Automation in today’s multichannel world

Broadcast playout automation as a concept is not much more than 20 years old. Before then, a channel was played out by a number of staff, working a master control switcher and a bank of VTRs. The concept of automation was to replace at least some of those staff with computer cuing and triggering, and a robotic tape library for the content.

Today, we are in the multichannel world and the idea that there could be staff dedicated to the playout of a single channel is unthinkable.

And now today, there are new challenges coming into the mix. Mobile television is rapidly gaining ground. The market for new handsets has stabilized at a staggering $1 billion a year. Some experts predict that by 2009, one in three of the world’s population will have a cell phone. It is new technology, like video, that is driving the new handset market.

IPTV is another area of growth, with telcos and new entrants to the market looking to deliver high quality video and other content over the cable infrastructure to our homes. If you were to suggest to telcos or mobile network operators that they should employ operators to connect their calls, they would, of course, laugh. They equally expect that their TV services should be delivered without operators: automation is central.

Now, it does not matter if the channel is broadcast in HD, SD or 320 x 240 for mobile, whether it is received by satellite, cable, telecom circuit or over the air. At the heart of the service will remain linear TV channels, delivering structured programming at fixed times of the day and interspersed with commercials, promotions, trailers and branding.

The need for the playout automation system remains as vital as ever, even more so now because it needs to handle transcoding for services on different platforms, seamless time-shifting and content interchange between the on-air servers, nearline storage and deep archives.

Sometimes that fixed schedule might be rather less rigid. We have provided dynamic scheduling for some channels, for example, to allow viewers to select the next music video by SMS voting. Bringing advertising into live sports events remains a challenge, and, of course, there is the increasingly important prospect of video on demand.

Broadcasters are also demanding tighter and more dynamic integration between their sales and traffic systems, automated content preparation and playout to allow sales nearer to air time, dynamic late-breaking on-air graphics and branding and the elimination of workflow bottlenecks. The emerging BXF broadcast exchange format will help, but on its own, it is not a complete solution, just an enabling technology.

On the one hand, there’s ever-growing commercial pressure to increase the level of automation, to minimize — or eliminate — human operations, and on the other hand, we have an increasingly complex world of multiple source and delivery formats, flexible and dynamic schedules and a high degree of interactivity, both within the playout chain and with the audience. This is, therefore, probably not a good time to be considering simplifying the playout system itself.

The automation market seems to attract more players every year. Some suppliers, including some established names, are suggesting that automation can now be handled by software-only solutions, or all-in-one packages. They have the advantage of appearing to save on capital expenditure, but do they have the capability and flexibility to meet the rigorous and changing demands of today’s channels?

The answer is that where the requirements are simple and well defined, these simple solutions may well be adequate. But by their very definition, they lack flexibility, because their functionality is limited to what is inside the box. Further, they are limited in their ability to communicate with external devices because of the demands on the in-box processor, which is primarily responsible for maintaining the output.

Our view remains that best-of-breed solutions tend to be the best solutions. That is particularly true for the vast majority of applications today, which tend to be an extension or update of an existing facility with has an installed base of legacy technology that still has an economic life and needs to be integrated into the new workflow.

If you are lucky enough to work on a greenfield site today, then it is very likely that the requirements will be complex, involving multiple delivery platforms and resolutions, multiple channels and archiving and offsite disaster recovery. Whether it is in the design of such an installation or the integration of legacy systems into new applications, the best solution will be found by selecting the functionality you require from the best suppliers in the industry, then integrating them using a reliable, flexible and secure automation system from a specialist supplier.

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