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Master control becomes branding suite

Over five decades, broadcast automation has evolved from the management of mechanical systems to its current state dominated by file processing. The complexities of loading and cueing videotape have been replaced with the manipulation of files, and playout has become the synchronization of files rendered as video, possibly with the insertion of live events. The only residual mechanical components are the head actuators of the hard drives, and even they could be replaced with solid-state drives in the near future.

Broadcast automation all started with the whizzing and hissing Ampex ACR25, which played tape cartridges each containing a single spot and used quadruplex scanning. The ACR25 enabled broadcasters to play spots in random order and change the break at short notice, freeing them from precompiled spot reels. The concept of unspooling tape from a cartridge, rather than the reel-to-reel design conventionally used for video, is still core to data cartridges like the LTO format; although; LTO uses longitudinal rather than transverse tracks.

Reliably playing back-to-back ads from ribbons of rusty plastic evolved to a fine art with robotic cassette machines. Broadcast automation systems were designed to orchestrate VTRs, prerolling decks to hit frame-accurate cues for playback. The preroll concept has not entirely disappeared, but it is now the predictable delay of the MPEG decoders stemming from the GOP structure because the disk files are rendered as real-time video.

The step-change in broadcast automation came in the ’90s, when the video server took over the playout of the commercial break from VTRs. Gradually, long-form programming also migrated to servers as their capacity increased.
Automation had to evolve to manage media, rather than mechanisms. The ingest of videotape as files and timed recording of satellite feeds became an integral component of broadcast automation. As file-based operations became the norm, automation was set for the next stage of evolution.

The business of running a channel in a world of OTT video and multiformat delivery has brought branding to the fore. Just as selling soda or perfume is all about branding and brand images, TV also has to reinforce and promote the channel brand. With the playout of programs and spots a mature technology, the master control suite has now moved into the channel-branding arena.

Downstream of branding, there has been another transformation. It’s no longer just the STL link, but a bank of encoders creating multiplexed transport steams for live transmission over the air or via satellite, in addition to all manner of files for VOD, 3G and Web delivery.

The traditional master control operation is only seen now for those channels that carry live news and sports, and even then only for the in and out switching. For most channels, the focus is now on the workflow through the processes of acquisition, ingest and preparation; branding; and multiplatform delivery.

Because the vast majority of channels on a cable or satellite roster don’t include live inserts, master control has changed into a file publishing operation, and that is very different from the video-centric operations of the past. There is no need for baseband video in the processes to deliver programming to a VOD or OTT service.

Past TV operations have been constrained by physical media. Who remembers the days before ENG, when 16mm film had to be sent to the lab and processed before we could watch the news? In master control, operators wheeling carts full of tapes from the library to the cart machines and back are following film as historical processes consigned to the broadcasting museum.