Key to automation: Getting the database design right

"Automation Technology Update" spoke with talked to John Price, director of product management at the Digital Transaction Group (DTG) to find out his views on automation.

Automation Technology Update: What is single most important reason that a broadcaster should use automation?

Digital Transaction Group: The most important reason is to increase productivity. The primary goal of automation is to reduce human error and the amount of human intervention needed to process material through the different stages as it moves through the operation’s workflow. By streamlining and optimizing a station’s resources and time, the staff is more productive, on-air quality is improved and more reliable, and the station is able to do more with less.

ATU: What areas should a broadcaster automate first?

DTG: Most broadcasters have some type of automation for commercial playout. There are still many areas in the station that are isolated islands that can’t exchange data or share material without an operator having to manually do it. Beyond commercial insertion, automation should focus on two critical areas:

  • Asset management provides a common platform and central repository to manage the content inventory, ID, status, location and format.
  • Resource management and device control moves and deploys the content where it needs to be.

With these areas done well, all the items will follow program playout, ingest and archive. Newsrooms are a separate issue.

ATU: So, does this mean the broadcaster can approach automation with a building-block approach? If so, doesn’t this mean that the broadcast is then forever locked into one vendor?

DTG: The building block approach implies modularity and scalability. DTG’s Xe system uses the same core components for single channel commercial insertion and large scale, multichannel operations. These core components, the SQL database and eXtensible Device Server (XDS), use the Microsoft platform, with all the advantages of the latest development tools and the .NET framework in a multi-tiered, services-oriented architecture. Xe has all the hooks in place to communicate and integrate with external systems. Using non-proprietary, off-the-shelf hardware and open, standards-based software adds to our ability to future proof the investment in the system.

ATU: What are some of the regional differences in how automation is implemented?

DTG: Language and regulatory issues make a difference as well as presentation style. I think that regional differences in implementation are less demanding compared to how automation is used in different verticals. For example, a TV station’s workflow and transmission is different than a corporate broadcaster, cable ad insertion, VOD, a university channel, an e-learning system, PEG access channels, mobile TV or IPTV. Each implementation is unique and DTG’s system is flexible, customizable and adaptable to meet different customer’s needs.

ATU: What immediate benefits would a broadcaster see with the implementation of automation?

DTG: We want the broadcaster to see an immediate improvement in productivity. At a recent DTG install, the station was spending 16 hours a day dubbing syndicated programs from its Pathfire system to videotape, manually segmenting and timing the program, and then playing the tapes to air. With Xe, we fully automated that process, eliminating human intervention. Now, the automation initiates the transcoding and transfers the program to the play-to-air video server. It automatically gets the metadata, creates the program segments and ad blocks, and plays the program to air. The station has re-claimed that 16 hours, revising staff duties, saving significant time and resources.

ATU: There has been much discussion about moving control of playout from the master control area back into the traffic department where programs and commercials are initially booked.

What challenges does this place on an automation vendor? What differences does this make in the operation of the control room?

DTG: We have been a key contributor to the efforts of the SMPTE S-22 committee working on a standard to exchange data between automation, traffic, programming and content providers. The good news is the technology is there. Our Xe database has all the hooks in place to handle this now. It allows a quicker turnaround time to get commercials scheduled and on-air, maximizing the revenue of available slots. With real-time, dynamic integration, traffic and master Control collaborate together, working with the same accurate data to improve the station’s scheduling and on-air playback.

ATU: What sort of interface is needed with traffic and sales?

DTG: The interface should provide real-time, dynamic updates to the content inventory, (status, timing, etc), the traffic and playlist schedules (add, delete and modify playlist events, secondary events), and as run reconciliation. The sales department benefits with real-time status of availability and inventory; the traffic department benefits with accurate scheduling and real-time reconciliation for billing; and automation benefits with accurate playlists.

ATU: What key features should a customer look for in an automation system?

DTG: There are several important automation features to look for including the ability to interoperate with other systems. It should use off-the shelf hardware, with a compact footprint, and no dedicated, single task computers. Other features include a platform and architecture that future-proofs the system and that delivers scalability, availability and reliability. Does it have multiple levels of redundancy and disaster recovery? As far as operation, does it have customizable and intuitive user interfaces? And finally, you need the ability to remotely monitor and control the system securely for technical support and control of remote stations.

ATU: How can a customer estimate the ROI for an automation system?

DTG: Evaluate your workflow and staff time spent on material handling, such as moving or manually transcoding material, and repetitive and manual tasks, such as re-keying data and making dubs, to get a rough idea of the time and resources that could be saved. There are many hidden factors that can impact ROI. What is the learning curve to become proficient at using the system, the amount of time and customization needed to install the system, the impact of cutover and system upgrades and the annual maintenance support plan all add to the total cost of ownership.

ATU: What do you think will be the next big idea in automation?

DTG: In the future, we believe automation should be the provisioning agent for television operations, providing the ability to move, store, transform, distribute and deliver content intelligently, with little or no human intervention. Our platform and database is designed to enable this, in what we call a data driven workflow. This means the content attributes and metadata instantiate workflow requests in a transaction-based environment. The system is interdependent and interoperable with other systems, managing the entire content lifecycle. Such a system allows business rules to be applied to content and how it can be used. It allows content to be delivered in the correct format to the proper device at the right time to fulfill scheduling requests. It allows data sharing and exchange between stations. It allows Web-based clients and thin clients to interact with inventory and schedules, based on the user’s permissions. It automatically extracts and embeds metadata in the content. It integrates with DRM. It can track all instances of content across an enterprise and provide sophisticated searching. It integrates with on-the-fly transcoding and indexing engines. It allows content to be pushed or pulled to its destination. It becomes the provisioning agent for new business models.

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