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Tips to effective automation

Automation technology Update sat down with Roni Whiteside, product manager for ON-AIR Systems, to discuss the importance of implementing automation systems.

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

Roni Whiteside: By analyzing the current and desired workflow it is possible to make significant improvements in productivity, allowing more channels to be managed by the same number of staff. Due to its modularity, ON-AIR Systems’ solution can also incorporate ingest and scheduling in a single environment.

ATU: What areas should a broadcaster automate first?

RW: The most obvious gains in operational costs are to be made in commercial playout. One benefit is the ability to offer last-minute sales via changes to the playlist, naturally at premium airtime rates. Program playout usually follows, depending on the balance of short-form and long-form material. Newsrooms are typically well staffed with a very high, time sensitive workload. Many would say this is an environment where automation is actually a necessity.

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?

RW: “Building block” is perhaps a misleading term as it implies a clean demarcation between the various aspects of broadcast that doesn’t exist. Automation implemented in playout and ingest extends towards facility management. With suitably modular solutions a progressive approach is eminently possible, enabling systems to be expanded and enhanced as the needs and budget allow. Always ask about open systems support so that new functionality can be interleaved into existing systems and different vendors’ solutions can be evaluated for future enhancements. “Interoperability” is still one of the industry buzzwords.

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

RW: The status and rollout of digital broadcasting varies enormously by country and continent. It’s the resultant proliferation of channels and delivery platforms that stimulates the requirements for automation and the associated operational benefits. Specifically, one of the features of digital terrestrial (DTT) is the ability to broadcast or opt out to targeted geographic regions — or even to micro-regions such as towns or communities. The business models for such operations demand maximum productivity and minimum costs.

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

RW: After initial staff training, the first change should be less stressed operators! Fewer lost commercials, better control of assets and greater reliability will make clients and staff much happier, loyal and confident.

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?

RW: It’s probably more about clarity of roles and responsibilities than technology. The commercial issue surrounding bookings may be better separated from the day-to-day operations. It depends on the size and culture of the operation.

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

RW: Once again it’s not just about technology: it’s about workflow, current and desired. A full discussion about these issues is necessary before embarking on any integration plan.

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

RW: Ease of use is perhaps the most important. It’s no good having a sophisticated system that the operators need to be retrained on every time they start a shift. It needs to be intuitive, but flexible enough to allow rapid changes that are always necessary from time to time. A good system should also facilitate a more consistent look and feel to the station output via the use of templates.

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

RW: Comparative costs are available from a range of previous system installations and can be used as models. If the station has tape-based experience they will know their current yearly running costs as a starting point for comparison.

ATU: What is the next big idea in automation?

RW: Interactivity still has the potential to excite the viewers, enhance the station brand and generate new revenue streams. Automation has much to offer and requires still further integration of SMS and other interactive technologies. Archive is of course one of the hottest topics as broadcasters realize its inherent value and early adopters are leading the way using metadata-enabled search facilities.

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