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The New ABCs of News Automation

The network news business and the production automation industry passed a major milestone together recently. ABC completed a lengthy, 17-month process to automate the production of ABC World News With Diane Sawyer and several other newscasts.

The upgrade is notable not only because ABC was the first national broadcast network to automate its nightly newscast. The project also illustrates how the rationale for automation is shifting from the concept of reducing staff, to one where the technology itself can be seen as a way to improve the quality of news programming and gathering.

“It was part of our efforts to put more control into the hands of the creatives and look closely at how we can do things smartly behind the scenes to make ABC News look great,” explains Todd Donovan, vice president, technology and operations, ABC Television Network.

No staff cuts accompanied the phased launch of the automated control room between April and the end of July, he adds.

The move will streamline the workflow for creating news programming and then allow all the elements of the show to be played out automatically during newscasts without manual cues.

The broadcast news operations have been reluctant to automate, citing the idea that automation systems could not provide the functionality needed for their complex, high-profile newscasts.

Not surprisingly, ABC approached the upgrade very cautiously, with a team of about 10 staffers spending six months evaluating various systems. After settling on the Ross Video Over- Drive automation production control system with a Ross Vision 4 switcher, work started on the project just after Labor Day last year.

As part of the overall automation and HD upgrade to the control room, engineers installed a new Calrec audio board and Omneon servers as well as a new HyperX graphics system and Camio order management system from Chyron.

They also upgraded the Avid iNews newsroom computer system so it was closely integrated into the new automation product. The staff was already familiar with the iNews system, so that made training easier, Donovan says.

In April, ABC’s overnight newscasts were the first to use the automated control room. Nightline and the weekend edition of ABCWorld News With David Muir, followed. On July 20, ABC World News With Diane Sawyer made the transition without a hitch.

Viewers wouldn’t notice any change in the look of the programs, but the automation system significantly improved the workflow and newsgathering ability, notes Renu Thomas, vice president of news operations at ABC News.

“It allows for much stronger news teams and better communications as they are putting the program together throughout the day,” she notes. “It is not so much a technology change as a culture change.”

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