Production Automation Heats Up

Snell, Sony latest players in growing market

As broadcasters look to streamline operations and cut costs, an intriguing option is production automation systems. They use software to control various functions of a newscast, and allow local stations to reduce head count.

Systems such as Grass Valley's Ignite and Ross Video's OverDrive can control a variety of gear including production switchers, robotic cameras, audio mixers, video servers, graphics, routers, lights and multi-viewer displays. They have already been adopted by station groups such as Media General, the ABC-owned stations and NBC Local Media. And new players have entered the space, as both Sony and Snell introduced at NAB this spring automation systems based on their established production switchers.

Keep that switcher

Previously, if existing Sony MVS or Snell Kahuna switcher customers wanted to automate their newscasts, they needed to look to another switcher vendor. Now they can keep their switcher and make an additional investment in software—ranging from around $100,000 for the Snell News Automation system to $325,000-$450,000 for the Sony ELC (Enhanced Live-production Control) system—to achieve long-term cost savings on head count and perhaps also improve the quality of their newscasts.

Sinclair is testing the Snell system at WBFF Baltimore, while Gannett and at least one other large station group are exploring Sony's ELC. More groups are sure to follow, given the existing footprint of Sony and Snell.

Brad Rochon, Ross Video's marketing product manager, says his company welcomes the new competition for OverDrive, which is now installed in 100 locations worldwide. “At the end of the day, competition is good,” he says. “It validates the technology, and it's good for the industry.”

Historically, Sinclair hadn't been particularly interested in adopting production automation systems. One reason was that the company would have needed to replace much of its existing control room infrastructure. Also, Sinclair already runs lean operations in most markets—three or four staffers per newscast—so it wasn't going to achieve head-count reductions significant enough to balance the capital investment required.

But Sinclair, which has standardized on Snell's Kahuna switcher for HD upgrades at its stations, agreed to test the new automation system Snell has developed with Norwegian software firm Mosart. One of the goals is to see whether automation can improve the consistency of its news product across different stations.

“I would say it can level the playing field,” says Mark Nadeau, director of television production for Sinclair. “There are a lot of good TDs [technical directors] out there. But if you have a weak TD, this would make up for that.”

So far, WBFF has successfully used the Snell system, which integrates with the station's existing Avid iNews system through an MOS interface, to produce a simulated newscast. The station plans to use it to do live shows in the near future. Nadeau says the Snell/Mosart interface is relatively easy to use and has integrated successfully with WBFF's existing graphics devices and servers.

Sinclair has made no commitment to buy the Snell system, but is simply helping the company develop the Mosart technology for the U.S. market. “They have to prove to me this has value,” says Del Parks, Sinclair's VP of engineering and operations.

On the other hand, broadcasters like Meredith Broadcasting Group are already sold on production automation. Meredith has deployed Ignite at five stations, and has committed to deploy Ignite at four more: KCTV, the CBS affiliate in Kansas City; KVVU, the Fox affiliate in Las Vegas; CBS station KPHO Phoenix; and KPTV, the Fox affiliate in Portland, Ore.

“They've been working well for us, and we're kind of moving in that direction,” says Joseph Snelson, VP and director of engineering for Meredith.

The Ignite systems, which were purchased as part of Meredith's HD news conversions, required about five to six weeks of training. While head-count reductions vary from station to station, Ignite can generally take a newscast that was being supported by seven people and reduce that number to two or three. Some of the reductions aren't in full-time head count; for example, a station that used part-time employees as camera operators simply wouldn't need to hire those personnel anymore.

Meredith's Atlanta station, WGCL, uses a Ross switcher instead of the Grass Valley Kayaks installed at the other Meredith stations, and will probably install OverDrive in the future. Snelson notes that the systems are designed differently, but the end result—staffing efficiencies and a more consistent way of producing news—are the same.

“There's a consistency to it, in the way you lay out news programs,” he says. “Some stations had fewer on-air errors, as the newscast was set in place and locked down. And while machines do break, they don't call in sick or ask for vacation time. So there's an improvement in the reliability and repeatability of the newscast.”

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