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Modern automation

There are many reasons why a station should install automation. The most obvious is the apparent cost savings in labor. The math is simple. Theoretically, if a station makes a one-time investment in hardware, software and installation, the recurring cost of master control operators goes down or is eliminated. I note that this is a theoretical gain because the answer depends on the question and the initial conditions.

Manual intervention

For automation to be successful in a modern station, it must be connected to a multiplicity of devices and information sources and destinations. An automation system's playlist is derived from the air log generated by traffic. If the traffic log is without errors, it is possible to import it directly into automation, though that is often executed manually. The reason is quite simple: One would not want to blow away a currently running playlist to load a new one.

Some current systems are capable of appending new sections of log to a running playlist, though this is most often done manually to confirm that the operation is truly desired. Thus, at the very least, a person working in traffic or master control must make a manual decision to load a list.

There are plenty of other operations that require intervention. New media must be ingested to provide the necessary linkage between the media identification and house numbers generally used to track media assets once they are in-house. (See “Coding progression.”) These critical pieces of metadata provide the basis for tracking and managing the assets on servers, videotape or other media appropriate for audio or video content to be managed.

Part of the ingest process includes marking the start and end of the message, normally using SMPTE time code. In the case of syndicated content, the information captured may include segment times. Content may also be screened for inappropriate language or visual content to protect the station from potential fines. Even at this early point in the chain, it is easy to see that an unattended operation is largely a myth. Human evaluation of the content is almost always needed.

Broadcast Exchange Format

Some types of content delivery promise to make content resolution and timing unnecessary. Content delivered by commercial services can contain the appropriate metadata, which facilitates the transfer automatically to the air server systems. Some services can deliver the media using MXF wrappers that contain the metadata in standardized ways.

The new SMPTE Broadcast Exchange Format (BXF) facilitates the delivery of messages containing details from edge delivery servers to air server systems, automation and traffic systems. (See Figure 1.) This makes integration among all applications much tighter and allows support for enhanced functionality.

BXF provides a route to additional functionality, which is otherwise hard to achieve unless a manufacturer supplies both traffic and automation. Reconciliation of the final running order on-air to the intended traffic air log has always been a tedious process. With manual operations, it is time-consuming to compare a paper log to the printed traffic run list. Even with automation, it is necessary to successfully map two data files to a common format (the output of traffic headed to automation and the as-run log from automation headed back to traffic). BXF allows a continuous reconciliation, item by item, between traffic and automation in a standardized communication format that does not need to be customized for each installation, which is a great improvement.

BXF deserves more discussion in this context. Any time multiple manufacturers can get together and work toward a standard, the industry benefits. In this case, automation, traffic, server, archive and PSIP generator vendors; distribution service companies; the advertising community; and others have contributed to a process that could greatly simplify implementing complex systems to support modern broadcast automation. Subcommittee S22.10, part of the Committee on Television Systems Technology, chaired by Birney Dayton of NVISION, is completing BXF.

The standard provides an XML-based method of passing messages through a common programming interface. Each manufacturer writes a BXF parsing engine, which sends and receives commands. By attacking the problem in this manner, there is no need to write unique interfaces for each new implementation. If the devices and software can communicate in a BXF system, they should simply work. It's an elegant solution in an industry that is in constant evolution.

Recently, the American Association of Advertising Agencies, which originated Advertising Digital Identification (Ad-ID), has become involved in the BXF initiative. (See Figure 2.) The association hopes that similar technology might be used to electronically communicate all the way back to the order issued by ad agencies. Ad-ID is used in many other forms of advertising, such as print and Web, so this holds good promise for the broadcast industry.

The DTV conversion

DTV is creating important new reasons for broadcasters to consider modern automation systems. Stations that have adopted multicasting, or that will by the DTV conversion deadline less than two years away, will recognize that multiple streams can be delivered practically only with automation. The simple program continuity demanded by many secondary channels can be accomplished by a variety of master control hardware approaches, and automation can execute without intervention once all the media is ingested.

With the explosion in the number of channels of distribution, one might ask if there is anything that could limit the long-term penetration of automation into broadcast delivery. The only reasonable answer is to carefully consider the impact of nonlinear delivery of on-demand content. That is a whole new ball game.

John Luff is a broadcast technology consultant.

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Coding progression

ISCI system

  • The Industry Standard Coding Identification system contains eight characters — four alpha, four numeric.
  • The 30-plus year system was created to standardize the identity of television commercials for scheduling, tracking and storing. ISCI is no longer adequate in a world of digital and addressable media.

UPC bar code

  • Universal Product Code bar codes are 10 digits long.
  • The system was created to speed up the checkout process at retail. It was first used on May 4, 1974, when a cashier scanned a pack of Wrigley's gum in a Marsh Supermarket. Today, all products in retail outlets have a bar code.

Ad-ID system

  • The Advertising Digital Identification system contains 12 characters — four alpha, eight alphanumeric.
  • The American Association of Advertising Agencies created this system to standardize coding in the advertising industry for all assets. Today, there is no consistent coding method across advertising mediums, thus the lack of ability to communicate system to system.