AUTOMATION for multichannel operations

Almost every area of broadcasting has been transformed by new technology in recent years, and none more so than automation. This progress is not only changing the way people think about automation, but also how they think about broadcasting and the delivery of electronic content.

Old vs. new

In the past, automation systems had a simple task: to implement a schedule by managing an array of supported devices, including character generators, mixers, routers, still stores and VTRs. The video elements of such a system were largely centered on containers.

A vital factor in achieving accuracy was the cassette label, and the precision with which it was created and its information transferred (usually manually) into the schedule. The automation system and its operators had little or no contact with actual content, and the operation was entirely linear in nature. Automation was the last in a line of largely separate production processes linked by hand-carried cassettes, after which the media was stored in a library or recycled.

Today's automation process features significant differences. After a period of what might be called parallel progress, during which individual elements of the production chain (ingest, editing, storage and playout) were digitized without much reference to each other, there is now an accelerating trend to connect these elements.

The archive is now a multitiered repository where everything lives. Rather than being at the end of the chain, it is at the heart of the whole process. Material is ingested into it and is subsequently produced, post produced, scheduled, played out and then stored according to a set of rules, without ever leaving the central repository for a great length of time.

Defining tapeless

So are we now in the era of tapeless production? In all too many examples, there seems to be a largely tapeless infrastructure, but an absence of what one might call truly tapeless thinking. One reason: People are still concentrating on the linear passage of individual items through a series of processes, rather than on the management of content, infrastructure and resources as a closely integrated continuum.

In its old-school, strictly broadcast interpretation, automation occupied a limited role in a connected infrastructure. It was little more than the front end of an increasingly significant media management operation.

Today's automation systems are already well ahead of such a narrow interpretation. They are the traffic cops for the digital environment and deliver creativity, flexibility, competitive advantage and enhanced revenue opportunities to their users.

The traffic cop aspect is provided in several ways. Sophisticated internal media management capabilities, which can be integrated with external asset management systems, handle the media lifecycle from both tape and file transfer ingest all the way through to playout and archiving.

In addition, advanced control, monitoring and reporting applications are now being closely tied in to the automation function. This takes the management of devices and infrastructures to new levels.

Flexibility is also important. Automation is sometimes seen as a “rich man's game,” with only the largest broadcasters being able to afford the more sophisticated systems. This is no longer true. Today, broadcasters can purchase small, single-channel systems with little or no compromise in functionality, with the best of them being upwardly scalable.

New tools

In the more advanced automation systems on the market, a range of playout workstation tools provide creativity and competitive advantage. These tools are used to visualize and, if necessary, directly amend or enhance the media objects that are being managed through the production and delivery process.

Also, sophisticated tools are now available to build complex sequences of secondary and tertiary events. For example, these tools can create special commercial breaks or interstitials, hold them in reserve and then deploy them in reaction to emerging events, such as when an on-field event causes a time-out in a live sports broadcast. This can greatly enhance a channel's brand awareness.

Future systems

Broadcast automation systems are already evolving into sophisticated content and infrastructure control and management systems. But what else is in store for future systems?

Tapeless thinking is, as we have already noted, about the elimination of the container and all of the preconceived ideas about the container that have dominated the process for so long. It is also about the open interface and exchange of content and its metadata through a digital infrastructure. This provides an unlimited set of processes and transformations, all of which are carried out to service a business model, or several business models, at the same time.

The parallels between broadcasting and the manufacturing and retail delivery of consumer products are becoming more noticeable. In such an environment, the overarching management system must address more than just the individual devices. To do a complete job, it must consider:

  • content and the various elements that go into creating and managing a media asset or service;
  • the workflows by which that content is processed, repurposed and turned into viable products;
  • the mechanisms and devices that deliver the content to various audiences;
  • the physical infrastructure and its individual components — how they are controlled and monitored both as one system and as many, how they relate to each other and how they perform both moment to moment and over time;
  • the relationship between the media environment and the systems that drive the business, such as CRM, DRM and ERP; and
  • the underlying business logic that drives the entire process.

This is not as daunting of a shopping list as it might seem. Many of the elements already exist. The biggest challenge is creating the business logic layer.

This is not just a manufacturer issue. Many broadcasters and content creators have trouble identifying what drives their businesses and translating that into a clear set of requirements for the manufacturing sector.

Fully implemented, a business logic layer will not only drive the workflow, it will also allow the broadcast infrastructure to become more self-aware. (See Figure 1.) It will do a better job of resolving issues according to a set of rules, without involving an operator unless a judgment call is required.

Another area of development is in the nature of the human-machine interface and the advent of a cockpit philosophy to combine all of the necessary status information and control surfaces in a more logical and ergonomic way than most playout facilities or master controls now offer. These developments are in the future, but don't count on that future being very far away.

Adrian Scott is the chief marketing officer for Pro-Bel.

Questions for broadcasters

Are you absolutely sure what your business is, both now and in the foreseeable future?

This is about far more than just the number of channels. It really matters what kind of programming you wish to deliver, to what audience, through what channels, in what style and how the revenue is generated. This will drive all kinds of choices about such things as channel branding, reactivity, interactive content delivery and content-to-mobile. Your automation vendor needs to understand your business in order to put together the right system to meet your needs, and that means you have to understand it.

Do you have processes in place to achieve not just procurement but change and business transformation?

Installing the latest automation system inevitably raises complex personnel issues as people have to adapt to new workflows and processes. With any complex technology implementation, a broadcaster must analyze the current state, determine the optimum future state and then work with suppliers to figure out how to get from one to the other.

Is the automation system scalable? Can I start small and expand? Can I add new functions?

There is a popular myth that all automation systems fall into two categories: high-level, expensive and complex, catering only to the top end of the market; or small, cheap, channel-in-a-box alternatives that offer little, if any, expansion possibilities. Look for systems that provide no-compromise security and functionality, but that can be enhanced and upgraded smoothly as requirements evolve.

Is it capable of being fully integrated with a variety of other manufacturers' products? Does it observe industry standards?

However large or small an automation system is, a modern system lives and dies by the ease with which it can be integrated with other systems and devices. We live in a world that is rapidly moving to file-based playout, but we are still, by and large, applying the same methodologies to file-based workflows as we did to tape. That has to change if the real cost and flexibility advantages of file-based systems are to be realized.

How can the automation system be monitored and controlled alongside other elements in the infrastructure?

The control and monitoring of all the devices in a network is vital to its operation. Broadcast is somewhat behind the IT and telecom worlds in this respect. Automation systems must be part of an umbrella environment in which all of the elements can be controlled and monitored, not just as individual components but together.