Will the financial climate accelerate change going into next year?

As we move into uncertain times, automation must still be high on the spending list because it can deliver real efficiency gains.

This year has been another of gentle evolution in the broadcast automation sector. Looking back over this year’s newsletters, no single theme emerges. Most installations seem to be new channels, rather than updates for existing channels. But, existing channels have seen additions to the periphery.

One area that has kept engineers busy has been the addition of graphics, both to playout and to newsroom systems. Viewers expect more graphics to explain and illuminate stories. Channel managers want more graphics to reinforce their brand and to cross-promote new media channels.

Graphics creation has always been labor-intensive, and 2008 saw many broadcasters look to automation to control costs, because the quantity of graphics aired constantly increases. Data-driven graphics has been a frequent theme in news releases throughout the year. The technology can be applied successfully to many genres, from news and election coverage to promotions.

Another area that has seen updates is compliance recording. Many stations have retired their banks of VCRs and replaced them with PC servers. These systems lend themselves to integration with the as-run logs and sales reconciliation, easing the task of checking breaks aired as planned.

Many broadcasters have integrated content management more closely with automation, which is still an area ripe for expansion. Many stations still ingest from tape, with the attendant labor costs of the handling and QC. Media asset management, combined with playout automation, can deliver real efficiency gains.

The channel-in-a-box solution has become more and more popular. Not only is the cost per channel lower than traditional automation, but it is easy to add channels. As station bosses want to try new subchannels, or to run Internet channels, the channel-in-a-box solution is a great way to serve these low-cost channels. The small investment also means that new ideas can be trialed; if they don’t work out, the channel can be dropped or changed. This flexibility was just not possible without the “IT-enabled” playout systems that lower costs.

This year also saw the Internet and mobile platforms become essential distribution channels to complement over the air (OTA) television. Viewers, especially younger, want to view on any convenient screen, whether it’s a PC or PDA.

The launch of services by IPTV yet again failed to materialize as the next big thing, but mobile goes from strength to strength. Could it be that IPTV is too similar to cable, whereas mobile is a new screen?

And what of next year, 2009? I’m reserving judgment until NAB, when the mist may have cleared by then. What is certain is that automation still appears to be a wise investment, because it delivers efficiency gains. Will 2009 be the year that broadcasters have to move to commodity IT systems, because proprietary video systems are becoming unaffordable? I believe it is a good time to take stock and put every aspect of the workflow under scrutiny. No one can afford to maintain legacy workflows anymore. The business has become too competitive, and next year the margins are going to be squeezed too tight. As the real costs of automation fall, the need to use more of it is compelling. I’m sure many of you have views to air on this topic, why not visit our forums and start a new thread.

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