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The automation evolution

With digital technology already deployed in many markets, television stations and station groups are looking for ways to offset their multi-billion-dollar DTV investments. One of the ways broadcasters are exploiting that investment is by using the added spectrum to offer new services-including HDTV, datacasting and multichannel broadcasting-especially now that Webcasting provides a new way for broadcasters to distribute valuable information to viewers and provide additional revenue opportunities.

However, the challenge for broadcasters is to find the most cost-effective and reliable way to manage the operation of a station or station group in a multichannel environment. Many are finding that the solution is station automation, which allows broadcasters to manage and control multiple programming channels without sinking entire budgets into staffing. In fact, for many owners, automation is no longer an option; it's a given, at least for any station converting to DTV.

"In the past, most television stations had one channel that went through master control and one master-control operator," says Mike D'Amore, vice president of business and technology development for Burbank, Calif.-based Philips Broadcasting. "Even the simplest conversion to DTV requires that you operate two channels-one analog and one digital-even if you're-sending the same program channel. You need either two master-control operators or one guy with long arms."

Many stations already have some form of automation for their NTSC broadcast in the software used for running video servers for commercial and spot playback, and several are getting ready to take the next step. "A lot of people out there have an old cart machine that they're getting ready to retire to add video servers," says Brian Lay, director of sales for the Western U.S. for Harris Broadcast in Mason, Ohio.

Automation providers seek to capitalize on an exploding market as more broadcasters move to digital and turn to automation to maximize their video-server equipment and staff resources in order to run multiple channels.

"We estimate that, of the 1,600 to 1,700 stations in the U.S., more than 50% are still analog but have digital on the roadmap," D'Amore says. "When they move to digital in routers and master-control switchers, that's when they'll do automation."

More than just machines

As DTV and broadband change the broadcasting business, station automation is no longer just about controlling machines. It's about running a complete broadcast plant and managing assets across a multiple-channel distribution system.

"The days of looking at automation as just automation are a thing of the past," say Barry Goldsmith, CEO of Denver-based Encoda, formerly Columbine JDS. Last year, Columbine JDS acquired automation vendor Drake Automation (DAL) and completed a merger in August with Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Enterprise Software, which provides broadcast-management software and media-support services. The new company, which is headed by former Drake CEO Barry Goldsmith, changed its name in September.

"Station automation is really not a black-box-type business," adds D'Amore. "It isn't an off-the-shelf product. You really need to be heavily involved with a systems group. You need to have people who think systems. Broadcasters have to stop thinking of themselves as single channels and start thinking of themselves as multiple-channel content publishers."

Automation vendors are developing solutions to help them do just that, according to Steve L'Hereux, president of Anaheim, Calif.-based Odetics Broadcast.

DTV is the impetus for broadcasters' move to automation, but the applications keep changing. With automation, stations can repurpose content for the Web with little additional investment.

"Last year, broadcasters didn't put a great deal of emphasis on the Web," says Andy Ioannou, vice president of Omnibus Systems in Nevada City, Calif. "The drive was for DTV. People didn't know the impact [of the Internet]. The Internet has soared especially for news, and the stations are looking to increase their market rating, and the more exposure they can get out there, the better."

Localizing broadcast content-such as directed-channel-change technology-is another new area where automation is a necessity. Directed-channel-change technology allows the broadcaster to send out targeted commercials and other programming based on a ZIP code that consumers enter into their digital set. Philip's D'Amore believes that the localization these new services facilitate brings the business back to the basics.

"Why does broadcasting exist?" he asks, rhetorically. "It is the obligation of the broadcaster to keep the local community informed as well as entertained, and there has to be some localization to it. If there wasn't, we could all go to satellite. That portion of local content and local news, local commercials, is important to consumers."

Automating assets

As these changes occur, automation systems must mature beyond just facilitating playout of commercials and programs. With broadcasters adding robust database systems, station automation is becoming integrated media-asset management as well as a master-control system.

The "old way," still in place at many stations, relies on production assistants to search racks of videotapes and run through hallways transporting labeled tapes from storage rooms to editing and playout rooms. Not only is this an inefficient method of managing assets, but it also limits access to videotape. Moreover, it's easy to misplace a tape or to play out at the wrong time.

"Now servers give multiple people access to it," says OmniBus' Ioannou. "It's really all about being able to get to the media without having to worry about where it is."

The change in how stations approach systems solutions has become evident with recent mergers of automation providers with station-management software and systems providers.

