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Controlling the news

It wasn't too long ago that discussions of automation in the newsroom meant cameras on robotic pedestals. But the video server and digital newsroom have added much complexity to that discussion, and journalists at a PC desktop can have more control over the news department than was dreamed possible 10 years ago.

In fact, it could be said that the newsroom is changing the definition of automation. Automated graphic systems based on templates filled in by the journalist, video servers that automatically handle ingest of news feeds and satellite-delivered material, instant access to the playlist: They all give new meaning to the concept.

Newsroom automation is also allowing creation of systems designed specifically for news demands.

Sundance Digital's NewsLink, for example, fully integrates MOS-compliant newsroom computers with video servers, editors and graphic devices, according to Fred Schultz, vice president of news automation. "It boosts efficiency of the director or technical director with a single interface that unifies control over all media devices."

Graphics company VertigoXmedia has been heavily involved in the Time Warner Cable 24-hour news operations, working closely with the Omnibus automation systems and AP's Electronic News Production System (ENPS).

VertigoXmedia President David Wilkins expects that the "next big thing" will be to allow users to collaborate on news production, eliminating the quasi-linear production processes in place in most stations today: "linking news-story creation, news-graphics creation and delivery so that anyone in the production chain can access information."

There are still gaps between equipment vendors, he notes, adding that Vertigo's technology is designed to bridge those gaps. "We can read stories in the AP ENPS newsroom system, add graphics components, save in a central server, and play out those same graphics on-air using Omnibus's automation system."

Omnibus Systems has worked closely with AP's MOS protocol. Chief technology officer Ian Fletcher points out that the pressure on a system handling news automation is much greater than, say, on an on-air system handling automation for a two-hour movie. With hundreds of items of content created and constant changes, the MOS protocol, he says, has made news automation possible. Giving journalists control over the creative content, graphics and everything else that goes on-air requires that all elements go through the newsroom system.

Master control has typically handed on-air control to the news team at news time, and that continues with automated systems, says ParkerVision Vice President of Business Development Matt Danilowicz. "I think the situation may be more complex where station groups are looking to coordinate the actions of their different properties remotely. But," he adds, "automating the newscast is still mostly a local phenomenon."

As elsewhere, automation in news is almost always justified on the grounds of effect on the bottom-line. Danilowicz says it has invariably delivered both more and less than bargained for in the newsroom.

"When the networks first purchased newsroom computers, they justified them to their accountants as a means to reduce personnel costs," he explains. "In fact, very few journalists ever lost their jobs to newsroom computers, though, of course, the intangible benefits of the investment were enormous."

ParkerVision's next advances will have much to do with refining and enhancing the experience of the operator in the control room, Danilowicz says. "The PVTV user interface continues to evolve to make it easier to implement late-breaking changes and to provide an ever-tighter linkage with the producer rundown."

Automation also may blend the role of producers and directors, he suggests. "Some stations will see potential to collapse the producer/director role, while others will see value in retaining the separation."

News-department automation may come down to how best serve the viewers: Is it with more technical staff or more journalists and ENG crews in the streets looking for stories? "By reducing the cost and complexity of putting the show on-air," says Danilowicz, "stations can redirect their resources towards the aspects of their business that matter most to their audience: more local coverage, more feet on the street."

Consolidation also is driving automation grown, he adds, noting that ParkerVision has seen more regional groups going national, and larger groups getting larger. "If groups begin to operate more like networks by sharing more and more of their content, there will be ever more demand for control-room automation systems, newsroom systems and program automation systems to be able to interoperate across multiple properties at once."

It also may require a larger staff instead of smaller because the complexity of supporting that infrastructure could strain current staffing. And that could make justifying more automation tricky in the current environment. "Even the most respected leaders in the TV news business have been cautious about making such investments," Danilowicz notes.

Combining server and networking technology with control-room automation changes the equation, he adds. "For example, playing back video for the newscast using PVTV and tape decks still requires an operator to load tapes. Playing back video for the newscast using just a video server still requires an operator to trigger the server playback. But automation and servers in combination," he notes, "perform the work of someone solely dedicated to this function."

Despite the promise, VertigoXmedia's Wilkins sees a definite need for better ways to interconnect the various systems in a news facility. "The MOS protocol has solved part of the communication issues, but there is still room for improvement. For example, our Producer Xmedia platform uses XML-based templates to link the various steps in the production workflow. Our goal is to make the technical complexities associated with creating and sharing content between disparate systems transparent to the end-user."