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Broadcast's Big Bang

Automation manufacturers continue to refine their product lines to meet a customer base that is the equivalent of the Big Bang: Stations are moving in all directions at speeds that have manufacturers sometimes wondering how they're going to keep up.

"Every facility is like a fingerprint in that they're slightly different," says Crispin Corp. President and co-founder Alan DeVaney. "What's happened is, it's now commonplace to use video servers for storage and delivery of commercials and interstitials. That wasn't the case seven years ago."

That seven-year period has seen station operations move from primarily videotape machines to primarily video servers. Seven years ago, such products as Odetics Cart machines were commonplace, with broadcasters relying on robotic systems to shuttle cassettes with commercials, interstitials and programming into on-air playback VTRs. Tape-based facilities are still found in smaller TV stations, but even stations without large capital budgets are increasingly opting to purchase video servers instead of new VTRs.

It's that move to video servers that has reshaped the automation marketplace. For one thing, automation systems are now primarily software based. They still control the same type of equipment the hardware-based systems controlled, but they have introduced new flexibility and capabilities to the automated process. And many of those new capabilities are a result of video servers' handling content as files. For example, in automating the handling of incoming feeds, it's much easier to move content as files throughout a facility or to provide access to it for multiple users at the same time.

In addition, both the manufacturer design teams and the end user have more flexibility in customizing the system, whether the look of the interface or how the system works. But they also are under more pressure because more flexibility usually means more complexity.

"Automation is no longer just the traffic system talking to an Odetics system loaded with VTRs," says Michael Koetner, BBC Technology North America vice president of technology. "Servers, nonlinear editing systems, archives, and operator-assisted or scheduled playout on different video server systems are all part of it. And there also needs to be a lot of integration with legacy systems."

Integration is critical, DeVaney notes. Unfortunately, for automation manufacturers, it sometimes means being held captive by the limitations of the software on the controlled device. Such limitations can easily result in unhappy customers, whose automation vision may need to be scaled back, as well as more heat on the vendor. After all, says one vendor, when in doubt, the station will blame the automation system.

Probably the biggest change in the development of automation systems is the increasing move to more-modular products. An investment in an automation system no longer has to be an expensive, facility-wide deployment. Ingest, playback, archiving and monitoring are areas that can be served with specific modules.

For example, in Crispin's modular lineup, RapidPrep is used to record satellite feeds and mark segments. NewsPlayX is a live news-playback system that works with newsroom systems such as Avid iNews, AvStar and AP's ENPS. ClipCopX provides clip transfer between Fibre Channel or other servers and also works with Crispin's Archive Manager. The key to all of them, DeVaney says, is the company's database, an AssetBase NT server operating system with a SQL 2000 server ported to MySQL for Linux.

"It saves the user thousands of dollars and allows them to add additional users to the database," he says. "It offers an opportunity to save dollars while, more importantly, offering stability."

The modular approach also makes it easier for manufacturers to update and improve their product offerings. Omnibus Systems Vice President, Technology, John Wadle says that individual components can be rolled out as they're completed and used as a standalone product or in conjunction with existing products. "Users no longer have to wait for the whole thing to be done."

An example is the Omnibus G3 system. Based on the Microsoft .Net framework, it includes TX>Play, for handling ingest, media management and scheduling, and the Headline Media Editor, which is designed to help journalists edit stories and get them ready for air.

Wadle describes G3 as a "micro-module" approach. "The G3 system's controls are distributed machine-control services that have virtual panels on the desktop. The components include small single-button or slider control interfaces, which can be customized to the users' needs. If they don't want the control, it can be left off the control panel."

Such flexibility, he adds, is a result of working with .Net. "That's one of the things we've gotten great reaction to from customers: the dynamic desktop-building capability of selecting tiny components and assembling them into displays to interact with underlying services that are there."

Omnibus is currently rolling out the first version of G3 Headline Editor and G3 controls that are basically distributed machine-control services. The other components will be available by the end of the year, Wadle says, and a multichannel G3 version of the company's Colossus automation system will be available later this year.

The modular approach also allows the system to be expanded or updated without interrupting daily operation. And that helps feed the bottom line, the goal of any automation-system deployment.

"Stations and station groups need more-sophisticated automation platforms to maximize their revenue streams," says John Price, director of product management for Digital Transaction Group.

Digital Transaction Group's Airo automation system includes Delivery Manager and Content Manager modules. One of its features is a user-configurable window that graphically depicts the timeline. It provides information on all planned program and spot events, including logo generators, keyers and character generators, and GPIs. It also features drag-and-drop control for all the events.

The Airo's approach to database architecture is to distribute synchronized copies of the database throughout the facility's LAN/WAN. Digital Transaction Group believes that such an approach ensures uninterrupted operation even if a node fails.

A modular approach requires the broadcaster to clearly map out specifications for the automation system. Any broadcaster that really wants to put in a good system, observes Florical Systems President and founder Jim Moneyhun, needs to meet at least three times with the manufacturer.

And it's not just the broadcaster's engineering team that needs to be involved. "The traffic, accounting and even the sales departments need to analyze what they're getting into," he says. "To have the engineers making the decision by themselves will short-change the station."

The station also needs to make sure the system has the capabilities required. Moneyhun notes that most systems are built around the station's playlist and don't provide a tremendous amount of control over content. But Florical's software moves material vertically into a station's archive system and caches and horizontally into other areas of the facility, such as editing and playout.

"We also have a countdown counter that operators love because it will let them know that they have, for example, 32 hours until something that is missing needs to go to air," Moneyhun adds. "They don't need to look through every channel or have a master overview of the entire facility."

In the end, in purchasing an automation system, the station needs to decide how it wants to impact workflow. "Today, it's impossible to distinguish automation from workflow and to extract automation from production and media management," says Koetner.

BBC Technology's Colledia Control system, for example, uses either touch screens or hardware panels to interface with the other equipment in a facility. And the company's Workflow platform allows access of all content, metadata and production tools from a single desktop.

"Stations are getting around the limitations of baseband video networks by moving video over IP," says Koetner. "And that also is changing the way people are automating their workflow."