Realizing profitable growth with automation

A rack of MicroFirst embedded controllers.

"Automation Technology Update" sat down with Jerry Berger of MicroFirst to get his perspective on the broadcast industry. The company operates in many areas of automation, not just broadcast.

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

Jerry Berger: In two words: profitable-growth. Multistream program delivery demands efficient utilization of resources and an improved presentation. People are best used in a creative manner. ATU: What areas should a broadcaster automate first?

JB: Commercial and program playout, ingest from tape and satellite plus archive and hierarchical storage management can easily be implemented at the same time.

Digital asset management is essential to manage content for multistream programming. Facility management must be able to manage physical resource as part of automation. Newsroom automation is of a different nature, and has a separate set of requirements and demands.

ATU: 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?

JB: It is easily possible to build on a channel-by channel basis. It is not common but it does happen. Different systems could share a common database or could be run separately.

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

JB: We see more company cultural differences than regional. Some are looking for the automation to assist the operators, other want complete automation.

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

JB: An improved on-air look and fewer errors. A better planned operational approach with the ability to creatively brand a channel. The key in a digital world is to have a single point of control for multiple outputs; it is vital that it is automated.

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?

JB: I have also heard the discussion, but what data do sales and traffic guys need to make an informed decision, versus what data does the master control operator need to make his decisions. The information presented to each of them is different. To use an analogy, it is like trying to fly an airplane from the control tower. The controller and the pilot have two different roles. Traffic runs the schedule (the flight plan) and the master control operator is in charge of the equipment (flyig the plane).

Our response to this request is that the primary challenge is the integration of the primary data and its metadata that are managed in the application databases of the sales, traffic, PSIP and automation systems plus the servers and graphics systems. We believe that to get maximum flexibility, those systems should not come from the same vendor. That would provide a one-sided view. Instead the information from all the systems should be shared, but for that you need standards.

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

JB: We embrace standards and are actively involved with the initiatives of SMPTE committees including S.22. We have developed a dynamic near real-time integration using XML so that traffic and sales can be immediately updated on a clip-by-clip basis from automation as material goes to air.

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

JB: Stability, reliability plus a suitable architecture. The system architecture drives the key features. Many vendors use dedicated PCs for each operation: ingest, database and playout. We get rid of the networked PC-oriented structure with a PC for each function all synchronized together. Instead we use embedded processors with our WinMOS real-time operating system. We have 130,000 of the MPC platforms in operation. We manage all machine control, database management and schedule execution within the one box.

We feel this architecture gives the stability and reliability that you need. We have complete control of our hardware and software and are not reliant on third parties. We have no single-point of failure through redundant processors. Our processor has a 10-second reboot time after power failure and low-latency for late playlist changes. For near-line storage we use the .Net environment for hierarchical storage management.

ATU: How can a customer estimate the ROI for an automation system? The opportunity loss for automation delivers fewer errors. The opportunity gain is multichannel programming and managed assets. How many extra people would it take to improve on-air quality and serve more outlets?

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

JB: The integration of a multitude of applications and databases in an end-to-end intelligent stream of information that can be accessed by everyone. This would use XML as discussed earlier with agreed standards interfaces. The operator should have a common point of control and metadata management to all the scheduling, on-air control and archive systems.

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