TV stations today have an expansive list of new distribution opportunities: digital multicasts, video-on-demand, the Internet, mobile devices. Unfortunately, most of them don’t yet generate much revenue. So stations and networks are struggling to determine how to be players in the new areas without affecting the quality of their core business or crushing their bottom line.
One solution: Station automation.
It wasn’t too long ago that station automation was typically limited to master-control operations. Robotic cart machines filled with videotapes containing programming and commercials managed the content. Automated gear also helped a station stay on-air into the dark of night, allowing one or two people (or, occasionally, none) to handle playout.
It’s a different story today. The driving force behind automation is new revenue streams from, for example, digital multicasting or Internet services. “Automation allows for those services to be offered with the use of minimal human resources,” says Alan DeVaney, president/founder of automation-product manufacturer Crispin Automation.
A VARIETY OF DISTRIBUTION STREAMS
Omnibus Systems is working on a next-generation automation system that will address the growing need for multiple distribution paths. Dave Polyard, VP of sales and marketing, notes that “there is a huge appetite for programming on the consumer side” but that becomes “problematic” if stations won’t invest in the technology to create it. “New distribution models like cellphones won’t support a large investment or infrastructure,” he says. The challenge for vendors: Create systems that automatically prepare content for a variety of distribution streams.
But there’s still a station to run, and new gear has a role there, too. “Automation can help stations move beyond linear programming and better mesh the playout side of a station’s facility with the business side,” says Ben Peake, Harris Broadcast director of product management, software systems. For example, automation can make it possible for a station’s sales team to make last-second advertising changes more easily or to keep selling on-screen graphics and bugs until the last possible moment.
Automation can also make it easier for staffers to accept working on additional services. Reluctance to change is part of human nature, but DeVaney believes that, if employees see that a system can help implement new services with minimal headaches, they will adapt to changes more quickly. “It’s been our experience,” he says, “that to deliver an additional on-air channel takes very little additional work.”
But many stations are still paying off the transition to digital transmission, so equipment vendors may have a hard time persuading them to make the low-six-figure investment in automation gear. And there is no one-size-fits-all “fix.”
“Every facility is like a fingerprint,” DeVaney points out. “They’re all different in the way they’ll implement technology, and they also have different internal procedures.”
As a result, many of today’s automation systems are based on a platform that comprises modules for different tasks. Crispin Automation’s offering, for example, contains modules that handle dubbing, scheduling, browsing and managing archives.
“If a facility doesn’t need a certain tool, then it isn’t installed,” says Omnibus’ Polyard. “That keeps the install simpler and the user focused on the task they want rather then giving them a big pink button that has no bearing on their work.”
Media General’s TV-station group made the jump long ago, relying on automation gear from Florical Systems in the late 1980s. According to Senior VP, Broadcast Operations, Ardell Hill, Media General’s stations today exist in a world of file servers and PC interfaces. “There are a lot less mechanical moving parts,” he says. “With the automation system, we can program the router to receive a certain signal, and we never have to manually steer a satellite dish. We can do it all from a keyboard.”
“A CHANGE IN MINDSET”
Hill discovered that it is a myth that automated systems reduce the intellectual demands on personnel. The machines don’t “take over.” In fact, he says, the opposite is true: “You may be able to do things with fewer people, but the ones who remain need a higher degree of talent. You can eliminate four positions, but the one who remains will be highly paid.”
Sundance Digital President Robert C. Johnson concurs. “Employees will have to be much more computer-literate,” he says. “It’s a change in mindset as they have to learn to deal with material-management issues like how content is filed and stored on the video server.”
That takes an attitude adjustment. A control room is a frantic place as operators and the director attempt to keep everything going smoothly.
After automation? “The control room is a little calmer,” Polyard says. “And the on-air product will be more precise and more exact because everything is preordained.”