconciliation files for easier follow-up.
As broadcasters begin to handle more channels, traffic requirements are multiplying. For Avid Sundance Digital, the key is communication. "As an automation company, [our] contribution to the traffic and billing workflow is communication in and out of the playback system," said Rick Stora, product manager for Avid Sundance Digital. "The primary messaging between traffic and automation include daily broadcast schedules, ingest, purge orders and as-run reports."
Broadcasters are also using secondary events as revenue sources, he said. For example, the "bugs, crawls and snipes that have become so prevalent on our viewing screens are now starting to carry advertising messages."
"Our view from the automation side is that traffic has been relatively successful in scaling their solutions to handle the growing and diverse distribution channels," Stora said. "When planning, operators are now seriously taking into account the variety of ways that they can expose and monetize their media. All that activity is accounted for with their traffic and billing systems."