Control Rooms on Auto-Pilot

Computers haven’t completely taken over the running of TV stations, but they’re getting closer.

With more and more stations moving their entire video-ingest, -storage and -playout chain to file-based operation, automation software is spreading its reach throughout broadcast plants.

Automation vendors say their systems are interfacing better with traffic and sales systems, allowing management to take a more analytical look at their existing businesses.

It’s also helping them cost-effectively launch services such as multicast digital television (DTV) channels.

Some vendors have developed “station-in-a-box” systems that use smart software and off-the-shelf hardware to handle basic master-control functions, bringing them into competition with traditional video-server vendors.

Stations are moving away from proprietary broadcast technology to open-standard, IT-based systems, says Rich Hill, principal consultant with system-design and integration firm National Teleconsultants, Glendale, Calif.

“The whole automation playout business is going the way editing went,” says Hill. “It’s going to desktops and PC-based applications. We used to get paid a lot of money to put together rooms full of equipment to do editing; we don’t get paid to do that anymore. Instead of dealing with a whole bunch of boxes, people pick a software platform and build a playout system around that.”

Hill notes that the tape-based model for handling commercials, for example, was labor-intensive. Tapes were received via mail and then physically dubbed onto a “break reel” facilitating commercial insertion. Now commercials are delivered via satellite as digital files to cache servers from DG Systems and Pathfire (currently merging) and can be automatically transferred onto playout servers, with the only operator intervention a quality- assurance check.

“The handling of physical media becomes a whole lot less,” says Hill. “Some of the latest playout systems are using software codecs, so you don’t even have to worry about transcoding those files. Just stack it in the playlist. So there is not the workflow issue of transforming that stuff.”

Crispin Automation, Durham, N.C., is one of several automation vendors working to create a seamless link between cache servers that ingest commercials and syndicated content and stations’ main playout servers. Many stations have used second-party transcoding software from vendors like Telestream to modify the compressed files on a DG or Pathfire box so that they work with the flavors of MPEG-2 used by playout servers from Omneon or Grass Valley. But Crispin has developed Digital Transfer Agent, which interfaces directly with cache servers, removes generic files, and adds the proprietary “wrappers” required by playout servers.

“Accountability Issue”

Digital Transfer Agent addresses what Crispin founder/President Alan DeVaney calls the “accountability issue” that all automation vendors face: “If the file didn’t get transferred properly, it’s on me.” Crispin continues to try to streamline the entire master-control workflow, he says, “and put it under one hat, to minimize the number of secondary solutions that are required.”

The widespread use of cache servers for file-based commercial delivery has helped spur the development of the Broadcast Exchange Format (BXF), which is designed to allow traffic systems to dynamically update automation software through the XML data-interchange standard. Harris, Pathfire, Sundance and VCI (which sells both traffic and automation software since acquiring Digital Transaction Group last year), are some of the key vendors driving BXF through SMPTE’s S22-10 Metadata Exchange Working Group. Some 70 vendors in total have been involved in the three-year project, which is expected to yield a formal standard later this year.

“BXF has been the culmination of a significant effort by companies that are all focused on removing the barriers of communication between their respective systems and gaining efficiencies as a result,” says Jamie Meyer, automation division manager for VCI, who originally joined the BXF working group while at Pathfire.

BXF could deliver what Meyer calls the “holy land” of dynamically scheduling new spots while live on-air, by providing a seamless metadata exchange between automation and traffic software. But more than that, BXF represents a way to troubleshoot problems, Meyer says, “without having to get out a secret decoder ring to work on proprietary protocols.”

BXF also addresses program-management systems, says Sundance Product Manager Rick Stora: “What BXF is really about is making everything that goes on today more efficient.”

Candy Helgerson, director of product marketing for Harris software systems, says that BXF should help stations shift their sales model to selling more targeted and/or dynamically updated advertising through their digital channels.

“The potential is quite broad,” says Helgerson. “One of the trends in media is a need to react quicker and put the world in a more synchronized transaction environment. It used to be that automation comes back to the bridge: Here’s an automated file, here’s your playlist, and don’t touch me again. But when you start to talk about new business models, that advertising model doesn’t hold true anymore. If you’re looking at targeted ads, and ads that need to go in a short-term–type method, you need to synchronize your sales, automation and other distribution systems.”

She notes that Harris has been trying to achieve that goal with its H-Class Content Delivery Platform, uniting its automation, sales and traffic technologies within a unified software suite.

