Skip to main content

A Key Role in the Digital Transition

In their effort to meet the federal mandate for digital television, broadcasters are building digital transmission paths to augment and replace their traditional analog signals. But broadcasters' intent to continue operating in an analog model rather than fully developing a purely digital concept points to a failure of leadership and innovation in this critical transition. Moreover, it fails to comply with the FCC mandate to exchange the free allocation of frequencies, worth billions of dollars, for better content.

The transition to digital primarily consists of installing conversion equipment and encoders to create a parallel digital transmission path from legacy analog infrastructure. Organizations are replacing analog components with digital equipment, but the concepts, architectures and workflow models remain analog, missing the most important aspect of the digital innovation. They fail to take full advantage of the benefits that the digital environment allows and see little return on investment outside the provision of a digital transmission solution.

No number of digital point solutions will change analog concepts, nor will they provide digital television. Furthermore, the analog workflow processes and architectures that will stay in place will limit future injection of evolutionary technology. This lack of leadership will burden consumers by as much as $100 billion without providing the viewer better and richer content as promised.

Investment in digital conversion must begin far upstream of the transmission chain, and the investment must be more than a monetary one. To meet the longer-term goals of digital content creation and delivery of the content via emerging provision platforms, broadcasters and producers must change the way they work. Workflow in the digital realm is very different from its linear, analog counterpart, and the differences present important opportunities for broadcasters to recoup operating costs while producing a better product for existing and emerging delivery platforms.

While digital underpinnings are the enabling factor, technology is not the driving force for change. Instead, changing the way people work and work together is. Updating production operations to digital requires adoption of new processes and methodologies and improving workflow throughout the production process.

The ubiquity of the content is the Atlas of workflow improvements. Application of digital technology yields unprecedented ease and cost-effectiveness in acquiring, processing, producing and transmitting material. It allows news and production operations to share content in a manner previously unachievable in analog systems. Content creation is no longer a linear process requiring human or automated-machine labor. The si- multaneous creation of multiple data rates and compression formats for incoming material is the keystone for multiplying effort and consolidating roles within the production process.

Non-contemporaneous multicasting of content becomes possible among and between broadcast groups and newsrooms. Likewise, intelligent newsroom information systems allow the content to be edited not only for television but also for the Web and other delivery platforms.

None of this can be achieved, however, without rethinking, developing and changing the workflow processes to reflect and unlock the potential of the new technology. The mandate will be met only when this is done—and so far broadcasters are failing.

Considerable sums of money are spent today to improve and digitize archives. Yet the most important aspect of exploiting such archives, to generate better and richer content and provide a multidimensional perspective, has not been realized because archives are still treated and processed with old analog concepts. Unless their exploitation is included in new workflow concepts, nothing will change for the viewer, and the broadcaster will have failed to generate precious revenue from an existing asset.

A digital workflow concept must ease and simplify the work of the end user and streamline the process. This will ease the way producers and journalists become multi-skilled, as adept at writing a script as editing or producing content for any number of different delivery devices. Ultimately, they will build branched content, augmented with additional information and media to provide a more fulfilling experience to the viewer.

The first step in establishing a new workflow begins with defining the new digital environment in which the broadcaster intends to operate. It is important to begin with the unique definition and assignment of operations, functions, roles and missions and not focus on the technology and its application.

The analysis of the requirements will lead to production workflow design and should include the identification of required resources, including the number of people engaged in the process. Menial, repetitive tasks that rob efficiency and dead-ends that limit producers to one task should be eliminated. Rate-determining steps prevalent within analog linear processes, such as sharing a single videotape among producers, writers and editors, must not exist in the new digital environment.

Any workflow design must include a return-on-investment model. In determining the amount of operating funds to be recovered by the substantial capital investment, both the tangible and intangible savings must be carefully considered.

Tangible savings include reduction of the workforce, elimination of videotape, and time recovered during the production process. Intangible savings represent recovery of opportunity costs normally associated with analog systems. For example, there is, in the face of burgeoning Internet and interactive-television technologies, a need to expand businesses to create and deliver new, branched content. The staffing for business expansion is provided from current staffing levels. Displacement of menial and repetitive tasks and sharing of resources free talented personnel to build the new businesses.

Instituting and managing change is difficult at best, but, if done with careful consideration of the human element, calculated introduction of the technology and thorough training, it can be done successfully. One key is to introduce the workflow changes before introducing new technologies. This allows for adjusting the original design and verification and validation of the workflow prior to committing to a specific technology.

Find and capitalize on accepted conventions in the current workflow that producers will recognize. Re-establishing these familiar and critical touchstones will ease the transition by keeping portions of the workflow recognizable.

Technology changes without introduction of the new workflow can confuse and frustrate the workforce. The production staff will quickly find a way to work around the technology, sliding back into the old workflows, negating the design and investment.

The obsolete concept of systems integration in analog systems consisting of "pulling together" already acquired com- ponents has been a serious limiting factor in today's analog systems and must be replaced by true systems engineering.

True systems-engineering processes must be introduced to develop a blueprint that conforms to the operational requirements of reasonably available and scalable technology. This process yields evolutionary systems that allow growth options and workflow improvements as advanced technology becomes available and do not become obsolete with the next wave of technology.

Unfortunately, this obsolete systems-integration process is prevalent today within broadcasters that claim to be meeting the digital-television mandate.

Asset exploitation, more than asset management, should be the goal in order to reduce operating costs for production (thus achieving the return on the investment for digital transition), simplify the production process, consolidate production resources, and provide new toolsets for creating higher-quality, more compelling programming.

Careful introduction of the workflow followed by measured injection of the technology will empower producers to review more material, share the resources, and create more-varied, higher-quality content and, eventually, new forms of news and entertainment for viewers hungry for interactive fare.

Digital and high-definition television opens new horizons in content and capabilities for both the viewer and broadcasters. Only the adoption of a true, uncompromised digital workflow will achieve that. So far, most broadcasters have failed to embrace the concept, and this promises to put a heavy and undue burden on the viewer in the future.