With nearly every corporation in the industry consumed with cutting costs and headcounts, it comes as little surprise that automation technologies continue to gain presence in local, network and cable TV newsrooms. Given the very nature of newsgathering, which requires personnel in the field reporting and filing stories, any advantage that frees up more folks for gathering news is attractive.
"It's no big surprise that one of the recurring themes in the area of newsroom automation is doing more with less," says Dave Polyard, OmniBus Systems vice president, sales and marketing. "There are a lot of reasons why stations are programming more news." Among them: consolidation, regulatory changes, agreements with other stations in the market, cable inserts, and regional or national hub-based content-sharing consortiums, or centralcasting.
One of the profound changes the average newsroom faces is the challenge of creating and managing multiple streams of news content. First, there are the demands of a station's own market; then, there are the demands of stations in other markets that may repackage a story. For both, news managers face a conundrum: Create more programming while also cutting budgets, with the biggest cuts in most shops involving labor.
Typical automation needs include tying a station's newsroom system in more closely with nonlinear editing systems, graphics systems and video servers that store the content. Those new technologies pose two challenges: one financial, one technical.
Avid Broadcast Director Dave Schleifer believes that product pricing is helping companies meet the financial pressures. "Solutions are now so affordable," he says, "that this hurdle has been erased."
The hardest obstacles to overcome, he suggests, are often cultural. The systems are inherently different from what people are using today, and some people try to rebuild what they have instead of embracing different ways of working.
For stations that aren't looking to change their workflow, simpler approaches to automation are an answer. According to Com-prompter President Ralph King, a good system reduces costs by automating the captioning, stillstores and character generation (CG). It also improves the on-air look by forcing a continuity and creation of a standard "look" by always cueing the correct next event (video, still, CG, etc.) for the director to take to air and hold at his or her discretion. And, he says, a good automation system will increase newscast options and flexibility during a show by providing accurate back and out times.
Control of multiple devices, such as VTRs and servers, is considered by manufacturers the easiest to automate. Feed recording is also fairly easy to accomplish, according to Ian Bowker, Thomson Broadcast & Multimedia director, program management for news solutions. His company's FeedClip system is designed to do just that.
Where automation gets tricky, he says, is in the writing and editing process, where there is no substitute for flesh-and-blood control.
"While it's true in some situations that an automated newsroom system requires less people to operate it, we're finding that most of the stations converting to an automated system are doing so to beat the competition in getting stories to air faster," he says. "Jobs are not always cut in this type of situation. Most times, employees are retained to do other tasks related to a computerized newsroom."
Trevor Francis, business manager, news and sports, for Quantel, considers playout automation the most difficult because it requires communication and cooperation between as many as four sources: the newsroom system, automation product, server and router.
Quantel's generationQ is intended to short-circuit all this, he says, by handling the automation and routing in playout. GenerationQ comprises newsroom editing applications based on a common interface that runs on the company's sQ server architecture.
Like Quantel, Avid has been expending a large amount of effort in defining the relationship between the components. Although the company offers many of the components itself, Schleifer says, its equipment is also compatible with gear from other manufacturers, thanks to its use of APIs and industry standards.
"The most difficult points to integrate are points where components need guaranteed performance, either in raw bandwidth, like shared storage, or in metadata consistency, as with an asset-management system," he says. "We have seen many assumptions about raw bandwidth and client requirements break down in real-world implementations. The end result is that the overall system can't deliver guaranteed performance."
Much of that performance demand falls on the newsroom computer system and its ability to integrate with other components. Mike Palmer, AP director of broadcast digital distribution systems and strategy, says that legacy editing and other craft-related products require companies to embrace integration and interoperability. At AP, that means MOS, or Media Object Server, protocol.
"MOS is the behind-the-scenes mechanism which allows us to efficiently work with the entire large and diverse group of MOS vendors to provide seamless editorial and production workflow," Palmer says. The recently released version of ENPS 4.0 and ENPS DNA (Dynamic News Architecture) program, he points out, are designed to help make newsrooms more efficient in getting news content to air.
"Even with the system running automatically, a producer can easily pause the system from his or her desktop so that breaking news can be covered live. And, since everything other than the breaking news is automated, everyone can then work on the breaking news as it happens, knowing that, when the live reporting is done, the system goes right back into automation mode."
At the end of the day, the broadcast facility considering newsroom automation needs to balance the risk of compromising the on-air product vs. the rewards of cost savings. Automation systems can help get a story to air more quickly, but it also requires a greater effort to maintain the local look of a station. But today's tools greatly reduce the risks.
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