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Automating graphics

Effective branding and promotion graphics are vital to channel differentiation. These days, however, they present a real challenge. Typically such graphics are prepared manually and then submitted to the transmission chain. Items such as promos are built in a nonlinear editor and then loaded onto the video server for playout. These approaches are laborious, time-consuming and costly. With tight budgets for promotions departments, managers find themselves in a tough spot.

We can, however, take advantage of the data available across the network to create an automated system for producing and playing interstitial, branding and promo graphics. (See Figure 1.) Three core sources of information are available as a starting point:

  • The “live schedule” from automation that details the next 24 hours of playout;
  • The “day schedule” from traffic that looks two to three days ahead;
  • The “listing schedule” from traffic that is used for EPG, print and online schedules.

A server-based automated system reads the metadata from these systems to create its own consolidated database of the upcoming schedule. In addition to schedules, finding more information related to programs, events, sponsors, etc., can lend greater flexibility for populating graphics. Simple data entry would enable the additional information to be made available.

An automated promo system will use this, for example, to see the next program coming up. It identifies the program via metadata, such as material ID, and searches its database for the correct title it needs to put to air.

In addition to metadata, assembling graphics requires the integration of several components including a set of graphics templates, prepared forms that have fields for text, images, logos and video clips. Those elements will be filled in by the graphics system based on the decisions taken by the automated promo system. The automated promo system will have a control link to the graphics system to enable it to build graphics using the template. The system will also need a set of governing rules.

For example, consider a typical in-program pointer (IPP) such as a lower-third “Next Up” snipe, which we'll call IPP1. IPP1 is listed in the scheduling system for playout at the appropriate time. The automated promo system sees that, and then looks into the automation schedule to see the next program and checks its own database for the full title information. The system uses its rules to populate the fields in the template, such as title and time. At air time, the automation system will call for that automatically produced graphic from the graphics system, and the system will overlay the snipe on the program stream and play out.

An operator is no longer required to piece together the graphic. By eliminating the manual labor, broadcasters have gained the flexibility to make changes to the promo graphics right up to playout time because a change in the schedule automatically updates the graphic.

We can go beyond program data with interfaces to any number of additional sources of data: news and sports, weather forecasts, stock and exchange rate data, SMS messages, RSS feeds, e-mails, etc. These sources can be polled regularly by the promo system, or they can push their data to watch folders. This flexibility lends itself to the creation of sophisticated graphics that can give a channel a distinct character.

This setup also lends itself to multilingual promo requirements. Simply add fields to the metadata database for each language. The same ID on the scheduling system will then trigger multiple versions of the graphic for each language, including the appropriate country voice-over.

The program metadata database can be expanded further with things such as video clips to create upcoming program menus with moving video. In the past, assets such as clips were stored on the main video server and played into an auxiliary input on the graphics system with a squeezeback to open the clip in a window. This would require an additional, expensive port for each desired simultaneous output from the video server. It also requires a secondary video event in the schedule for the server, increasing work for the scheduling staff and adding considerable complexity.

Instead, we can use a clip player on the graphics system. Those assets can be stored on a low-cost central SAN, NAS, server or even on the same server that runs the automated promo system. The scheduling system need only issue a single instruction for the predefined graphic. The automated promo system will use the information it has in its database, gather the appropriate metadata from its metadata store, get the times from the scheduling system and populate the template on the graphics system, which will be recalled by the automation system at the correct playout time.

Watch folders on the central store are monitored by the automated promo system, which then matches it to its metadata database and can manage the movement and life cycle of those assets. The same system should manage the deletion of assets that are no longer immediately needed from the clip player. An advantage is that if a system needs to be swapped for any reason, the automated promo system can automatically repopulate the replacement clip player.

So who benefits from an automated promo system? Stations that have a stable schedule with few last-minute changes, such as movie and thematic channels, can deploy a relatively simple system that builds automated graphics sequences based on schedule analysis and file processing. Such a system would support the need for automated “Next up” graphics, menus, lineups and automated versioning of audio and video assets.

If a broadcaster needs to make changes close to or at air, it is necessary for the system to maintain a live connection to both master control automation and a central store for assets. This system would build graphics within seconds of air, so it can also include up-to-the-minute information from a variety of data sources.

In its most advanced implementation, an automated promo system is capable of running a complete channel with the ability to create interstitials on the fly based on rules to evaluate context and using an extensive range of data sources both internal and external. This solution has no impact on station automation. Instead, it monitors the live automation schedule and automatically generates a sequence of sufficient duration to match a given gap in the schedule.

Deploying an intelligent automated promo system that collects data from numerous sources and uses that information to populate templates on a modern graphics device is an elegant solution that meets today's branding requirements with complete sequences, created on demand and in real time, with minimal or no human involvement.

Pete Challinger is CEO of Pixel Power.