Keeping it simple is key to automated success

Although stations in smaller local markets continue to struggle with decreased revenue and shrinking audiences, they still need to find ways to improve efficiency and generate more content. For some, broadcast automation software has been the key to staying competitive, due to the cost-efficiencies of streamlined operations and reduced staffing requirements.

Yet many automation systems can be difficult to deploy and often include sophisticated features that are not always appropriate for a station that produces a few daily newscasts and, in between the ads, runs syndicated programming.

At the recent NAB show, it was clear that management at these stations were looking for intuitive software tools that quickly make sense to their rank-and-file employee; one who might not be completely technologically savvy. In this way, daily master control processes, such as managing incoming news feeds and syndicated programming, can be completed with minimal human intervention.

Recognizing this, a company in Salt Lake City, UT, called NVerzion (which has been marketing automation software since 1990 and whose software automates the capture from the International Space Station) developed a new file-management software package to help stations using delivery services such as Pathfire, PitchBlue, DG Systems and Javelin. The NCompass software manages the ingest of incoming files on a daily basis and instantly converts them for editing or simple turnaround for playout — facilitating time-consuming transcoding. NCompass does this by leveraging the metadata tags that are usually sent along with the audio and video files. The software immediately recognizes what type of file it is and where it should be sent within the station. This saves time and typically does not need human intervention to make happen. (The process can also be done manually if someone wants to QC a file.)

"In today's challenging economic environment, cost and efficiency considerations are extremely important," said Dave Gray, operation manager at KCWX-TV. "On top of [the operational efficiency gains], we were able to install everything ourselves and realize even more savings."

Other TV stations now using NCompass software include KTVX-TV (ABC, Salt lake City, UT), WCWG-TV (CW, Greensboro, NC), KPTM-TV (Fox, Omaha, NE), KTVH-TV (NBC, Helena, MT), KMPH-TV (Fox, Fresno, CA), and WAND-TV (NBC, Decatur, GA).

Completely customizable, the NCompass software can be configured to move data from the delivery system directly to the playout server, or to transcoding software such as Harmonic's Rhozette, Telestream's Flip Factory and others. Delivery System metadata can be automatically added to the software's database or displayed for visual interpretation.

"The business of automation has really come down to developing products that improve workflow and can be used by anyone in a station engineering setting," said Scott Murphy, president of NVerzion. "If the software is difficult to use or does not accommodate all of the legacy equipment on hand as well as the newer, file-based technology, people won't use it. With everything that's going on in the economy these days, stations don't have the time or personnel to spend weeks installing and learning a new system. When we keep it simple, we're most successful as a company and the customer is generally happy with the results."

Some of the key features of NCompass include automatic renaming of incoming files and auto-segmenting, to support the provisioning and correct airing of advertising spots. The software then automatically pushes desired content to a station's broadcast system, and optionally, to archive. The software (and hardware) can also be set up with redundant paths, via 422 relay switches to protect against system failure. NCompass has been installed in several U.S. stations thus far.

"One thing I have found is that no two stations use automation the same way, so we try to give them a platform with lots of features that can work with a myriad of products out there," Murphy said. "I think the key to our success is that our systems are not dedicated to one server or one router or master control switcher. That seems to be as important as improving the workflow."

In keeping with its strategy of "simplicity sells software," at the NAB Show the company introduced a new traffic and billing system called Keep It Simple Scheduling (KISS), which simplifies and organizes scheduling, billing and accounting of broadcast orders using the well-known QuickBooks accounting software. Targeted at smaller stations, KISS takes advantage of an API within QuickBooks that integrates the customer, inventory and run data (schedules) with QuickBooks to help easily generate invoices and reports. Murphy said it cuts down on billing errors, which can save stations a significant amount of revenue. In addition, the company is making the traffic and billing tool available for purchase with no recurring "maintenance" fees.

"Smaller stations, indeed, every station, needs to find creative ways of staying in business," Murphy said. "They all understand the concept of automation, and doing more with less. They just need an affordable, easy-to-navigate path to get there."