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A new world of multichannel automation

Automation has become a crucial success factor in today's most complex broadcasting operations, many of which span large geographical areas and multiple time zones. These broadcasters must take into account variations in viewer preferences and advertising markets to deliver a range of content over many channels, and to seamlessly adapt to the scheduling changes that are inherent with coverage of live events such as sports.

Networks operating in such an environment require a specific breed of automation system — one that has been designed from the ground up to handle the complexities of multichannel broadcasting. This article will discuss the challenges facing today's multichannel broadcasters and their requirements for automation. It will also describe the key components of a multichannel automation system and what to look for when sourcing automation systems.

Rising to multichannel challenges

In today's challenging economic times, large multichannel broadcasting and playout facilities are struggling to balance the need for reliable, error-free playout with an infrastructure that keeps operational overhead as low as possible using minimal personnel and equipment. The balancing act is best illustrated by the choice of the automation system; most facilities find that black box automation running in a completely hands-off fashion is not up to the task of a complex, multichannel operation. Rather than simply loading a playlist and walking away, engineers need the ability to intervene at appropriate times to avert errors and to trigger events manually, as required.

The automation challenges become even more complex for playout centers in particular, charged with playing out multiple channels of programming for various diverse broadcasters. In these situations, an automation system designed specifically for multichannel operations that provides a common infrastructure across all broadcasters and channels — yet accommodates a wide variety of schedule formats, playlists, geographies and time zones, and content formats (whether file- or tape-based) — becomes a critical necessity. (See Figure 1.) Such a system is designed to simplify the operator's task by providing a common interface across all broadcaster accounts and a clear view into every playlist — showing at a glance not only what's playing out, but when and where.

Centralized control; regional content

For a playout facility as well as a large single broadcaster operating many different geographically dispersed channels, the regional variations in demographics, advertising markets and programming requirements present another daunting challenge for streamlined automation. One broadcaster that addressed this issue was PRIME TV, an Australian TV network with a viewing area that spans multiple time zones and covers a large portion of the country's regional areas.

PRIME TV's viewer preferences vary widely according to demographic shifts; for instance, the network covers such a wide geographical area that sports programs popular in one area may not be popular in another. In upgrading its automation system, the broadcaster needed a powerful solution that could take these complexities into account, with the ability to handle more than 60 submarkets along with network program distribution. In addition, PRIME TV sought a turnkey automation system that could deliver all the necessary functionality for current as well as future needs, without requiring in-house software developers to create add-on applications.

To meet these requirements, the network deployed an advanced multichannel content distribution and playout operation. The new system automates playout for programming across all 60 channels, with the ability to manage multiple live content streams and variations in advertising markets according to time and shifting demographics. The system's ability to handle live format scheduling changes, such as those common with sports events, creates less stress for operators. As a bonus, the broadcaster receives improvements in its asset management capabilities through the ability to manage media across different brands from a single system.

Regionalization approaches

A robust multichannel automation system will offer numerous approaches to providing the degree of content regionalization that PRIME TV has implemented. One effective technique provides broadcasters with the ability to opt out of the main feed and insert local content, which enables variations in programs (the network's regionalized sports events, for instance), advertising, promotions and even channel branding.

In contrast to this one-channel, different variations approach, time-link event programming enables the operator to load an independent, complete schedule for each channel with all regionalized content preprogrammed. At particular points in the main schedule — a national newscast, for example — the system will automatically link the main broadcast to all channels. This technique also enables the network to transition all channels at once to a simultaneous commercial or other programming break.

One of the largest recent UK playout projects was the relocation of Channel 4's playout facility from the broadcaster's premises on Horseferry Road to Red Bee Media's Broadcast Center in White City. The move encompassed the transfer of the entire operations department, with library, media management, QC, playout and transcoding all relocating.

The new system was installed in a main and backup configuration for playout of Channel 4, More4, Film4 and E4. It delivers both SD and HD output.

