Automation systems are, in many ways, the infrastructure equivalent of the United Nations. Master control, traffic, the newsroom, sales: Increasingly, they are all under the purview of some form of automation. And, as with the UN, the goal is to help use resources in a way that makes the station a better place.
Unfortunately, as at the UN, the systems don't all speak the same language or protocol, making communication between them difficult, if not impossible. And, while protocols like MOS (Media Object Server) are fine for the newsroom and Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) is fine in billing, they aren't understood throughout a facility.
Nonetheless, automation, particularly in the age of digital, holds the promise of reshaping broadcast facilities. Smaller staffs mean a faster return on investment, and, with an automation system in master control, one person can run a whole station, right?
Well, maybe not. One person can no doubt run it. But, when things go wrong, having human backup helps. So the reality of automation in 2002 is that cutting costs can't be the only goal; changing the way the facility operates also needs to be a goal.
In many ways, automation is at a crossroads. Mark Bishop, director of marketing for automation company Florical, sees new developments in automation focused on three areas: increased content localization, improved efficiencies, and turnkey systems for smaller stations.
Over the years, most established broadcasters have been slow to adjust workflow to take advantage of large-scale technology changes, observes Jon Hammarstrom, Encoda Systems vice president, worldwide sales and marketing. "Some of the inertia was the result of large capital investment; some of it was due to comfort with a process."
Whether efficiencies mean a smaller staff remains to be seen. Automation in centralcasting facilities makes it possible for four stations or more to be operated by one master-control operator.
"These more tightly integrated solutions can reduce the size of staff necessary to successfully operate a multichannel broadcast facility," Hammarstrom explains. "However, I would contend that it is the adoption of new technology in general, not automation specifically, that has enabled broadcasters to do more with less people."
But, at the end of the day, says Omnibus Systems chief technology officer Ian Fletcher, a station needs people in the transmission area who know what they're doing. Ultimately, that's where the revenue is collected, "so cutting that area to the bone is usually not worth doing."
Facilities that focus narrowly on expense control and job elimination are missing opportunities to improve the efficiency and quality of operations, opines W. Lowell Putnam, president and CEO, Video Communications Inc.
VCI is involved in the traffic and billing side of the broadcast facility, where automation has just begun to extend its influence. The capabilities of automation systems have changed greatly, primarily thanks to the use of video servers and the implementation of local-area and wide-area networking technology.
Automation once meant CART machines with robotic arms zipping tapes in and out of VTRs. Journalists in a newsroom were removed from the editing process, usually handing off lists of timecode to editors, who would then grab the footage from tape decks.
But servers and networking have changed that. Today, journalists can edit from their desktop, and other non-technical station employees can use technology to their advantage. Members of the sales team, for example, can have greater control over inventory, quickly see avails, be more closely tied in with master-control operations, and someday even be able to receive spot ads as a file to be deposited instantaneously onto the on-air server.
"The ultimate goal for broadcast operations should be to make the traffic system and the automation system exchange information in a seamless and bi-directional manner," says Putnam, "so that end-users get the answers they need without having to know where that information came from."
Fletcher concurs, adding that the bigger cost savings come about by looking at the facility operations: How are media ingest, archives and post-production run, and how is material moved around the facility?
Servers and related new technologies contribute to the blurring of the line between master-control operations and media-asset management, says Steven L'Heureux, president, Odetics Systems, a manufacturer of automation and CART machine systems.
He still sees a role for videotape, though. "It is now possible to implement a fully automated workflow from content ingest, through delivery, to eventual purging of the material from the facility. While technology now makes it theoretically possible to run a 'tapeless' broadcast facility, the industry is still implementing very sophisticated media- management solutions that utilize traditional videotape libraries in an on-line function for caching to the server."
In most cases, the server technology that stations are adopting to replace their aging VTRs mandate some form of automation, says Robert Johnson, president of Sundance Automation, whether simple built-in spot-playback software or advanced facility management. "In addition, the explosion of server-based broadcasting makes media database management—which is what modern automation really is—absolutely essential. It's simply no longer possible to find a video clip on the shelf, when that 'shelf' is virtual and is part of a multi-terabyte hard-drive array."
Parochial thinking in many parts of the U.S. broadcast market is that traffic and operations are separate, with master-control operators pushing the buttons and traffic providing the list of events for the day.
Trafficking, in its simplest form, says Hammarstrom, could allow a traffic operator to put a spot on-air if a broadcaster gives him or her access to the air schedule. "Network technology would allow that to occur today with most automation systems, and the technology does exist to create the application."
Nonetheless, there are some roadblocks. Today, there are protocols for machine-to-machine, real-time communication, Putnam says, but their impact is very narrow.
