Battling the cost crunch

With today's focus on the economy, broadcasters and media facility managers are looking for ways to stretch revenue while reducing operating expenses. Advertising revenues are shrinking, and the competition for those dollars is increasing. While this is not a new story, it is even more prominent today. Broadcasters are pressured to do more with less without any loss in product quality. In addition, they're expected to maintain and even advance the competitive advantage within the marketplace.

Benefits of automation

News automation is a useful tool in helping broadcasters with the cost-crunch dilemma. While automation doesn't replace an entire control room of people, it can enable a smaller staff to execute live news programming efficiently. With the right features, an automated (one-touch control) or semi-automated (production-assist) newscast looks better to the viewer, because fewer hands are touching each individual show element. Also, repetitive tasks and sequences are handled by automation. In short, errors are reduced, and the look and feel of the programming is more consistent.

Without news automation, the playout of news clips is accomplished by a staff member who loads cassettes into a stack of playout machines and another staff member who rolls each machine. To play out graphics without automation, the operator obtains a list of graphics needed for each show, organizes the graphics according to that list, and then loads and plays out each graphic when called upon to do so. In this workflow, two to three people manipulate show content within the broadcast of the newscast, whereas in a file-based workflow, these tasks could be accomplished with automation.

Automation 101

Automation systems for news broadcasts are not a new concept. However, until recently, only larger broadcasters had steadily adopted the technology to improve and streamline their workflow. Small- and midsize news stations and broadcasters are now seeing the value of these systems, as they offer a quick ROI.

News automation is simply a system or platform of systems that controls various news production devices, such as the video switcher, the audio console, video servers, graphics devices and robotic cameras. The automation is linked to the newsroom computer system (NRCS) through the newscast rundown.

There are two basic classes of news automation. The first is full automation or as it is sometimes referred to as one-touch control, and the other is production-assist automation. Midsize and smaller broadcasters who are not in the market for or cannot fit a large automation system into the budget find that production-assist solutions are scalable to meet their budget requirements and provide a simpler answer to the cost-crunch challenge.

Full automation

Full automation systems are more costly and control many more devices than production-assist systems. They are often built in association with a specific video production switcher, because switcher control is the most complicated device to control, and it is central to the delivery of the show to air. The automation is dynamically linked to the NRCS rundown, providing the system with playlists and production queues needed in the playout of the newscast.

Full automation still requires a director/operator to take the show to air, but it does so by controlling all or most of the peripheral devices needed for the show. Medium to large broadcasters who are doing major control room upgrades or who have mandates to control costs on a larger scale are good candidates for these systems.

Production assist

Production-assist automation does not control the production switcher so it is less costly. In this workflow, one or more peripheral devices are controlled through the automation, with video servers and graphics devices such as CGs and clip servers being the most commonly controlled. As with full automation, the production-assist system is linked to the NRCS rundown and receives the same information. MOS, VDCP and Infinit Intelligent Interface (III) are the usual common control protocols used in both types of automation; however, some smaller automation systems have the advantage of interfacing with the production devices and the NRCS natively. The scalability of the production-assist systems gives any broadcaster the ability to add automation into the workflow incrementally as time, money or workflow demands. Major networks like CBS and ESPN all the way to smaller broadcasters find value in production-assist automation solutions.

Why to invest in automation

A station owner or general manager is really influenced by two factors when it comes to making an investment in news automation and mapping out potential ROI.

The first is whether the broadcaster wants to upgrade to new equipment, going from a tape-based workflow to a file-based workflow. (See Figure 1.) By design, file-based server systems streamline the process of getting news clips to air. Many have a simple user interface that allows an operator to build playlists and play out manually, or use GPI triggers or machine control to play out clips via the production switcher. However, an automation system adds much more value than simple machine control. Automation controls one or several production devices, and the flexibility of editorial control is retained by the producer by dynamically linking the automation playlists with the NRCS.

The second ROI or budget influencer is the requirement to reduce the number of manual interventions needed to get a newscast on the air. Video servers, graphics devices and robotic cameras are built to be controlled manually or by various forms of automation. Automation can provide a single point of control for one or several production devices, and with that, the number of manual tasks is reduced, and staff can be repurposed as needed. An example is an editor in a tape-based workflow who is called upon to load tapes and play out clips as part of the show going to air. In a file-based workflow with automation, the editor continues to edit late-breaking stories for that show or the next.

As a news director, the production quality of the show is as important as the editorial content. In a typical fast-paced show, an increased number of manual tasks inserted into the show often means a higher opportunity for error. The automation ROI for the news director is not measured in dollars, but in the quality of the end product. Automation linked with the NRCS rundown and controlling production devices reduces the number of fingers touching buttons and eliminates repetitive and complicated production cues.

With automation, these tasks can be executed accurately and repeated with the same accuracy from show to show. So for the news director looking to improve the watchability of the newscast, automation can play a large part in creating a seamless flow from the new open to the end break, without compromising editorial flexibility.

Adding an automation component to your news production, whether it is a large switcher-based automation system or production-assist system, can add extra efficiency and increased productivity to the newscast and the bottom line. The amount of automation and ROI will be determined by the size and economics of the newscast production and the amount of efficiency that is desired. (See Figure 2.)

Today's economic condition is forcing broadcast owners to take a hard look their operations and be creative in seeking profitable avenues. News automation systems can help the budget-conscious owner or general manager realize improved quality and a better bottom line.

Scott Blair is product manager, news automation, for Avid Technology.