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In control

Automation systems take a larger role as engineers do more with less 10/14/2001 08:00:00 PM Eastern

In Bristol, Va., two operators at WCYB-TV operate four revenue-generating channels from one location. In Toronto, engineers on the Financial News Channel's (FNN's) Report on Business
go home at 6:00 p.m. every day and rarely come in on weekends, yet viewers would never know it because the cable channel operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

That's the power of today's automation systems, which are called on to do a lot more than control tape machines. With software reliability no longer an issue for mission-critical applications like program and commercial insertion, trafficking, electronic billing, and master control, new applications continue to be born.

As stations look to improve plants for digital transmission in a weakened advertising environment that is putting clamps on capital expenditures, technology that enables management to keep channels running smoothly with minimal resources is very attractive. And automation manufacturers report that business has been strong.

"Revenue has been up more than 30% the past three years," says one automation sales rep, who asked not to be identified. "Times are tough, but stations and cable companies have to continue to operate in the most efficient way possible. Automation is the only way to handle the increased demands that management keeps putting on its technical staff."

For example, Tom Cupp, chief engineer at Lamco Communications' NBC affiliate WCYB-DT, also operates the local WB affiliate (CYB.WB), a Paxson channel (CYB.PAX), and a weather channel (CYB.4).

The NBC and WB channels are fully automated, run by a Crispin four-channel automation system and Sony MAV-70 XGI servers. A fifth, "virtual" channel on the server is dedicated to recording incoming programs and commercials. The Crispin system controls commercials, programming and even the master-control switcher, in addition to reconciling spots between the traffic department and engineering.

"It literally runs itself," Cupp says, adding that the system cost about $150,000, including seven Windows NT workstations. Before WCYB went digital and installed the Crispin system, it took eight operators to run WCYB-TV. Today, two people operate four channels.

At Clear Channel Fox affiliate KOKI-TV Tulsa, Okla., Sundance Digital automation, used in tandem with SeaChange International MediaCluster servers, manages incoming commercials and plays them to air.

The system, which cost between $50,000 and $100,000, allows the company to feed commercials and programs to a second station that Clear Channel manages in the market, UPN affiliate KTFO-TV. The Sundance system maintains the traffic logs of both stations and plays spots directly to air based on a run list generated by the traffic department.

Chief Engineer Brian Egan says the system not only eases workload but also eliminates lost revenue resulting from "make-goods" when a spot is played at the wrong time or a VTR breaks down during play to air. "Commercials are our bread and butter," he points out. "We can't afford to lose revenue."

Automation systems have evolved from the old DOS operating system to Windows NT, Unix and Java software with advanced networking capability across multiple platforms. It's now common to automatically record incoming spots via satellite feeds from spot-delivery companies like DG Systems or Williams Vyvx to a cache server, where the commercial is archived and simultaneously transferred to another server for playout to air.

FloriCal Systems has been working with NBC on its "hub-and-spoke" system, in which WTVJ-TV Miami feeds programs and commercials to affiliate stations throughout the Southeast, as well as to New York and Los Angeles. NBC also remotely operates much of the equipment for several network O&Os from the system at the Miami station.

The increasing reliance on computers has transformed automation systems into something more akin to sophisticated information-technology or media-management systems. They control multiple pieces of equipment and also specify, archive and play content to air for one or more stations, often with a single or even no operator. At Canada's FNN, which uses a FloriCal system, employees monitor equipment remotely via laptop computer.

The real challenge for automation suppliers, explains Encoda Systems Vice President of Automation Joe French, is to bring a broad array of features and distributed assets under the control of one workstation. "Automation systems have to work in a virtual environment, and they have to know where all of the material is," he says. "That's a lot for the software to do."

In addition, because no two facilities have identical ways of working, products need to be modular, according to Jim Woods, vice president and general manager of Harris Automation. This modularity enables customized systems to be developed for customers.

"We have discussions with groups of all different sizes, and the variation in what they're looking at doing is very broad," Woods says. "That's why automation systems have to accommodate the full spectrum of equipment tasks. Some broadcasters want complex capabilities while others want only to centralize traffic activities. It's all built on the same basic hardware and software applications so that platform better be robust."

Standards

Although the industry's first automation system was created nearly 20 years ago, by FloriCal President Jim Moneyhun, the advent of video servers has been the key driver in the growth of the automation market. Looking to phase out videotapes, broadcasters needed "open-standard" software that would tell the server when to output a selected digital file, at a specific time of day or between exact frames of video.

It also had to be supported by server and automation manufacturers. The standard adopted in the early '90s is the Videodisc Disc Control Protocol (VDCP), written by automation pioneer Ken Louth.

