Broadcasters are seeking to cut costs with studio automation.
Broadcasters have suffered something of a double whammy in the past few years. As the Internet really started showing its promise as an advertising medium, it prompted advertisers to divert some of their spending away from TV. Then came the global downturn which, like others before it, forced them to cut back on what they were spending anyway.
Against this backdrop, TV broadcasters are also increasingly switching to digital transmission and committing to 24-hour programming - and all that brings with it, such as subsidiary channels and programmes in high definition (HD). The pressure is on, then, to cut costs and improve efficiency. It's here that automation is proving important.
Tom Morrod, head of TV technology at analyst firm Screen Digest, says, 'Automation in broadcasting broadly falls into two camps - playout automation and production automation (PA). Playout automation refers to systems that control a TV channel's content, cueing up programmes and adverts, and playing them in a pre-ordered fashion. This aspect of broadcast automation is very well established now, and everyone in the industry uses it.'
Production automation (PA), however, is the more interesting and emerging of the two, he says. 'The key product here is the switcher - the big desk you often see in TV control rooms. It allows a director to switch from one camera to another, cue in graphics - and the automation functionality sits on top of it.
'The main driver behind PA is to create more programmes more efficiently, and cut costs. The HD aspect is influential as well, as you need a certain level of equipment that understands elements such as camera robotics, audio mixers and command and control,' Morrod says.
But while PA in general is intended for news and news-like channels, whose programming is scripted, its adoption has taken different paths in different parts of the world. In the US, for example, the industry has embraced it on a grand scale, as the business model there is for major networks to send out blocks of programming and mostly pre-sold advertising for transmission by affiliated stations at a local level.
'These affiliates are small companies, with high costs and narrow profit margins, and they're also under pressure to provide 24-hour programming,' says Morrod. 'So they've adopted PA on a wholesale basis to enable them to cut costs by reducing the need for staff such as camera operators, particularly during low-priority transmissions overnight.'
It's a different trend in Europe, where the industry is dominated by monolithic national broadcasters. Here the take-up of PA is far lower and the emphasis is more on freeing up camera operators and other staff to multi-task across a station's other channels.
Virtually every PA system these days is software-based, says John Benson, product manager for integrated production solutions at major supplier Grass Valley. And, surprisingly perhaps, given the open systems ethos in many other industrial sectors, they are proprietary.
'Specialised software controls the various pieces of production hardware to carry out specific tasks - switching, playing video clips from a server, recalling graphics, audio mixing, robotic camera control and so on,' Benson says. 'But while most automated systems are based on proprietary software and technologies, they all use industry-standard protocols such as MOS, VDCP, AMP and Sony Beta.'
FMost PA systems are tied together in the overall workflow, he says. 'Newsroom Computer Systems (NRCS) are used in the pre-production process to assign story running-order and production requirements such as video clips and graphics,' he explains. 'Digital news production systems are tied to the NRCS to assign edited video clips to each story, usually using ActiveX and the MOS workflow. And graphics systems also use the MOS workflow to assign graphics to each story.
'Most automation systems are linked to the NRCS to extract production data to allow the PA system to control the playout of production events in the newscast.'
When it comes to implementation, the switcher plays a central role, as all the production hardware is hooked up to it. And each broadcaster has its own switcher and mix of existing hardware and work style, so implementation is carried out on a case-by-case basis.
Integration with legacy systems is therefore a key issue, says Farah Azirar, solutions manager for production marketing at another major supplier, Sony Professional. 'For example, you can have a broadcaster who's upgrading to HD, which brings with it a move to PA, but who also has and wants to keep its various pieces of hardware, so interfaces need to be developed to integrate with them,' she says.
Also, broadcasters don't always want wholesale automation. Azirar says, 'Many broadcasters take a piecemeal approach, automating some functions first then others later once they've grown used to it.'
But while broadcasters may want full automation of some functions they do not want it to the level of autonomy. As Manny Neto, Sony Professional's product manager for switchers, explains, 'With a switcher, you want it to do only what you tell it to, and while some video servers for example allow for a degree of autonomy it's quite risky from a switcher's point of view.'
From a programme's perspective, Azirar adds, 'Autonomy is a non-starter for programmes that aren't scripted - chat shows, for example. Here, for example, you might have a guest or presenter who moves out of position, so camera positions would need changing.
'So PA systems have to be flexible. In a scripted news environment therefore, broadcasters want the option of fully automatic, semi-automatic and manual,' she says. 'They'll use full auto or semi-auto for the scripted parts then switch to manual override for breaking news, say. It comes down to having a choice between auto for the predicable parts and manual for the non-predictable.'
As far as the benefits to broadcaster and viewer are concerned, opinions vary. For example, Morrod says, 'A major complaint is that programming can lack editorial interest, that it can become formulaic, so it's important not to let automation become a major factor. Ultimately, it depends on how well you use it.'
The benefits are geared solely to the broadcaster, and viewers don't - or shouldn't - notice any difference. And Azirar partly echoes Morrod's view. 'Shows could become formulaic, but the technology is aimed largely at scripted news programmes anyway,' she says. 'And a positive difference with automation is that, by improving workflow efficiency and therefore cutting costs, viewers can see more new shows.'
Grass Valley's Benson adds, 'Broadcasters tell us that automated production enables them to deliver more consistent, faster-paced shows, that they are able to provide viewers with breaking news faster with a higher level of production values than previously, that they have been able to expand the amount of shows they do and that the systems reduce on-air mistakes.
'As for viewers, in addition to getting more quality content cleaner and faster, stations that have migrated to PA have received rave reviews because it greatly improves their on-air look,' he says.
3D TV broadcasting
While the switch to digital has given broadcasters the impetus to adopt PA, it also looks set to expand beyond TV newscasts and into cross-media and 3D broadcasting. Benson explains: 'As viewership of traditional broadcast decreases, broadcasters are faced with the need to distribute content to the Web and mobile devices cost-effectively. Viewers of these new media are looking for enhanced content, so broadcasters need smart systems to distribute this content to the various publication points.'
In Morrod's view, 'PA offers the opportunity to put robotics in more stages of the process, so there's definitely scope for it in 3D broadcasting, as you need to shoot it using two cameras and need to be able to control them both simultaneously.'
But we won't be watching news in 3D very soon. Azirar says, 'There's no interest for 3D news yet, so it's more a case of it being for sports, live events, documentaries and so on. But I can see the potential for automation allowing more 24-hour news channels to be set up because it enables investment to be concentrated in the hardware.'