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Ad Systems Move Toward BXF

Like many other industries, television has embraced information technologies that promise to make operations more efficient. Sometimes, that leads to what professionals in the business refer to “islands of automation.” Individual functions like helping a traffic manager plan a station's advertising schedule, or a program manager plan the programming schedule, or a billing manager reconcile an ad plan with as-run log data, may each be supported by good software without it all working together as well as it should.

Yet often, each function is too wedded to its choice of software to allow a move to a single-vendor suite. So most vendors support a variety of interfaces with other products to make their own software fit into the grand scheme of a station's operations.

That sort of integration stands to take a big leap forward with the introduction of BXF.

The Broadcast Exchange Format data-exchange and messaging standard was ratified in April by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. To some extent, BXF will have the greatest impact on the vendors, allowing them to integrate their systems once with a common data exchange standard rather than having to create multiple integrations with different partner and competitor systems.

“It makes it easier for me to enhance features and functionality, rather than spend engineering time tweaking interfaces,” says Sarah Foss, president and CEO of traffic systems vendor VCI Solutions, which plans to release its first BXF-compliant products by the end of the year.

Vendors should be able to pass the savings from reduced integration effort on to their customers, Foss says: “I can't wait for us to launch BXF and for our brethren in the industry to do the same.”

By promoting more interactive connections between systems, the standard also has the potential to improve the way TV stations do business. Larry Keene, CEO of trade group Traffic Directors Guild of America, says BXF has attracted the attention of his members “primarily because it addresses [and possibly resolves] the most recurring concern faced by traffic—late or 'last minute' orders.”

When a sales staff is pushing past all official deadlines for placing advertisements into the programming schedule, the technology should allow traffic directors to accommodate those late orders better because an ad placed into the traffic system schedule can flow automatically into the station automation system.

Compared to making those last-minute adjustments manually, this computerized data exchange should do a better job of ensuring the right information gets to master control, billing and other affected parts of the TV operation, Keene says.

BXF is an XML (eXtensible Markup Language) standard, meaning that it is built on data tagging conventions derived from Web computing. XML is now commonly used for a variety of system integration tasks, not only on the Web but within corporate systems. XML is a cousin of the Web's HTML, which uses simple text files where formatting commands are represented by tags like &p> to delineate a paragraph or &em> to mark a phrase for emphasis. XML defines more generalized principles for tag vocabularies that can represent any kind of data, and BXF is an XML vocabulary for describing data that needs to be shared between traffic, scheduling, automation and content management systems.

That includes exchanging schedule data from planning systems with as-run information of what actually got broadcast from automation system logs. BXF can also be used to communicate content metadata (information such as title, length and production date) and instructions for locating and moving content.

Rather than being used in an import-export mode, based on a nightly batch exchange of data between systems, BXF can be used interactively, with systems sending each other XML-formatted messages to convey commands or alerts. BXF can also be used to execute queries, allowing related systems to retrieve data from each other's databases as needed.

This kind of tight, active integration between systems would, for example, allow traffic managers to make adjustments in real time and have the updates posted to their traffic system reflected in the automation system's schedule. If a commercial, say, failed to air on schedule because of a technical glitch, the traffic manager could be alerted through the online system and given an opportunity to reschedule the ad for another time slot—possibly before the end of that program—and avoid paying the advertiser a refund.

Adam Gotlieb, a product marketing manager at Harris Corp., says integration projects that leverage BXF “should be less time consuming and expensive to install,” deliver more seamless connections between systems and “not have customers having to act as the middlemen between vendors.”

One possible shortcoming of the specification is that it may be too flexible, leaving open too many different ways for any given integration to be accomplished, Gotlieb says. Harris is participating in the BXF standards work, including an effort to define recommended best practices for employing BXF that should clarify some of the implementation decisions, he adds.

Because it is still relatively new, BXF support is only just starting to show up in products from traffic system and automation vendors. Still, WJCT Jacksonville, Fla., a PBS station, is already using BXF integration between its Sundance Digital Titan automation suite and its Myers ProTrack traffic system, improving its control over the sponsor acknowledgements that run with public TV programming.

At the NAB show earlier this year, WideOrbit demonstrated BXF-based integration between its WO Traffic product and the Florical AirBoss playback automation system that allowed the two to exchange data on the planned schedule for showing commercial segments and what actually ran on-air.

Harris, which has a product line that spans sales, traffic, scheduling and other TV-station business systems, including some that it brought in through acquisitions, is making BXF part of its internal product integration strategy as well as a means of linking to other vendors' products. That will help Harris achieve greater consistency across multiple products it offers, including ad traffic management functionality.

John Patrick, a Harris product director for North America, says several customer implementations are underway or being planned, but the first that he can announce publicly is for Telemundo. That's actually a custom integration between the Harris OSi-Traffic system and an internally developed media library system used by the Spanish-language television network.

“One of the strong benefits of BXF is it gets us away from supporting multiple point-to point integrations,” Patrick explains. “Instead, we can reuse interfaces” and plug them into many systems with only minor adjustments.

Other specialized vendors are reaching out to traffic systems players to achieve better integration through BXF. For example, StorerTV handles another aspect of TV operations—the scheduling and tracking of syndicated content for rights management.

A station program manager would use StorerTV's SIMS system to plot out a schedule for showing M*A*S*H reruns and then determine what the station owes in royalty payments. By passing BXF messages, the rights management system can pass that data to the station's traffic and playback systems. And if the schedule changes, BXF can also carry add/drop requests to alter the system records in those related systems.

“The theory is that these other systems will be able to take our data and drop it into their structure, their database, without any further coding,” says StorerTV President Peter Storer. “In reality, it's going to take some time for that to be practical.”

Even given a standard format for data exchange, different systems often have different expectations of what data fields should be included in any given record, and it still takes time to reconcile those differences. StorerTV recently announced its first full-fledged BXF integration with OSi-Traffic, and according to Storer, that will probably prove to be the most difficult simply because it was the first.

Although the standard will deliver benefits to TV stations, in the long run it's likely to fade into the background, Storer says: “If BXF is working properly, it should be totally transparent to the user because these are system-to-system messages it handles, not things that are part of the human interactive experience.”

And that will be just fine if BXF delivers on its promise of making everything work better together.