More Pipes, Fewer People

Broadcast news operations today are facing disparate challenges. They need to figure out how to evolve their standard-definition newscasts to high-definition, while also expanding their Websites with more low-resolution video and original content. And they are doing so under extreme competitive pressure and, in most cases, tight budgets.

One way to make multi-platform production easier is to work in the file-based domain, which helps speed production and makes it easier to repurpose content.

The big drivers for file-based workflows are the continually decreasing cost of server storage, as the price of hard disk falls; the creation of nonlinear editing software that can run on a laptop and thus allow more editing to be performed in the field; and the adoption of tapeless camcorders like Panasonic's P2 and Sony's XDCAM.

Improvements in newsroom computer systems like Avid's iNews and AP's ENPS, which journalists use to coordinate the newscast and produce scripts, are also letting producers and reporters perform video editing on their own and quickly repurpose content for the Web. Similar efficiencies are found in template-based graphics systems from vendors like Vizrt and Miranda, which allow producers and reporters to create simple graphics, such as lower-thirds and over-the-shoulders, through their desktop PCs. And device automation systems like Thomson Grass Valley's Ignite and Ross Video's OverDrive allow software to replace people for certain newscast functions, so managers can cut staffs or reassign personnel.

Working both sides

“Create once, distribute many times” is the biggest trend among Avid Technology's television customers, says Johnathon Howard, Avid director of broadcast and media publishing. While Avid continues to pursue new efficiencies in traditional broadcast production, Howard says, “It's now a fact of life that we have to create in these new mediums at the same time they're creating traditional content. This need is happening now, and five years from now, it will be the complete norm.”

So Avid is trying to take each step in the news production workflow and make it more efficient by bringing it “upstream,” Howard says. For example, if a producer writes a story for the TV newscast in Avid's iNews newsroom computer system and tries to translate that text directly to a Web page, chances are it's not going to work properly, because broadcasters work in capital letters in iNews. So it needs to be reformatted for the Web.

Avid's Active ContentManager software aggregates assets from different elements of the newscast, including video, audio, graphics and text, and tries to automate the process of repurposing that content for the Web or mobile platforms. One example, according to Howard, is the ability to preview how video might look on a mobile phone before sending it out.

While neither Avid nor its editing archrival Apple will be exhibiting at NAB next month, Harris Broadcast will be there with NewsForce, a server-based system that features tight integration with Apple's popular Final Cut Pro editing system. NewsForce, which stores content on Harris' Nexio shared architecture, also includes a family of Harris-built editors including NewsForce ES, NewsForce Desktop, NewsForce XNG, and Harris' existing Velocity NX promotions/craft-style editor.

Thomson Grass Valley will show the latest version of its Edius Broadcast nonlinear editor, which has gained popularity as both part of Grass Valley's Aurora server-based digital newsroom system and as an editing front-end to BitCentral's cost-effective Precis content servers. Edius is being rolled out across the NBC Station Group, primarily also on laptops.

Edius Version 4.6 has new functionality based on the JPEG 2000 compression codec used in Thomson's Infinity tapeless camcorder, allowing multi-layer editing of HD content, and an improved workflow for Sony's XDCAM format, which supports the XDCAM EX line of flash-memory-based camcorders. Thomson says it's the first nonlinear editor to utilize Sony's Simple Access Mode (SAM), which allows low-resolution video to be used in conjunction with high-resolution audio.

Thomson Grass Valley has launched 10 large news projects in the last 90 days. “From an editing perspective, the adoption of file-based workflows in the newsroom, and high-definition, is definitely on the upswing,” says senior VP Jeff Rosica.

Thomson is seeing continued growth for Ignite, an automated news-production system that uses software to remotely control studio cameras, switchers, character generators and other devices integral to a live newscast. It has sold more than 70 Ignite systems, with over 50 currently deployed, including a number at ABC, Cox, Meredith and Media General stations.

Ignite can reduce the staff required for an average large-market newscast from 10 people to just a few. Thomson has pitched it as a way to launch HD newscasts by taking the money saved on labor costs and investing it in new HD production gear. All five of the Media General stations to launch HD news so far are using Ignite to control their newscasts, says Ardell Hill, Media General senior VP of broadcast operations, and have been able to cut staff from seven employees to an average of two or three.

Head-count reductions aren't the only saving with Ignite, Rosica says; putting in a traditional high-definition control room could cost up to twice as much as an Ignite installation, which starts at a few hundred thousand dollars and can ramp up to $1 million. Hill acknowledges this, noting that to go HD, Media General had to invest in new HD production switchers and related gear anyway.

'Two birds with one stone'

“Ignite kills two birds with one stone,” says Hill, who adds that Media General is also standardizing on Grass Valley's file-based editing systems.

Ignite's new features include enhanced automation capabilities to speed up the process of entering production data, several digital audio options, facial-tracking technology for Thomson's complementary robotic camera systems, and the ability for existing Kayak switcher users to take advantage of Ignite's automated production capabilities in a new version called Ignite Lite.

Ignite's chief competitor, Ross OverDrive, is now installed at more than 75 stations, including NBC-owned outlets in Burbank, Dallas, Chicago and Miami. New features for OverDrive, which is based on Ross' Synergy switcher, include additional MOS (Media Object Server protocol) integration with leading servers and graphics systems. Ross is now also shipping sideCar, a compact control panel for OverDrive that includes finger-tip control of audio consoles and a joystick for camera control.

About 80% of current OverDrive sales are HD. WRGB, the Freedom Communications station and CBS affiliate in Albany, N.Y., used OverDrive to launch hi-def newscasts in January for both itself and sister station WCWN, a CW affiliate.

While WRGB hasn't had any technical issues with OverDrive, NBC-owned WMAQ Chicago had a software problem controlling an Avid Deko graphics device that Ross has addressed. Ross Video product manager Brad Rochon notes that OverDrive's built-in backup systems mean that a software hiccup doesn't mean a station's newscast goes to black.

In the end, it's cost savings that matter. “With a lot of groups there's been consolidation, and stations are not owned by traditional media companies anymore; they're owned by large financial companies and investment institutions,” says Rochon. “It's not your grandfather's broadcasting anymore, and these people are looking to squeeze every last cent out of these facilities.”