Some systems support intelligent communication via many existing protocols. The new protocols have replaced the old method of periodic "arm's-length" file exchange with near real-time data exchange, L'Heureux says. "Our Airo system supports near real-time file exchange between various systems through high-level protocols such as XML, which enables traffic solutions on any software platform to dynamically exchange data with the Windows 2000-based Airo system. MOS is another example."
Hammarstrom sees two primary concerns in data-exchange protocols; both relate to conflict avoidance when dealing with shared assets. "To avoid conflicts, systems need to share the data concerning those assets, whether digital media or the equipment that plays the assets back. Historically," he explains, "conflicts have been minimized by dedicating equipment and media to a particular service like news or on-air operations. Increasingly in the digital environment, and with the advent of new workflow and operational processes, the risk of creating conflicts will increase rapidly."
Protocols per se do not exist for the exchange of data between proprietary systems, he adds. "We're likely to see common data resources being shared on some level in the not distant future."
Next-generation broadcast-automation solutions will be built on an enterprise-class relational database, L'Heureux says, enabling the sharing of common database tables while permitting each system to maintain tables unique to its application. "This approach will eliminate the need to exchange files or to synchronize multiple, application-specific databases."
The ability to exchange or synchronize databases—like those in traffic, billing or automation—can improve a station's resource allocation and budget. "In addition, for regularly scheduled events, a rich interface eliminates the burden on master control to edit playlists or trigger events manually," says Putnam. "Smarter integration provides significant benefits, including time savings, reduced errors, and streamlined reconciliation and billing."
Stations that aren't looking to automation to reduce headcount can free personnel to do one of the few things humans can still better than computers: think outside the box. An automated process that can reliably execute a schedule according to business rules, says Brian Lay, Harris director of product marketing, allows personnel to concentrate on jobs that require creativity. "In most cases, work previously done in master control close to airtime is now pushed back to traffic and scheduling."
Partnerships are likely to play an increasing part in improving automation. Sundance, for example, is working with PathFire, TeleStream, and MediaDVX on developing complete systems. "In the near future," says Sundance's Johnson," commercials and programs will be sent digitally to small servers at the broadcast facilities and then automatically moved to the transmission server."
That means a great deal less work for master control since the concept of timing shows and ingesting commercials will basically go away.
The changes a system like that being proposed by Sundance will place on a system go well beyond the technology. The challenge posed by automation—whether in the newsroom, the control room, or master control—is actually not with the technology at all. "Though all vendors have occasional problems and operational issues, the real challenge is in the transition
to automation," explains ParkerVision Vice President of Business Development Matt Danilowicz. "Because TV is a round-the-clock, non-stop operation, it's not possible to stop everything, send the crew out for two weeks of training, and start up again when they return. It's rather like changing a tire on a moving vehicle.
"The issue," he continues, "is the duration and pain of the change, not whether it will take place. Ultimately, once any station in a given market undertakes control-room automation, it will be very difficult for competitors to match its on-air capabilities and financial results."
And that's the rub for those not involved with automation. The business landscape, Danilowicz says, makes it all but impossible for the typical general manager to meet financial targets without cutting costs.
"It certainly doesn't allow purchases in technology without hard financial justification," he says. "So, while the fundamental capabilities of automation have advanced, it's the increasing pressures of the industry that now demand a more aggressive implementation of that technology, pushing it to maximum effectiveness and maximum impact on reducing behind-the-scenes technical staff."
The real issue, Putnam says, is the level and degree required to support specific business objectives. For some of VCI's clients, that level is very high and easily justified. "The Weather Channel is able to modify its programming at any given time to more closely match the audience interests of a sponsoring advertiser," he explains. VCI worked closely with The Weather Channel's sales and automation staff to define a simple enhancement to the business process from the moment of contract entry through spot scheduling, log production and then to playback.
"This automated capability, which would otherwise be so people-intensive it could not be justified," Putnam says, "helps gives The Weather Channel an edge in their marketplace."
Another new business objective is a result of consolidation. As station groups grow and duopolies become more common, the groups are looking for ways to best serve viewers while maintaining or cutting current cost levels.
"We see many stations adding a UPN or WB affiliate and trying to do it at minimal cost," says Johnson. "These stations view an automation purchase as a 'must-have' because they know the station's workload will increase, but they do not want to add personnel."
The promise of a centralized operation does introduce challenges. Bishop cites working with multiple time zones and ensuring that the hub accounts for different signal path delays. "Zero Timing is required to take care of the path delays so the hub can use matched timing for common programming and can seamlessly mix material from the hub or from the regional station within the same break."