"As the market evolves, we're not just a product, we're a strategy," says Goldsmith. "Columbine JDS and Enterprise Software [together offer] a wider breadth of product," he says of the newly created Encoda. "What the operation gave us was a critical mass of people and expertise."

In January, Harris acquired Palo Alto, Calif.-based Louth Automation. In addition to augmenting its position in the broadcast- television market, the acquisition enables Harris to enter the cable and satellite markets. Louth continues to operate in Palo Alto as an independent business unit of Harris Corp.'s Broadcast Communications Division.


Several station groups are taking advantage of automation to centralize master control and link stations through local- and wide-area networks, allowing them to maximize their operations and resources. The Ackerley Group, USA Broadcasting, The New York Times Broadcast Group, Sinclair Broadcasting and Tribune are station groups that have taken the lead in developing such systems.

"The idea of centralization," Goldsmith says, "is that you relieve the work from the remote locations. People are talking about that as a business model. In a sense, you require less capital equipment cost."

Ackerley has been an aggressive proponent of centralization with its Digital CentralCasting system. The system is based on Sundance FastBreak Automation and SeaChange servers.

Currently, the group's three regional central hubs, or "pods," are operational at ABC affiliate WIXT-TV Syracuse, N.Y.; NBC affiliate KGET-TV Bakersfield, Calif.; and FOX affiliate KCBA-TV Monterey/Salinas, Calif.

All incoming commercials and programming are digitized with embedded audio and fed into the server at the hub station, while a digital router feeds programming to the appropriate station. News production and sales are handled locally. Each of the hubs'subordinate stations have station managers, local sales managers and news directors who report to senior managers at the hub station.

Sundance President Robert Johnson says this model has worked well for Ackerley, so far. But it's not for every station group. "If they can get decent prices on fiber connections-for some stations, it's easy; for some, it's hard to do-it works."

"Most broadcasters are not doing it yet, but a number of groups are looking [at the model]," Johnson adds. "We anticipate next year bringing in a number of CentralCasting systems, not all as large as the Ackerley [installation]."

Johnson believes the model makes more sense for smaller-market stations, where the dollars tend to be tighter and they need to get the most efficiency out of their operations. Centralizing can help save money by conserving precious disk space, because archived video is stored in a central database rather than in many servers.

At the local stations' servers, "they play it once and dump it out," D'Amore points out.

In addition to centralizing storage, stations can centralize master control for network or station-group programming. Weather and local news, for example, can be produced and controlled on a local or regional level depending on where the stations are located. With this model, network programming or shows that will be broadcast across a station group can be pulled from a central server onto a local server for playout-all under the control of a single automation system.

Distributed assets

Odetics'L'Hereux also believes in networked station-group operations, but he advocates a "distributed shared database." With this model, all content in the hub database is accessible in real time in the satellite facilities, eliminating transfer time for files to the stations.

"The content doesn't reside in the database; only the metadata resides in the database," says L'Hereux. "You're not duplicating [files]. Content resides on a play-to-air server connected to the network and resides in an archive server. It's a more efficient way of managing multiple iterations of the same content."

In this model, content can be stored in several archive servers throughout the network to be shared among several stations. Users can move full-bandwidth files on the servers as needed.

Although many broadcasters are discussing centralized operations, few are taking the plunge just yet. "Old legacy equipment doesn't really give the ability to centralize resources," OmniBus' Ioannou says. Centralizing requires a complete equipment overhaul, replacing older playout equipment with video-server systems and enterprise storage systems for centralized master control. Most experts see centralization as a logical next step.

"People using video servers now want to start moving media files over wide-area networks," says Harris' Lay. "It has received enough attention that every group is looking at that as an option. The cost of networking to tie stations together is still a factor."

Staff changes

Not everyone is thrilled with the idea of automation.

"Automation still is a scary word for station [employees]," says Sundance's Johnson. "Master-control operators think they're losing their jobs. Automation really doesn't reduce the workload; it just shifts it."

There are certain things that technology cannot replace. You can never have an automation system determine whether the picture looks good or looks bad.

"The intent is to do more with the same, not the same with less," Ioannou says. "I think it's wrong to say that computers will replace people. Computers are just a tool for letting people do their jobs."

D'Amore agrees. "You still need a master-control operator who can take control and bypass [the automation system]. The operator is more the pilot watching the master control than the person running the master control.