The current mantra being chanted from broadcast stations and other video content providers is: cost-efficient operation through automation. Add in a holistic approach to network management, and good things are likely to follow, most notably increased efficiencies, productivity and reliability.
At least, that's the theory. In practice, the migration to automation and to an IT-based strategy is accelerating, mainly due to intense competitive pressures, economics, and the sheer velocity and amount of content finding its way into video markets via multiple platforms.
“Broadcasters realize that TV is drifting into an economic position where they have to distribute content with fewer people. That means automation and a centralized system that can manage on-air products from anywhere. That's the model we're representing—content management and integration automation,” says Shawn Maynard, VP and general manager of Florical Systems.
Getting automated, however, requires not only a change-out of hardware and software components, but a mindset adjustment as well. “Broadcasters are being forced to embrace these new technologies and automation, and the rise of IT and engineering management within the corporate structure,” Maynard says. “Now, there are directors of technology, not engineering.”
Florical is investing in the network automation space via its Smart central integration automation system, designed for master control operators, and FanChat, which brings social networking to live on-air productions via a chat client download that allows viewers to interact while watching favorite programs.
The push to automate network functions, including back office duties like billing and traffic, is prompting a surge for companies with solutions.
“With the current economic pressures to reduce staff and increase efficiencies, while doing multiple platforms, there must be some sort of automation at stations. The size of video files is now much bigger, and managing them is a big challenge. This is NASA-grade stuff,” says Rick Stora, director of product management for Sundance Digital.
Rocket science or not, there are network functions such as network reliability that require constant attention. “Network reliability is now more important than ever and is a top-of-mind issue with automation companies,” Stora says.
Sundance's BXF (Broadcast eXchange Format) Gateway is the company's new entry in the network automation space. It standardizes and facilitates data exchange with third-party traffic program management and digital content systems. It operates within the BXF standard.
BXF is gaining momentum as the go-to standard to break down proprietary interfaces, which many consider a pesky speed bump. “Compatibility of content and format is a real issue when proprietary files from other servers come in different wrappings. But that's for vendors to solve,” says John Wadle, VP for technology at OmniBus, an automation and media content management company.
OmniBus's most recent entry in network automation is iTX, a next-generation, software-based production and transmission solution built on standard IT hardware and advanced software technology. It is designed to manage the entire ingest, content management and playout process with minimal broadcast equipment, Wadle says.
The march toward a more automated network is moving beyond traditional video distribution outlets to include telco TV, Wadle notes, and brings with it an additional set of challenges. “AT&T [U-verse] wants a network easier to maintain, with scalability and figurability, by just flipping a couple of parameters,” he says. “And they want it faster.”
Comcast Media Center's TV Network Master Control system allows one person to manage multiple networks and address tasks such as traffic management. It also allows an integrated approach to encoding and assigning an identity to each asset.
For broadcasters, the drivers for automation are lower costs and improved efficiencies, says Greg Dolan, VP of worldwide strategy for ScheduALL, a workflow resource management company. “But the sheer amount of content they have to push out is forcing a major hardware and software transition as more HD and digital content arrives.”
That transition has prompted the emerging holistic strategy he says is now redefining how a broadcast station handles its asset and content management systems.
“It's not the same game anymore,” Dolan says. “There are podcasts, HD, standard-definition, and a staggering amount of content. All of those multiply the complexity and the economics. And all are driving networks to automation. The most successful companies have a top-down strategic view of the holistic enterprise—what's going on throughout the facility and how ready is it to handle the velocity of content. There are new layers of complexity, and that's a real driver of automation.”
ScheduALL's Sync agent, due for release in the first quarter of 2009, will address the compatibility issue by allowing systems to talk to each other, he notes.
Companies such as Harris, whose newest entries into station automation include its Intelligent Media Mover (IMM), are beyond the developmental stage. Harris' integrated lab in Toronto is fostering the physical connection of systems with internal and third-party products via a real-life deployment of workflows, file transfers, content sharing and metadata, with BXF squarely in the mix.
“BXF is the biggest thing,” says Joel Highet, product line manger for ADC automation at Harris. “It will revolutionize the sharing of information. We want to look deeper into file sharing and traffic, and get to more granularity to report traffic information, which can be pushed out by one traffic department to all locations from one location. That's the scenario—centralized trafficking and significant cost savings.”
Getting there, concludes OmniBus' Wadle, means a shift to a more IT-based mentality and a thoughtful and strategic migration to automation: “From a single channel to multiple channels, no broadcast transmission can be without automation and some external automation control.”