Grouping secondary events for greater efficiency

Another desirable feature for a multichannel operation is the ability to group multiple, hierarchically linked events together and manage them as a single entity — a type of macro for playout automation. Operators can save sequences of primary material together with secondary events that can be recalled later in an instant — for example, an end credit squeeze to promote the next program together with voice-over announcement as the credits roll at the end of a movie. Such complex secondary event traffic is typically beyond the capabilities of most third-party scheduling systems.

This capability is particularly valuable for large playout centers that serve multiple broadcast customers, each requiring their own specific branding and differentiation from competing channels. With the macro approach, the automation system can manage the instant application of multiple logos and channel identities with a single entry, enabling complex channel differentiation without requiring manual scheduling for every secondary event sequence. In the same manner, the automation system can facilitate runtime schedule changes, including changes to primary material content, DVE move numbers, graphics template numbers and graphics field content.

Device sharing for reliability and economy

A critical requirement for multichannel automation is the ability to share devices across channels and to specify preferred default devices for each. By dynamically deploying resources to the delivery chain that needs them, physical devices can be operated at optimum capacity to build in resilience, strengthen efficiency and maximize the technology investment across the entire operation. For example, instead of purchasing redundant hardware for each channel to provide backup in the event of a playout failure or loss of connectivity, the automation system can manage the schedule to enable devices that are not in use at a given time for one channel to be pressed into service as backup for another. In this manner, equipment can be maximized to enable each channel to run two concurrent audio and video streams, reducing the level of operator intervention needed to ensure continued uninterrupted channel delivery.

Restricted content playout

Advanced automation systems will provide functionality within the database that segments content available to a particular device and ensures that it will be played out to its nominated channel. This capability is particularly critical for a large playout center, whose ability to ensure that content plays out only on the channel or channels for which it was intended can be a make-or-break proposition. Consider, for example, the dire consequences in which adult content intended for one channel is accidentally played out on a family channel. The financial liability in the form of fines and lawsuits, not to mention the damage to the channel's reputation, could be devastating.

Hub-and-spoke media management

To further enable regionalized playout, the automation system should provide support for a hub-and-spoke architecture that enables segmentation of channels into self-contained ingest and playout centers, each with nominated channels and dedicated resources such as media databases. At the same time, this configuration provides the ability to share content between playout centers using asset mail as the content bridging engine. Thus, each playout center is empowered to play out tailored content to a particular geography, while content can be ingested at centralized locations and shared among the playout center. Rather than relying on a single, large wide area network for transmissions, the hub-and-spoke architecture ensures maximum resiliency by allowing individual sites to keep operating in the event of a failure at any other site.

Advanced search and replace functionality

In order to secure the best advertising contracts, which are often last-minute, and to maximize revenues, multichannel broadcasting facilities require the ability to make programming changes and swap in new ads right up to the program's airtime. Without automation, this function would be extremely labor-intensive and require the dedicated resources of multiple operators to swap content for many different channels. However, modern automation systems will provide an advanced search and replace capability that not only instantly populates multiple playlists with the new content, but can handle tight constraints on the swap — for example, the ability to replace a specific ad with another specific ad within a certain time window.

Maximize staff resources with role configuration

To help with effective deployment of a limited operations staff, the automation system should allow full configuration of operational roles required for each operator location according to the amount of manual intervention required. For example, less popular content aired late at night can run in a more automated mode requiring less operator intervention, while a popular program airing at prime time might require multiple operators. Depending on the channel and time of day, operators can log into the system to view and update the running schedules and the resources assigned to them.

By the same token, the system should promote effective resource utilization by enabling operators to define levels of system resilience depending on the type of content and its air time. The less popular content airing at 3 a.m., for instance, requires less system resilience in terms of its ability to recover and return to air after a failure, as opposed to the popular program at prime time.

An automation backbone for the future

With all of these automation capabilities in place, a multichannel broadcast operation is well positioned to handle today's complex playout requirements and meet future needs, especially as video content becomes more prevalent and viewers become more discriminating. Such an operation ensures that personnel and resources can be deployed in the most cost-effective and efficient manner possible, and enables the broadcaster to strike the proper balance between hands-off operation and functions that require operator intervention. Working together, all of these qualities offer the best hedge against an uncertain economic climate.

Dave Collins is general manager of automation for Snell.