“Centralcasting,” using fiber optic links to connect multiple stations to a centralized master control, was a big automation trend six or seven years ago. But vendors say there aren’t many station groups adopting the strategy today, which could be partially attributed to the rash of station swaps over the past six months.

“The question is, who to centralcast with right now?” says Stora. “It might come back, if things come down a bit.”

While the initial capital investment required for centralcasting doesn’t make sense for many station groups, particularly those unsure of their long-term plans, some groups are looking to remotely monitor and control many functions without investing in expensive fiber links by using IP-based control interfaces. Shawn Maynard, VP/general manager for Gainesville, Fla.-based Florical Systems, calls such an approach “hybrid-casting.”

Remote Control

“It’s a new concept in the industry,” says Maynard. “You can decentralize individual master controls and run the business in an old-fashioned way, but at certain times of the day, say 12-5 a.m., you can log in and manage it remotely.”

In that vein, Florical has developed S.M.A.R.T. (System Managing And Reporting Tool) Central, a Web-based gateway into its AirBoss automation system. It allows users to log in and based on their unique user rights, monitor and control any individual channel, make edits to schedules, create orders for long-form acquisition, perform SQL Server database management and retrieve reports for management review. Florical has also partnered with Thomson Grass Valley to use its NetCentral SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol) product to remotely monitor its automation software.

Another company capitalizing on the hybrid-casting trend is monitoring supplier Volicon, whose Observer product allows station groups like Raycom to monitor all of their stations through a single Web-based interface at any location. Observer provides exception-based monitoring and also creates a low-resolution archive to help solve compliance and verification questions, like whether a profanity was uttered or a spot ran as scheduled.

“A number of groups are looking at how they monitor remote stations,” says Russell Wise, Volicon VP of worldwide sales. “Many of these stations 'run dark,’ with very few people, particularly at night. They need some way to look at the signal.”

“Multicasting” was a buzz-word among automation vendors in the late 1990s. But with almost every station in 2007 offering at least an analog and DTV channel, and secondary local weather and news channels becoming commonplace, the ability to support multicasting is taken for granted.

“I don’t know if I could identify a facility with just one channel anymore,” says Sundance’s Stora.

Of course, many of the new multicast channels come with an uncertain revenue model, which means that stations want to launch them with the smallest capital investment possible. Several automation vendors are trying to meet that demand by creating “station-in-a-box systems” that promise the power of a full master control operation in a compact, IT-based system.

Low-cost Solutions

Harris, which also makes full-fledged video servers, introduced Channel One last spring as a low-cost solution for launching channels. Graphics and monitoring supplier Miranda introduced its Xstation unit last year. One of the leaders in this trend is OmniBus Systems, a traditional automation vendor that entered the playout- server market last year with its iTX, a software-based system designed to act as a video server, master control, and graphics and logo inserter with automation, ingest, editing and content management built in.

Starting at $40,000, iTX has found early favor with IPTV channels, mobile-TV providers and Internet-TV efforts, says OmniBus CEO Mike Oldham. But he expects call-letter stations to come around quickly, both as they launch secondary DTV channels and as more and more private-equity firms snap up stations and start streamlining operations. In his discussions with private-equity players, Oldham has found them to be far more open to IT-based solutions than traditional broadcast engineers.

“The private-equity guys just look at you like you’re crazy when you talk about very complex, proprietary solutions that have to be stitched together in very complex systems,” says Oldham. “Their whole business is about driving the cost down and leveraging off-the-shelf IT equipment.”

One startup programmer that is relying on a “station-in-a-box” solution is LATV, the Hispanic-focused bilingual music/entertainment network that is carried as a digital multicast channel by some 27 stations nationwide, including a number of Post-Newsweek stations. LATV launched in only 2½ months using Miranda’s Xstation product in conjunction with Broadview program-management and traffic software.

The economic proposition of Xstation made sense, says LATV President/COO Howard Bolter, particularly since he was already sold on Miranda’s Vertigo branding system, integrated into Xstation. But though happy with the Miranda system, he cautions that new programmers shouldn’t expect to just plug a “station-in-a-box” into an electrical outlet and start pumping out programming.

“What we learned quickly is that everybody’s station-in-a-box requires you to have a fairly robust infrastructure,” says Bolter. “You’re not getting everything; you’re only getting a few pieces. There’s enough of the basic intelligence you need to get it done, but you still have to go purchase a whole bunch of infrastructure to make it work. You still need all the routing, ingest and encoding equipment, all the other elements that it takes to operate a channel.”