TV stations have been reaping the benefits of master control automation for years, but now that most core systems are automated, stations and vendors are looking for new ways to glean efficiencies. New developments, such as the Broadcast eXchange Format and dynamic hubbing, allow broadcasters to work more efficiently with fewer employees, while improvements in technology and storage are making the systems themselves more effective.
The master control room at WJCT-TV in Jacksonville, Fla., the first station to deploy Sundance Digital's BXF Gateway.
“The required broadcast workflow was invented in the early days of radio,” said Rick Stora, director of product management for Dallas-based Sundance Digital. “You still have to have that contract, get that content into the shop, look at it, play it, report what you played and then store it. The real advances are coming in the optimization of that workflow, and that mostly has to do with improving the quality of the metadata and communications between systems.”
TRANSMISSION TALKS TO TRAFFIC
Broadcast eXchange Format, or BXF, which the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers S22-10 Working Group spent three years developing, is one way that vendors and stations are improving workflow. BXF“s main function is to allow traffic systems to communicate smoothly with transmission systems--something that hasn“t been possible until now.
The first application to come out of that standard is one that gives stations immediate notification if scheduled commercial play-out changes over a period of time. Without BXF, if a presidential speech unexpectedly interrupts scheduled programming, for example, the changes to the traffic lineup aren“t reported until the next morning. Stations then have to provide their advertising clients with make-goods over the next day or two. If inventory is tight, make-goods might not even be possible, causing stations to lose money.
With BXF, those changes are reported immediately. That allows stations to act on the fly--pulling promos or tightening interstitials--to provide immediate makegoods and prevent any revenue loss. Stora said he expects stations to save hundreds of thousands of dollars by using BXF.
When inventory is very tight, which it was be for many stations during the Summer Olympic Games and presidential election, “BXF will be a very good thing to have because you might not have a chance to make good tomorrow,” he said.
Accordingly, commercial stations are eager to install BXF. “That“s been on our list with Sundance from the beginning and we“ve been involved in its testing,” said Craig Harper, vice president of technology for Dallas-based Belo Corp., which has worked closely with Sundance over the years to develop systems.
“It used to be that if we had inventory problems, we wouldn“t know until the next day. There was a real-time discrepancy in managing that traffic, and we would hopefully be making it up in the next break but more likely the next day,” he said. “I look at it like our TV stations are airplanes and they are going to take off with the seats empty or full. If I have empty spots, I need to move those spots around so I“m making money, not losing it.”
In June, Sundance Digital rolled out one of the first new products to incorporate the BXF standard: the BXF Gateway. Public broadcaster WJCT-TV in Jacksonville, Fla., was the first TV station in the country to deploy it.
Florical's control room interface“Sundance Digital“s BXF Gateway is the meaningful glue we“ve been waiting for to link traffic and automation,” said Duane Smith, WJCT“s director of technology in a statement. “Before the BXF Gateway, there were many processes in the workflow that provided opportunities to introduce human error; manually manipulating electronic data by pecking on keyboards is an inherently flawed approach. The BXF Gateway allows information to be entered once, in traffic, and no one has to touch it again.”
Eventually BXF will be used to automate other station functions as well. For example, it can be used to automate dubbing of commercials and programs into video servers, Stora said.
Another innovation in automation includes “dynamic hubbing,” a concept created and promoted by Gainesville, Fla.-based Florical, which provided the central-casting systems used by both NBC and Media General. Using Florical“s SMART (System Management And Reporting Tool) Central product, a master control engineer can log in to his network from anywhere and monitor and control the automated operations of multiple TV stations.
“Anywhere I am I can log in and become a hub,” said Shawn Maynard, Florical“s vice president and general manager. “I can control my station as well as the station in the next state from my desktop. It creates this virtual hubbing and virtual master control world. That“s where I feel automation is going.”
The SMART Central utility also can save stations quite a bit of money because one person can monitor the overnight operations of many stations in different states, instead of having someone watching each station. And that person can do that monitoring from anywhere, instead of from one designated group hub.
“Why do you need to have a master control operator at all 30... stations for those overnight hours when you make no money anyway?” Maynard said. “So you tell those guys at those 29 stations to turn off the lights and go home. You only need to have one station run all the stations between midnight and 6 a.m. through SMART Central.”
Florical“s type of remote master control over the Internet is new, but TV stations groups have been running multiple TV stations over automated hubs for years. For example, Nexstar controls eight TV stations out of one TV station in Little Rock, Ark. Belo runs its four Arizona-based stations out of one location in Phoenix, and controls all its local and national commercial traffic from one location in Dallas.
“The economics of automation is that it“s allowed people that used to sit at the master control switcher and run breaks to do other tasks,” said Harper. “In medium- or smaller-market stations, those people are looking at commercials or running audio and they can do more with the same number of people. Where we have duopolies or triopolies or a cable news channel, the real advantage is having one operator watching both stations. The savings is due to the scale.”
As broadcasters move their content to many different platforms, vendors have to figure out how to sync up their current automation processes with all of the new multiplatform offerings, including digital channels, Web sites and mobile broadcasts.
“Aside from improvements in storage, which will be ongoing until the end of time, the challenge we continue to focus on has to do with expansion,” Stora said. “When everyone goes digital, they will have multiple subchannels at their disposal, but they won“t want to expand their staff just because they have a second or third channel and a Web site. Adaptation to these new media opportunities are where the challenges are right now.
“As a broadcaster, if you are going to pursue some of these opportunities, how do you get your material up and running on it? Broadcasters can make and own content, but how do they track it and bill it? It“s the vagaries of these new businesses and how to manage them that“s next on our radar.”