To control large digital videotape archives from companies like Ampex and StorageTech, Harris Automation developed its Video Archive Control Protocol (VACP). The company also released the Network Device Control Protocol (NDCP), which it has incorporated into its products and several other manufacturers are studying as a standard for controlling equipment across a distributed architecture.

"As automation vendors, we have to wait for the server manufacturers or our customers to adopt a certain protocol before we embrace it," explains Sundance Digital President Robert C. Johnson. "But, if a number of people ask for a certain specification, we'll give it to them."

Taking a slightly different path, FloriCal has designed its system around Microsoft's Distributed Component Object Model (DCOM) software. DCOM is designed to network devices across long distances via the Internet and dedicated fiber lines.

Thomson Automation has developed XML protocols for traffic functions, storage and asset management and hopes they will be adopted by the industry. Asset Que Protocol (AQP) is for storage; Rundown Notification Protocol (RNP), for real-time traffic and scheduling; and Automation Metadata Protocol (AMP), for interfacing to third-party asset-management systems.

Unlike most automation systems, which run under Windows NT control, Thomson's "deterministic control" system is designed with a UNIX operating system called QNX. Roy Moore, Thomson Automation vice president of marketing, says it's more flexible than Windows NT and less prone to system crashes.

For stations using the Windows platform, Thomson markets a series of Java-based control applications that can run on virtually any platform. The applications have been used to insert spots for DirecTV's sports programming for nearly 10 years.

The next mile

Virtually all users of automation systems have one goal: improved efficiency.

Young Broadcasting uses Odetics Broadcast AIRO systems and Leitch servers in eight of its 12 stations, including KCAL(TV) Los Angeles; WKRN-TV Nashville, Tenn.; WTEN(TV) Albany, N.Y.; and KLFY-TV Lafayette, La.

According to Director of Engineering Rob Harrison, Young plans to automate handling of all content, commercials, and entertainment and news programming. "I can see a number of future efficiencies, in operation as well as improving the overall quality of our work flow. The idea is to eliminate individual tasks and let the computers do the work. They're more reliable."

Likewise, the Home & Garden cable network uses a Thomson Automation system and two or three staff members to distribute three fully automated program streams to both satellite and cable operators.

AOL Time Warner is basing its NY1 cable news channel tapeless facility in New York City, as well as future cable news sites across the country, on an Omnibus Systems automation system, according to Harlan Neugeboren, director of Engineering & Technology for Time Warner Cable.

Commercials and news programming will be server-based and play to air via traffic logs fed into an Omnibus Process Unification System (OPUS). In addition to controlling all the broadcast equipment, OPUS will allow the news channel's digital files to be easily accessed by business- administration, planning and scheduling personnel as well as by journalists working at the facility or elsewhere via the Internet.

Going forward, multichannel operators will have a need for systems that can transfer a commercial from satellite feed directly to a playout server in the facility. Several automation vendors are working on such features, which would allow incoming feeds (commercials as well as programs) to be recorded and catalogued without an operator's involvement.

Cataloging spots by a station's traffic department is another cumbersome process. Upcoming automation products will show the content of the cache server in a series of low-resolution pictures and automatically assign a "house number" based on a numbering system the traffic department is familiar with.

The future also holds promise for creation of a cache server for programs, so that a show like Entertainment Tonight, for example, can be automatically recorded at a specific time, sent to another station some 50 miles away and aired at both stations within hours.

"Automation systems that accommodate new ways of accepting and handling disparate forms of media in real time, freeing up staff for other functions, are the ones that customers are going to turn to," says Crispin President Alan Devaney.

Creating systems that more easily allow for control of content in the system is also in the works. Harris, for example, is working on new versions of software to control not only on-air playout of commercials but also news-clip ingest and playback.

This "dynamic interface," says Harris's Woods, can produce a rundown and control list that allow an operator to make changes in a rundown schedule and automatically send changes to the on-air playout system. Changes can then be made closer to air or to an "active" playlist in the middle of the day.

"Years ago, changing a run list after it had been sent to master control was unheard of," he says. "Now anything's possible with the right software."

At Chyron, the future of automation lies in a series of new applications it has built for Oxygen Media, with studios based in New York City. Oxygen compresses the on-air picture about 5% to make room for interactive program or commercial content related to what is on screen. The playout of this interactive data is automated through telco AT&T's National Distribution Center, in New York, where Pro-Bel automation controls the master-control switcher.

"The goal is to marry the traditional automated playout with interactive content," says Rich Hajdu, Chyron vice president of sales and marketing. "The production process for them has to be seamless and totally automated."

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