Broadcast automation in 360 degrees

What should a broadcaster or content provider be looking for in an automation system in 2008? The automation investment decision-making process is increasingly complex. Buying an automation system isn’t a simple transaction based on price, functionality and performance in a relatively limited area: There are implications that touch almost every part of the enterprise.

This is because in the broadcast world, "automation" is a word that needs frequent redefinition. Long gone are the days when it meant essentially machine control, when automation systems were designed to do little more than trigger the playout of a variety of otherwise unconnected devices according to a predefined running order.

Automation systems have come a very long way since then:

  • Their basic delivery functionality has been transformed with a whole range of advanced capabilities.
  • They are moving well beyond the linear schedule and are offering new options in multichannel and multiformat delivery.
  • They are rapidly becoming part of an extended contentcentric digital infrastructure.
  • They are contributing not only to the efficiency of a delivery operation but also to its business and creative performance.

Automation systems are at the heart both of new business models and of the new end-to-end digital workflows. They are extending their influence into every part of the content chain. They are no longer the last step in the process; they have a role to play in all of it from ingest to archive.

It is useful to summarize the pressures that are now impinging on broadcasters and, in turn, on the suppliers who serve them.

We can start with broadcaster business models. A wealth of new delivery opportunities, coupled with changing consumer demographics, present broadcasters with both new competition and new opportunities, which bring unfamiliar revenue propositions. Many of these involve engaging and interacting with individual consumers in ways that challenge the one-to-many “scheduled” model. Meanwhile, there is still a wide range of “conventional” requirements for automation, from small startups to very large national and international networks.

Technology itself is the next major driver, in ways more complex than just putting new reception devices in the hands of consumers, although that is in itself important. In the production and delivery environment, devices and applications now exist to address every individual aspect of the process from end to end; but that isn’t the point. The real challenge is in the fact that these devices and applications are all connected and, to be used properly, must be made interoperable using a set of standards, some of which are universally implemented (like Ethernet) and others not (such as MXF).

The connected nature of this environment mandates a whole set of new techniques and skills, both to build a connected infrastructure and then manage both it and the content that will inhabit it. This creates a need for new management tools (DAM, DRM and many other TLAs); innovative control and monitoring capabilities; new working practices and workflows; and new approaches to implementation, training and system support. (See Figure 1.)

This is the hard part. All of the aforementioned parts have important implications for automation and have to be considered when new systems are designed, chosen and implemented.

The changing nature of what content needs to be delivered when and to whom, and under what conditions, is one of the most powerful drivers for change in the automation space. Where the content comes from and how it gets within the system’s field of view will be discussed, but the old requirement of “take a schedule and play it out in order” is now subject to many new requirements for flexibility.

Many broadcasters are now moving toward being “retail” deliverers of content as well as “wholesale” ones. They are addressing individuals as well as mass audiences, offering content that is on-demand and interactive as well as scheduled; and even the scheduled content is driven by the need to tailor output to multiple concurrent audiences distinguished by interest, geography or demographics. So whereas in the old days the schedule, once created, was a largely static animal that had to be published far enough in advance to get published in newspapers and TV guides, now the schedule has become dynamic, and the “spray and pray” philosophy is being supplanted by one where the relationship among content, the rights pertaining to it, who consumes it and how they pay for it are all in transition. Playout is now nonlinear and automation systems must adjust accordingly, and the way broadcasters deliver content has to promote the channel’s values and reinforce its brand.

All of this means that state-of-the-art automation systems have to embody many complex new capabilities. Some examples:

  • The automation system has to be seamlessly integrated not just with the schedule but with the production systems that create and store content as well. On-the-fly changes to the schedule to reflect changing circumstances (including contributions from viewers themselves) have to be possible right up to the go-to-air moment, with the system able to check instantly if content is available and passed as fit-for-air; to know where to find it; and to preview it in context before delivering it to multiple possible destinations. The system must understand how content is to be treated depending on fixed or flexible rules. BXF is a useful emerging standard in this area.
  • The automation system must be capable of delivering content across channels in any combination. The channel can be any kind of delivery: broadcast, Web site, mobiles, big screens in airports and stations, small screens in buses and taxis, point-of sale systems at supermarket checkouts, digital signage in sports stadiums — anyplace where an audience of one to millions is assembled and receiving content.
  • All the secondary events such as captions, voice-overs, transitions and other actions that add richness and value to primary event delivery need to be closely managed. They need to be played out, often at a moment’s notice, in complex nested sequences but with a simple presentation to an on-air operator, or even triggered by an external event or rules engine. An example might be the instant introduction of a special commercial break in a live cricket broadcast when a wicket falls.
  • Automation systems need to be highly resilient, even more so in this era of outsourcing where broadcasters entrust delivery to a third party under service-level agreements that frequently involve performance guarantees and penalty payments. This means that the automation itself needs to provide fail-safe operation, not just backup but multiple duplicated playlists being played out on duplicated channels on a fully dynamic basis. It also implies dynamic device control, where if a supported device fails, the system can effect an instant switch to a working one and also allow devices to be taken out for maintenance at a moment’s notice. The core database engine needs to be able to synchronize backup databases as well as remote disaster recovery sites automatically. Some systems already offer real-time controller modules that hold advanced event lists for many hours regardless of the scale of the system.

Adrian Scott is chief marketing officer of Pro-Bel. Next week, Scott will discuss the rise of the channel–in-a-box automation systems.

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