From Old World to IT

During transition, automation suppliers aim to simplify digital workflows
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As stations shift away from tape to IT-based systems, they are becoming increasingly reliant on software to drive their business. And no software is more vital than station-automation systems, which control the storage and playback of commercials and syndicated content and increasingly link to server-based news operations.

As the NAB convention will prove later this month, automation suppliers are providing greater functionality by developing interfaces to content-delivery systems that record spots and syndicated content.

They are also working to tightly integrate with traffic systems by creating a common language that improves communications. And they are developing links for archive- and asset-management systems, to manage the metadata these file-based systems generate.

“The more we know about a piece of content, the better we can automate the workflow,” says Ben Peake, product management director for Harris Corp.'s automation business.

Managing metadata presents a real challenge for stations that are ingesting hundreds of media files a day. That's harder than handling the actual digital video and audio itself. The goal for Harris is to transfer that metadata into the automation platform to reduce human interaction.

Cincinnati-based Harris has commanded a large share of the automation market, beginning with its acquisition of Louth Automation and its ADC system in 2000. It also acquired traffic-software supplier Encoda Systems in 2004, and since then Harris has worked to integrate the two technologies into a software solution called H-Class that has traffic, automation, sales and scheduling functionalities on one platform.

H-Class is designed as a Web-based content-management system that can schedule a Web advertisement as easily as it can cue up an on-air spot. It was first marketed to international customers and U.S. cable networks, but Harris is starting to introduce pieces of H-Class aimed at broadcast stations. H-Class Media Ingest, the first module shipped to some broadcasters, was designed for existing ADC customers. “It will ingest material and update the ADC database,” says Peake. “There are a whole range of workflows supported behind that.”

Harris has worked hard since the Louth acquisition to take the ADC software and evolve it from an analog tape-based environment to a digital, file-based workflow, says Peake. The gradual introduction of H-Class into the ADC customer base reflects the balancing act stations perform to mix traditional broadcast equipment with new IT methodologies.

“The challenge for this market is, you have to keep a foot in both domains,” says Peake. “You can't come out and say the automation system will do everything digital, or everything the old baseband [analog] way.”

Steve Krant, VP of sales and marketing for Sundance Digital, says that, increasingly, broadcasters are adopting low-cost IT storage, such as Network Attached Storage (NAS) systems, to hold material that is used infrequently or has a longer shelf life. Automation software needs to talk to those systems to transfer content.

The reduction in the cost of disk storage has nearly brought the industry back full circle to the early days of video servers, says Krant. Then, storage cost was so high that stations would use servers only to store spots. As costs came down, stations began storing loads of material on servers. But now the cost of off-the-shelf IT storage has dropped so low that servers are again being used more as a short-term cache for the most frequently played material. While the cost for 100 hours of IT storage of broadcast-quality video was $100,000 five years ago, now it's around $10,000.

Irving, Texas-based Sundance, whose clients include Gannett, Raycom and numerous PBS stations, will be introducing Seeker at NAB. It's designed to provide asset-management and task-management functionality. It also helps track down content for other platforms.

Sundance's high-end Titan system, based on the Windows XP platform, is designed for multichannel, server-based facilities or for broadcasters with “centralcasting” models.

Belo has deployed it at 14 stations, including KGW, in Portland, Ore., which uses a six-channel Titan automation system with the new Grass Valley K2 HD/SD media server. Two K2 clusters (one for redundancy) support program and commercial playout, including the Weather Plus DTV sub-channel.

Integration between automation software and traffic systems is getting more important. Sundance is a member of the SMPTE S22-10 Data Exchange Working Group that is standardizing the exchange of information between traffic and automation.

Those areas “control the cash register [at stations],” says Krant. “They should be talking to each other much more fluidly than they have been.”

Florical is another automation supplier heavily involved in the S-22 working group. The Gainesville, Fla.-based company offers a series of Windows NT-based automation software, from content ingest to management to playout, built around its AirBoss presentation solution.

“A lot of it is based on the Florical protocol,” says Neal Perchuk, the firm's VP of sales and marketing. “Once we finalize it, it will be a two-way piece.”

Florical customers include many ABC and Fox owned stations, CNN, and Univision. Florical has worked most closely with Clear Channel Television on developing automation software for new IT-based playout systems. That effort led sister company Clear Channel Technologies to acquire Florical in January.

At NAB, Florical will be “soft-launching” Acuitas, a product based on in-house development work done at Clear Channel's Tulsa, Okla., broadcast hub. Acuitas (Latin for “sharpness”) is designed to provide automation and video-server technology all in one, using off-the-shelf IT servers to store and playback content. Already in use at some stations, Florical is getting good feedback from younger engineers comfortable with IT technology.

“They like the idea of buying an off-the-shelf server and using IT technology where the automation handles the file management, as opposed to the server handling the file management,” Perchuk says. “I think that's a potential trend: that the server manufacturers may look at getting into more automation and the automation industry may look at getting into server control.”

OmniBus Systems certainly thinks so. The U.K.-based company, known for providing multichannel systems for such customers as Discovery and Scripps Networks, is launching its own software-based playout system called iTX. It's designed to replace the functions of a broadcast master control and playout chain with one software application.

To do so, iTX acts as a video server, master control, and graphics and logo inserter with automation, ingest, editing, and content management. It also integrates with video or IT storage to manage video files. It can be deployed on its own or integrated with OmniBus' Colossus software.

The premise of iTX, says OmniBus VP Tim Mendoza, is that “IT storage is one-third the cost and three times more reliable than video storage.”

Utilizing standard IT hardware and sophisticated software to greatly reduce the investment required to operate a channel, iTX is well-suited for new outlets, such as secondary DTV channels.

OmniBus is also launching a traditional product for broadcasters. Its K2 Inception, an entry-level playout solution designed in partnership with Grass Valley, meshes Colossus automation software with a Grass Valley K2 server, router and branding device.

“It's a preconfigured system for [stations],” says OmniBus Senior VP Dave Polyard.

Crispin Automation of Durham, N.C., has created its own archiving solution, Crispin Archive Manager (CAM), to serve as an asset-management system for “nearline” storage of material on IT storage. New for NAB is the integration of Hierarchical Storage Management (HSM) into CAM. The system is designed around a combo of high-density RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) storage and optical PDD (Professional Disc for Data) disks for portability.

“Asset management is what's key and what's important,” says Alan DeVaney, Crispin founder/president. “All of the sudden, we've gotten into a virtual world of material and assets. You no longer can slap a label on the side of a tape and put it on the shelf.”

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