Belt-tightening is a way of life for TV stations' technical and operational
staffs—even when they're preparing to throw the switch on multicast channels. That's why automation is essential.
"The broadcast operations of today are simply too complex to be run without automation," says Robert Johnson, president of automation vendor Sundance Digital. "Certainly, efficiency
is a word with which we are well acquainted, but in many cases stations are adding more channels and want to operate with the same staffing levels."
Station automation is about making content-gathering easier, whether it's programming, commercials or interstitials. Today's station-wide systems are based on building a playlist of all the different content: The operator sits at a PC terminal, sets up the playlist and then manipulates it as needed.
But that's not all automation systems are expected to do. Topping a list of new demands are digital multicasting and centralized operations for a station group. Adding a multicast that includes a 24-hour loop of newscasts (with new commercials) and a 24-hour weather channel may sound simple, but both exemplify the growing complexity of broadcasting today. And centralized operations require a system that makes it easy for stations to contribute content to and pull content from a central facility. In short, getting simple takes hard work.
Adding secondary channels into the transmission streams actually isn't that complicated. A few channels of automation, more server capacity, production switchers and branding devices, and a station is in business.
Steve L'Heureux, president of Encoda Systems Automation Solutions Group, believes that, in a few years, the typical broadcaster will be broadcasting eight or nine channels: four or five digital channels plus its analog channels. Today's automation systems are well-equipped to address those needs. Stations that use one- to four-channel automation systems might have difficulty scaling, he says, "but with improvements in processing power and software, they should be okay."
However, if a station wants its multicast offspring to have the same quality of appearance as the "big" channel, the challenge is greater, says John Wadle, Omnibus vice president, technology. In terms of worker-hours, the secondary channels can actually require more effort. Plugging in squeezebacks—the graphic device that shrinks the on-screen image as one show ends to allow space for another image—becomes difficult. So do other transitional graphic conventions that give viewers the visual cues they've come to expect from technically sophisticated TV operators. Viewers don't want multicast channels to look low-rent.
The type of content carried on secondary channels also can make automation more complicated. Says Brian Lay, Harris director of product marketing, automation solutions, "Channels that are primarily based on prerecorded content require very little manual intervention. But channels that contain live sports or news may require an operator per channel."
Such staffing needs can put ambitious multicasting plans face to face with the reality of budget constraints. "A lot of people think it will be easy to add secondary channels," says Dave Polyard, Omnibus vice president of sales and marketing, "but they need to remember that the business model needs to be much more efficient." Simple fact: Adding more channels to a market through multicasting doesn't mean there are more advertisers.
"Those channels won't generate as much as the main channel. And that's why automation will be important," says Polyard, noting his company's TXPlay system, which can automate up to 12 channels, as an example of a cost-effective system well suited for local marketing agreements (LMAs) and backup channels.
Thanks to budget constraints and a lack of incremental revenue, Florical Systems President Jim Moneyhun says he hears a lot of talk about multicasting but sees little movement. "Broadcasters are waiting for the time when it looks like there will be enough of an audience for advertisers to buy separate spots," he says. At the earliest, he sees multicasting becoming a trend in 2006.
Moneyhun's advice for stations today is to remember that an automation system isn't just about the commercials, and the buying decision should involve more than just the engineering team. The general manager, the traffic department and accounting should all be involved because all of them interact with an automation system. "It's the little details that can make the difference, like helping the billing department get more accurate bills," he says.
Lay concurs, adding that the automation system should also be able to control graphic logos as well as the overlay of bumpers and banners on sports and other programs. "There has to be a tracking system," he says, noting that the Harris Broadcast Presentation Manager (BPM) offers such functionality.
Communication between automation and traffic systems continues to be a challenge for all involved. One thing that could improve the situation is a protocol being developed by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers' so-called S-22 Committee to enable the systems to communicate seamlessly. "We're very excited about the workflow implications of this technology," says Sundance's Johnson.
Harris recently updated its BPM system and gave customers a first glimpse at the new system at last month's IBC show in Amsterdam. The system comprises three modules—Air Manager, Schedule Manager and Resource Management—along with a new device-control core.
"All the modules use Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol [TCP/IP] connectivity to provide mission-critical, play-to-air–device control for both single- and multi-channel broadcasters," Lay says. The system's link to the traffic and scheduling system allows changes to be made in the current on-air schedule directly from the traffic system. And a graphic timeline display lets operators make last-second schedule changes.
Harris isn't the only vendor with a comprehensive approach. Sundance Digital's Titan system can support a nearly unlimited number of channels. That scalability can be used in hub-based broadcasting, in which one system controls multiple locations. Other Sundance products, notably SegmentShare and TimeLiner or FastBreak, are designed to meet specific needs.
"TimeLiner is more of a high-end event sequencer. We see it used commonly in corporate channels as well as some smaller broadcasters," says Lay. "FastBreak is designed for stations with one to four channels while Titan shines in larger or distributed automation scenarios."
SegmentShare reflects changes in
market. Increasingly, station groups want to gain efficiencies by receiving programming or commercials at one station and then sharing the material with others. Ideally, says Johnson, one station records the show, performs quality control, segments it, and ships the show and segment information to its sister stations. That's where SegmentShare comes in.
"Only one station has to time the show," says Johnson. "Those timings can then be sent to a central SegmentShare server, and the rest of the stations can download and apply the timings—for both the show and any secondary events."
SegmentShare capitalizes on the growing use of video servers in broadcast plants, replacing videotape decks and changing workflow and, in turn, automation systems.
"These are causing a profound shift in workflow since the commercials and programs are arriving digitally and can be transferred to the on-air server at faster than real time," Johnson explains. "The linear workflow of dubbing media into the server or recording from a satellite feed is going away and being replaced by a vastly improved workflow."
Florical recently completed a project for Media General that is similar to what SegmentShare accomplishes. The station group installed a system that controls the satellite feeds for 10 stations from a central site. The stations share a database, and only one station needs to time the program. After that, timing is available to all the stations via the database.
Databases continue to be one of the hot topics among vendors. OmniBus recently rolled out Opus, a suite of tools based on the company's G3 architecture and designed to help improve content management across an entire organization. "The use of Opus in multichannel environments is enabled by the underlying design of the OmniBus database," says Wadle. "Specifically, the database maintains associated channel identification as part of content metadata while allowing shared/centralized ingest and content-management processes."
That allows multiple channels to share the Opus infrastructure in environments with either separate or common content-identification systems, he says. That can be important when individual stations within a group may take slightly different approaches to file names or spot IDs. The Opus system also allows for multiple, channel-specific identifications to be attached to content as it leaves a centralized facility. That means that a common identification can be used during ingest and other processes and then the unique ID is added just prior to the content's leaving the plant.
Encoda also has a new approach to databases, folding technology from Arkemedia, a company it acquired earlier this year, into its D-Series automation system by the end of the year.
The improvements will make the automation system more aware of content rather than focusing on device control, L'Heureux says, adding that that's important as broadcasters begin to consider new business models related to digital TV.
"They need an infrastructure in place that can support not only classic push business models but the forthcoming pull model, where consumers request content from a server," he says. That means having a system that has digital-rights information and other metadata attached to files.
Integrating the Arkemedia database with Encoda's automation system does that. Says L'Heureux, "Without it, broadcasters will face difficulties in the future."
The disparate places where automation tools can fit into a facility can lead to dizzying decision-making. To help stations make the decision, Sundance is offering "transition consulting" services.
"We have several staff members with operational experience to work with the stations and ease their transition to automation and multichannel operations," Johnson says. "We've been through this enough to know where the rough spots will be."