Automating the Digital Future - Broadcasting & Cable

Automating the Digital Future

Vendors tackle interoperability, budget constraints
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To put it bluntly, station automation controls a station's cash register. So it needs to work correctly.

A key premise behind broadcasters' adoption of information-technology (IT) hardware and file-based workflows is that jobs previously performed by human operators can now be handled by software. That improves efficiency—and, frankly, by eliminating employees, it lowers operating expenses.

The most critical example of this functionality is station-automation software, which directs master-control tasks, such as storage and playback of commercials and syndicated content, and can also link to server-based news-playout systems.

“If there's a problem in the broadcast facility,” notes Tim Thorsteinson, president of Harris Broadcast, “automation's going to be involved.”

For years, playback from tape machines and then video servers has been automated. But the demands of the digital age put new emphasis on the automation system's functionality, such as improved interoperability with traffic software or newsroom hardware and the need to lower operating costs for launching news services like DTV subchannels or mobile TV.

Station-in-a-box

This has pushed the industry toward standardization and spurred some vendors to create a “station-in-a-box” combining software with video-playout hardware.

Harris Broadcast commands a large chunk of the market from the acquisition of Louth Automation and its popular ADC system in 2000; overall, its software controls some 8,000 video streams each day. Harris has integrated the ADC system with its own traffic software into the H-Class product line, with H-Class D-Series aimed at large installations and H-Class ADC targeting stations.

Harris—which also makes servers, graphics devices and a host of master-control gear—is spending an increasing amount of its engineering resources on interoperability. As a result, it is bundling its ADC automation software with Harris hardware, such as Nexio servers, in turnkey Channel Release systems aimed at different market segments. They are branded “Harris Assured Designs,” as in assured to work. The company has also created its own station-in-a-box product; called Channel One, it combines playout, branding and scheduling and is aimed at DTV multicast channels.

“We don't think people will want to buy stand-alone, vertical software applications” in the future, says Thorsteinson.

UK-based automation vendor OmniBus Systems, which provides its Colossus multichannel automation software to large playout facilities worldwide, may not entirely agree with that thinking. But OmniBus has already recognized the potential for using increasingly affordable off-the-shelf storage to create an integrated automation/playout device. That's why, last year, it unveiled the iTX software-based system designed to replace the entire broadcast master-control and playout chain with one software application.

iTX acts as a video server, master control, and graphics and logo inserter with automation, ingest, editing and content management. It also integrates with existing video or IT storage to manage files. The system starts at around $40,000 (not including storage) and can handle either standard-definition or high-definition video.

Though not naming customers yet, OmniBus has sold more than $10 million worth of iTX systems, according to Chief Technology Officer Ian Fletcher, including installations at a large satellite broadcaster and a major network, which is using it for mobile-TV programming.

“We've been blown away by the take-up for the new product,” says Fletcher.

OmniBus has been pitching iTX to networks and station groups as a cost-effective way to launch and operate new channels. It is also assuring customers that buying iTX doesn't mean scrapping their existing master control, because it can be integrated with legacy automation and playout systems.

At April's NAB Show 2007 in Las Vegas, OmniBus will show iTX working in news and sports environments and demonstrate the additional functionality of software version 1.2, including advanced 3D-graphics options, HD ingest, multiple audio tracks for multi-language applications, closed-captioning support and instant playback for sports applications.

Fletcher notes that little things, such as IT's different vernacular, can be a challenge in encouraging broadcasters, particularly smaller stations, to buy into an IT-centric approach to master control. “Broadcasters talk in megabits, while IT guys talk in gigabytes,” he explains. “Part of it is finding a common language.”

Florical Systems has two distinct product lines in master control. AirBoss is a traditional automation system that interfaces with various third-party hardware. Acuitas combines automation and video-server technology into one system using off-the-shelf IT servers to store and play back content, a similar concept to OmniBus iTX, Miranda's Xstation and other station-in-a-box systems.

AirBoss is used by CNN and NBC owned-and-operated stations, as well as a large number of Fox and ABC O&Os. (In New York, AirBoss is used by WNBC, WABC, WNYW and WWOR). The system is getting some improvements for NAB 2007.

“What we see is that master control is becoming more a part of the overall processes of a TV station, with things intertwined from an IT perspective and an operational perspective,” says Neal Perchuk, VP of sales and marketing for Gainesville, Fla.-based Florical. “What we've developed is a bunch of tools to allow master control and other departments more insight into the automation system, where a report may be generated specifically for traffic or for content acquisition.”

S.M.A.R.T. (System Management And Reporting Tool) Central, a new Web-based gateway into AirBoss, allows users to log in and, based on their unique user rights, monitor and control any individual channel, make edits to schedules, create orders for long-form acquisition, perform SQL Server 2005 database management, and retrieve valuable reports for management's review.

Other new AirBoss features include TimeShifter, a time-delay application for live or satellite programming, and Parking Spot, a live-production tool that allows the user to drag and drop server material as needed during news or sports programming through a pop-up window in the user interface. A user can drag preprogrammed material from the window into the schedule or “park it” for later use.

Acuitas, developed in partnership with Clear Channel before the station owner acquired Florical in January 2006, went through a “soft launch” last year and will make its official debut at NAB 2007. Nine Clear Channel stations are running on Acuitas, and Perchuk says four independently owned stations have also purchased it.

“It uses off-the-shelf hardware for everything from playout to graphics insertion and really is a station-in-a-box type of solution,” says Perchuk. “We see that as the future of automation. I don't know if that will take off in the next couple of years. But in almost every industry, you start with proprietary hardware, and then it eventually goes to non-proprietary [equipment].”

Irving, Texas-based Sundance Digital was acquired by news-production giant Avid Technology just before last year's NAB Show. Since then, its NewsLink news-automation system has been integrated into Avid's product line; the Titan, FastBreak NXT and Intelli-Sat master-control lines have remained as separate products sold by Sundance.

“Avid's traditional strength has been content creation,” says Sundance VP of Sales and Marketing Steve Krant, “and ours is getting it out there.” Avid and Sundance may unveil product synergies at NAB, he adds.

Customer reaction to the Avid acquisition has been generally positive, according to Krant. He says Sundance finished 2006 slightly ahead of its sales targets and has capitalized on “opportunities to move more aggressively into Europe and Asia.”

Sundance has made incremental improvements to its flagship Titan, designed for large multichannel facilities, and FastBreak NXT, targeted at individual stations. They include streamlined graphical user interfaces now available in French, Italian, German and Spanish.

The supplier will also show its products using the soon-to-be-adopted Broadcast Exchange Format (BXF, officially SMPTE 2010), which the company was instrumental in helping develop as a way to link stations' traffic, program-management, content-delivery and automation systems.

“That's to allow bidirectional communications between traffic and automation,” says Krant. He expects the standard to be adopted by year-end.

Traffic updates for automation system

BXF, based on the XML data-interchange standard, is designed to allow traffic systems to dynamically update automation software. Applications demonstrated by Sundance at NAB will include real-time dub order, content management and as-run status updates.

PBS member stations continue to be a mainstay for Sundance, which counts 61 as customers. The most recent sale was to New Hampshire Public Television, Durham, N.H., which is installing a three-channel Titan automation system as part of a major master-control upgrade at WENH Durham. Sundance also just closed a large Titan sale to Ascent Media for program-playout centers in Burbank, Calif., and Stamford, Conn.

Even Sundance's smaller customers are steadily adopting IT technology and file-based workflows.

“They're generally buying into it very actively,” says Krant. “Now, you don't throw out broadcast-specific things to buy something at Radio Shack. But there is certainly the idea that we work in an IT world.”

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