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IPTV and mobile operators will look for rapid deployment

In our continuing series of pre-NAB interviews, Automation Technology Update talked to Chris Simons of Harris and Mark Errington of ON-AIR Systems.
Chris Simons, VP of automation products at Harris Broadcast Communications Division, talked about the issues surrounding the FCC's call for accurate PSIP data and the challenges of mobile TV, while Mark Errington, CEO of ON-AIR Systems, highlighted the need for more integration between the demands of linear broadcasting with VOD and mobile broadcasting.

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

Chris Simons: Broadcast automation will continue to evolve to meet its core market needs. In addition, it will need to change to meet the requirements of an ever-increasing number of material delivery methods. Automation is no longer about the pure servicing of linear playout channels; it increasingly has to manage the ingest and repurposing of media for multiple delivery formats and mechanisms — many of which will not be conventional playout systems under its control.

Harris will continue to enhance the workflow capabilities of our Automatic Ingest system to meet the evolving needs of our clients. For example, interface to nonlinear editing systems, ingest of high-definition media and other client-requested enhancements will be added during the 2007 calendar year.

Mark Errington: I don't expect to see any specific changes in broadcast automation. The vendors will continue to launch more entry-level products based around IT platforms. It'll be interesting to see the success rates of implementing these new systems, particularly when the heritage of the company is traditional automation or very expensive systems.

It'll also be interesting to see how these new business models affect the vendors, and how they'll justify the price differentials between the entry level and the higher-end systems — in terms of how much more a customer will get for his money.

It may also be nice to see automation systems that integrate playout for linear broadcasting, IP, mobile and on-demand — although it may be a bit too early for 2007. Pockets are growing around the new delivery systems and although files are shared throughout the workflow, there's not really a unified system to control all the elements. This is probably because a lot of implementations are experimental or being run as separate projects. But I do expect to start seeing announcements about this kind of integration later in the year. How much is deliverable remains to be seen.

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

CS: There is a trend to increase the support for interfacing between systems as a means of aiding workflow integration. There is also a focus on remote working — either for centralized models or disaster recovery. In addition, IP-based control of devices is gaining momentum as manufacturers of broadcast equipment are providing APIs that offer a wide range of native control.

Also, as file-based media distribution is now mainstream in the North American market and is progressing to the next level of sophistication, there are increased levels of processing and quality validation that can now be layered onto the basic associated workflows.

ME: As the world moves away from tapes as the capture mechanism, more and more systems are being implemented without specialized ingest systems. The focus becomes a unified ingest and editing system so the file formats can be standardized and rationalized. As this becomes the norm, companies will focus on their specialist areas — such as playout, MAM, archiving and NLE.

So, the clients can select the best of breed in each part of the overall system as competition comes down to a simple price/functionality equation. Automation systems don't become the entire digital glue, but specialized automation systems controlling movement and playout of files are an integral part in an overall workflow that isn't controlled by any master software.

Another major trend is for the automation systems to handle increased regulatory requirements. In the last six months, we've developed new features for clients that automatically log graphic-based commercials and compile consolidated as-run logs — not just a list per system, but an actual out-to-air compiled log. This means our clients can comply with local legislation and work on subtitling integration. This is critical as the mandates for this are implemented.

ATU: Are you expecting to see innovations at NAB?

CS: Yes, largely in the areas of IPTV and mobile TV.

There is an increased level of interest in further integration of business and scheduling systems with automation. Expect to see initial integrations and benefits of using the pending SMPTE content and scheduled standards. In addition, real-time updates are becoming more important because the FCC is now enforcing fines for not complying with accurate PSIP data. Harris will be showing innovations in both of these areas.

ME: I'm sure there will be some new and interesting things. I do think that the industry generally tries to make too much out of innovation and gears itself to continually announcing new and exciting things, even if there really isn't anything new and exciting.
The industry gets taken in by all of this and sometimes forgets to look around at the real innovating companies — often those that don't have a large marketing budget. Take for example the rise in IT-based channel-in-a-box automation systems. Personally, I'd like to see some steady state things that have some longevity in them, and a focus on some very core elements like the quality of client support and upgrade paths that don't require a complete swap of hardware in a period of less than three years.

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

CS: Yes, in two areas. Firstly, IPTV platforms will include a number of linear channels, which will be a conventional mix of pure pass through, pass through with local branding/commercial insertion and originated channels — whether streams of main channels or new channels. These channels will be controlled by some form of automation, and scalability and economic unmanned operation will be critical for these platforms. Secondly, there is the pull model, in which automation will need to process broadcast material into different formats and transfer it to the correct delivery platform based on contract rights, etc.

ME: IPTV will impact automation in a number of different ways. At the moment, it's seen as independent of the traditional automation workflows, and is often worked on by different project teams. There are a number of IPTV portals and back office systems that have been developed to handle IPTV as a unique delivery mechanism, and all it requires is the files in the right format.

This is good because it keeps the complications away as channels are building their business models and putting the infrastructure in place to handle the new media.

The problem is getting the files in the right format, at the right time. Transcoding, single-pass multiformat ingest and single-pass multiformat editing are required, but not necessarily fully automated yet. Asset management systems will grow in importance to handle these multiple instances, and an important step will be the complete automation of the databases that generate the schedules, traffic and billing.

ATU: What about mobile TV?

CS: This will clearly depend upon the type of mobile service. In some instances, where a contributing feed is merely being passed through, automation control may be simply to manage acquisition, transcoding, reformatting and signal conditioning with optional redundancy. In other instances, the mobile signal may be substream to the main channel, with different formatting, a different schedule or even different branding and advertising content; in this instance, automation may have to have different downstream control capabilities, or it may have to scale and treat this mobile channel in the same way as an additional channel — from an automation perspective.

In any case, the challenges for mobile TV are broadly akin to IPTV — the ability to scale, quickly deploy channel line-ups and manage these incremental channels, which initially will have low revenues with a very low cost per stream. This implies that automation will continue its drive to high operator/channel ratios and will, therefore, rely much more upon business rules from upstream business systems, or have operational rules increasingly embedded in operations. Either way, flexibility and massive scalability with centralized management will characterize automation systems for cross-platform plays.

MH: I still think mobile TV is more about the business model for the network operators than it is about technology or automation. I think mobile TV is less about an on-demand streaming of the content, but more about convenience of watching the content.

For more information, visit www.on-air-systems.com and www.harris.com.