A Growing Complexity Drives System Advances

Multichannel operations, DTV challenge suppliers

With multichannel operations, station-group consolidation and the advent of DTV, broadcasters' demands on traffic systems are expanding exponentially, growing in complexity. And manufacturers are attempting to address new business models that seem to pop up every day.

"The key to purchasing a traffic system today is to make sure it has the channel-capacity flexibility to support a wide range of business models," says Encoda Vice President of Strategy, Tim Patnode. "It has to have the ability to drive a digital platform."

The tricky aspect of traffic-system design is that every group or station tends to use it in a different way. For some groups, the system sits at a central hub; for others, maybe only the database sits at the hub. Still others may have separate hardware at each station, with only sales information sent to the hub.

There are some trends, though. "Most of them are looking for the ability to centralize either operations or databases," says WideOrbit founder and CEO Eric Mathewson. "But the number-one thing everyone wants is better reporting and a user-friendly interface. They want a typical employee to get to the information easily."

It's that interface where Mathewson believes his company has the biggest advantage: "The corporate office should be able to figure out information without having to pick up the phone. And they should also be able to pull a group report without any problem."

WideOrbit's WO Station 3.0 system can handle up to 99 separate channels, more than enough headroom for even the largest station groups. Sequential servers and an Oracle database are also used; minimum requirements of the database server: dual Pentium III 1.2-GHz processors with 2-GB RAM storage. A tape backup system to accommodate 10-GB files or data-center backup is also required. Client workstations require a 450-MHz Pentium II processor with Windows 2000, NT or XP Pro operating system.

"Everyone wants to save money," says Mathewson, "and they want technological flexibility to address future needs, so having a multichannel/multistation product that allows for combining of traffic operations is very important."

WideOrbit's new technology finds itself battling Encoda's systems, which have become an almost de facto standard with TV stations, giving that company the luxury of developing product in a maintenance mode rather than an overhaul mode. Companies like WideOrbit and VCI are trying to make inroads.

"[Encoda] systems are still the bread-and-butter for more than 1,000 stations, processing over $16 billion of advertising revenues annually," says Jay Greenwald, president of Encoda's Media Management Solutions.

Encoda makes moves

But Encoda isn't complacent. It plans to announce several major offerings for both large station groups and independent broadcasters. The improvements are intended to allow broadcast organizations to implement large centralized, multichannel enterprise-wide systems and support digital-broadcast capabilities, including signal and bandwidth management.

Such changes are in response to different sales models deployed by station groups across the country. "We're finding that a lot of the group consolidations taking place are putting demands on multichannel and HDTV operations," says Patnode. "And that requires substantial architectural changes, creation of very complex sales models and expansion of the number of options provided."

According to Bob Duncan, senior vice president and general manager, global products, the real driver is scalability. A customer like XM Radio, he points out, uses the system for more than 100 channels. Encoda's system has no limit on the number of channels, a capability that results from the system's architecture.

Encoda enhancements will also address management of automated metadata and frame-accurate scheduling, as well as real-time control of on-air events.

VCI's NAB exhibit will be centered on its familiar STARS II+ traffic system, but a number of new features will help STARS shine a little brighter.

"We'll be emphasizing two key directions for VCI: integrating and advanced analysis tools," says President and CEO Lowell Putnam. "We're working to show integration with sales, programming, automation and operating systems."

The STARS system, based on Microsoft's Windows NT operating system and featuring a graphical user interface, allows the user to complete real-time spot placement with the help of relational database technology and support for multistation cluster operations. One recently introduced feature is the Analysis Toolkit, which Putnam says will be expanded even further.

Advanced analysis

"We're introducing an inventory trend tool so clients can better predict when they will be subject to sell out," says Putnam. "That will enable them to control their inventory better."

Response to the toolkit has been very positive, he adds. "Stations see it as something they can use to improve revenues. Obviously, that helps."

One of the reasons for the system's popularity, he explains, is the Base Rate modeling tool, which enables the station to establish key areas of the schedule to monitor and input target numbers (such as average rate or sellout levels). "On demand, the system can collect the actual, real-time state of the inventory and compare this against the targets. It then calculates what needs to be done to achieve the targets based on the remaining unsold inventory."

VCI will also demonstrate the use of Telestream's FlipFactory system with the STARS system. FlipFactory is used to convert video content and related metadata from one format to another so that it is usable elsewhere in the station.

"A person using the traffic system will be able to view thumbnails of the media and get metadata from the system," says Putnam. The integration of FlipFactory will allow Traffic to ensure that the right spot is going to be played. He says it will be especially useful when more than one spot share the same or similar names or if a single client has more than one spot in the system.

CAM joins the party

The traditional broadcast traffic systems also have a new face joining: CAM Systems. The company has made its mark with traffic systems designed for cable networks and cable operators and is expanding its reach into the broadcast market.

Dubbed TVIA 5.0, its system provides an integrated suite of software products to local stations. It will also handle more than traffic needs. "TVIA deals with everything from programming rights and clearances to scheduling and sales automation," says CAM Systems President Martino Mingione. "It also handles media planning and proposals and traffic and billing."

CAM Systems decided to expand its cable-based systems into the broadcast market, Mingione says, when it realized that the technology could be applied to the market properly. "Because we handle such complex relationships already between network and local cable, we thoroughly understand the concepts as they apply to other media markets. We also understand what changes we need to make to make them applicable to the broadcast market."

It's that ability to deal with what were once disparate operations that Mingione sees as TVIA's value. Stations don't have to deal with multiple vendors and different interfaces or lack of interfaces for the services, he points out.

Even among its competitors, traffic-system manufacturer WideOrbit is billed as the company with the freshest technology. And that acknowledgement gives founder and CEO Eric Mathewson confidence that his company can make headway with station groups looking to update their traffic systems.

"Good fish never gets better with time, and good technology never gets better with time," he says. "When a broadcaster is making a decision to switch to a new system, they need to decide whether they want to get married to new technologies or marry themselves to technologies born 10 to 20 years ago."

The old-timer in the traffic-system market, Encoda dismisses charges that its technology, based on older computer technologies, has been usurped by stronger capabilities. "This technology is not legacy green-screen technology by any means," says Duncan.

Newcomer WideOrbit came to fruition in July 1999, but it wasn't until August 2000 that it made most of the decisions on what technology would be used for architecture and software languages. The result: a multi-tiered architecture comprising database servers that contain the data components.

Advances in traffic systems are changing more than just station operations. The advent of electronic invoicing is affecting agencies as well. According to WideOrbit's Mathewson, however, a disagreement over whether electronic data interchange should include the negotiation process or start at the contract process has slowed down the adoption of EDI.