Automation suffers from a conspiracy of complexity

In our final pre-NAB interview, Automation Technology Update talked to Ian Fletcher of Omnibus and Peter Hajittofi of Pebble Beach. Ian Fletcher, CTO of Omnibus Systems, sees the needs to keep costs under control for new automation applications. Peter Hajittofi, CEO of Pebble Beach, believes that clients want to draw from the best of the breeds when designing systems.

In our final pre-NAB interview, Automation Technology Update talked to Ian Fletcher of Omnibus and Peter Hajittofi of Pebble Beach. Ian Fletcher, CTO of Omnibus Systems, sees the needs to keep costs under control for new automation applications. Peter Hajittofi, CEO of Pebble Beach, believes that clients want to draw from the best of the breeds when designing systems.

Automation Technology Update: Are you expecting any changes in broadcast automation this year?

Ian Fletcher: Yes, this year is likely to see a marked increase in the number of vendors moving away from the traditional automation and playout models and offering the equivalent via IT-based system. There will be an emerging acceptance from broadcasters that the more sophisticated of these systems are reaching a level of maturity that allows them to be used for primetime applications.

Peter Hajittofi: Providers of broadcast automation systems are always looking to enhance their products to meet the needs of broadcasters and to anticipate the needs of the market. For example, recent or new technologies such as HDTV, IPTV and mobile delivery platforms are affecting the requirements of automation systems. We are also seeing the introduction of more interactive services and the launch of more and more channels. To meet these needs, automation systems have to change.

There is also a need for more comprehensive media asset management functions, so that within a TV facility media can be identified, found and retrieved for playout quickly. Some automation systems are integrating more closely with traffic systems so the information exchange in both directions is more dynamic. This allows for last-minute changes to be made by traffic and for media availability and updates to be reflected back to the traffic database.

ATU: Do you see any trends emerging in the design and implementation of automation systems?

IF: Over the years, a ‘conspiracy of complexity’ between customers and suppliers has led to a situation where automation systems have become so complex that they are extremely difficult to install and maintain. New development environments and modern software design methodologies are allowing a new generation of advanced automation systems to be developed that offer high degrees of flexibility and ease of use while remaining simple to install and maintain.

PH: At one end of the market, the trend seems to be the development of station-in-a-box solutions that combine all the functions of a complete transmission chain in one box. In the short term, these solutions are likely to appeal to the more budget-conscious, smaller broadcaster, and it will be some time, if ever, that these products will meet the needs of larger broadcasters. One of the issues about this station-in-a-box idea is that it takes away customer choice rather than allowing customers best-of-breed choice.

At the top end, more and more sophisticated media management functions are being designed into automation systems. Automation systems are no longer just concerned with a clip ID, title or general description; they have to be aware of the important key frames, segment information and be able to store all sorts of metadata. Increasingly, this additional metadata is needed by the automation systems to control how events are played out.

Another trend is the use of large online archive libraries, sometimes by direct control, with edge servers for ingest and playout.

ATU: Are you expecting to see innovations at NAB?

IF: I don’t think we’re going to see major innovations this year. Last year, with the launch of iTX, we essentially introduced the next-generation technology platform for automation. This year, it’s more likely that we’re going to see consolidation of new automation technologies being deployed into mainstream broadcasting and broadening their capabilities to appeal to a wider range of delivery platforms and markets.

PH: We expect to see incremental improvements to products rather than groundbreaking new technology. The likelihood is that some server manufacturers will be launching lower-cost offerings, which together with external automation software and graphics will offer an affordable alternative to the station-in-a-box.

We also expect to see more about IPTV and mobile delivery platforms and the advances made. LTO-4 data tape and SAIT-2 technologies are nearing launch, so I expect to see them demonstrated.

ATU: Do you see the rise of IPTV impacting automation?

IF: Certainly. The rising demand for new services at very cost-effective levels of investment is driving the rapid adoption of new playout technologies, and IPTV is one of those emerging new services. Very few IPTV players can afford to invest in full conventional playout facilities, but it is critical for them to be able to deliver a quality product that will draw viewers to their product and allow them to compete with broadcast providers. So a cost-effective and high-quality playout solution is exactly what they need.

PH: Traditional broadcast automation for TV is concerned with the acquisition, media management and playout of programs and other media, usually according to a predefined schedule. As well as supporting this type of playout model, IPTV provides additional opportunities, such as interactive TV and video on demand. This might mean changes to the way items are played out; rather than schedule them in advance, the automation system would have to play media according to the requirement at any one time. To achieve this, the automation system has to listen and respond accordingly, very quickly.

The other affect that IPTV is likely to have is to increase the volume of playout. Since IPTV is relatively inexpensive to get to the home, the likelihood is that smaller organizations will become interested, such as local sports clubs, universities, churches and so on. Increased volume may have an affect on how automation systems are designed and how content is shared between the services.

ATU: And what about mobile TV?

IF: As with IPTV, wide-scale acceptance will depend on the quality of the product being offered. As mainstream broadcasters enter the market and start to offer a compelling channel line-up, we should see a rise in consumer take-up. The challenge for the providers is to create a product that has enough intrinsic quality to draw subscribers to it, while keeping entry costs under control.

PH: Mobile TV will potentially have a similar impact to automation as IPTV, in that it will mean more services to be transmitted and potentially, interactivity and video on demand. We will, however, have to wait and see how the major players decide to proceed once they have researched properly its commercial viability. I expect mobile TV will appeal mostly to a younger audience, and there is a question mark against how much people will be prepared to pay for full-length broadcast TV. Music and sports may appeal more on a pay-per-view or interactive basis.

Both mobile and IPTV also raise interesting questions about rights issues, so even in the conventional broadcast model, it isn’t as simple as just downconverting the output of the normal TV transmission. The rights and advertising issues have to be considered, and this might mean that some items may have to be replaced in the mobile or IPTV services. The automation system can help here by automatically replacing items that cannot be broadcast on the mobile or IPTV channels.

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