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In News, Money Talks

Amidst increased competition for advertising revenues and an unstable ownership environment, the one constant that remains for local broadcasters is that news still fills a station's cash register more reliably than any other type of programming.

So any piece of technology that allows stations to produce more and/or better news content without raising costs is worth exploring.

Vendors are trying to help stations juggle the myriad requirements of 21st century news production—upgrading to high-definition, breaking news on their Websites and delivering video to new broadband and mobile platforms—with software-based systems that promise greater automation, both during the creation of news segments and in the airing of the newscast itself.

The overarching goal: to do more with less.

As broadcasters are finally abandoning linear tape for file-based content acquisition, ingest, editing and storage, the onetime dream of digital news production is now becoming reality, says Johnathan Howard, director of on air product management for Avid Technology,

“There is an opportunity to be much more efficient in news production now that we are moving to a complete nonlinear workflow,” says Howard. “Now that we're dealing with video as files, and as standards are starting to get more formalized, it's easier to control multiple things at one time.”

And that's the goal.

A heavier level of automation

Avid, which makes nonlinear editing systems for cutting stories, newsroom computer systems for coordinating the newscast and producing scripts, and video servers for storing and playing back content, has developed iNews Command, an add-on to its popular iNews newsroom computer system, to automate control over news playout devices such as video servers, still stores, and character generators. Formally introduced in March, iNews Command is designed for interoperability and will trigger playout events from rundowns generated by any MOS [Media Object Server]-enabled newsroom playlist, says Avid; by year-end it will even be integrated with AP's rival ENPS Electronic Newsroom Production System (ENPS) platform.

Other vendors are pushing a heavier level of automation by using software to remotely control studio cameras, switchers, character generators and other devices integral to a live newscast.

These production automation systems, such as Ross Video's OverDrive or Thomson Grass Valley's Ignite, can reduce the staff required for an average large-market newscast from 10 people to as little as three, allowing stations to either shift staffers for new media production or simply reduce headcount. In some cases, the reduction in labor expenses can free up money needed to invest in new cameras and other production gear needed to launch HD newscasts.

Ross Video is finding a growing acceptance for OverDrive, which is based on the company's Synergy production switcher and interfaces to robotic camera heads, servers and graphics devices from various third-party manufacturers. The system is now on-air at over 60 stations and Ross is working to actively install it at another 15 to 20. OverDrive adopters include the NBC Station Group, which announced at the NAB show last April that it would be rolling out OverDrive to support high-definition production at several NBC O&Os and Telemundo stations, as well as Barrington Broadcasting and Freedom Communications.

With news generating about half of a station's revenue, reducing the expenses associated with airing newscasts is of significant economic value to a station, says Ross Video product manager Brad Rochon.

“The technology is definitely being accepted,” says Rochon. “It's now in the mainstream, and it's ramping up pretty quickly. Every major news organization in North America is actively looking at the technology, if not adopting it.”

OverDrive makes improvements

New developments for OverDrive include better integration with MOS-based graphics and server control systems and a small “Sidecar” control panel that includes finger-tip control of audio consoles and a joystick for camera control.

The installation and training cycle to implement OverDrive is typically three to four weeks, though large-market stations take longer simply because there are more staffers to train. NBC's OverDrive rollout is going well, says Rochon; its stations in Los Angeles and Dallas are already doing rehearsals and will probably be online next month. Stations in Miami and Chicago should launch OverDrive later this fall.

Because it is based on a client-server architecture that runs a flexible number of applications over a local-area-network, OverDrive can be tailored to the needs of different-sized stations or different newscasts throughout the day.

While the headcount reductions possible through implementing OverDrive vary from station to station, says Rochon, typically a large-market primetime newscast that relied on six to nine people can cut that to two or three people; a mid-market station might go from five to seven people down to one or two; and a small-market newscast might only require a single operator.

“There is no rulebook on how many people need to be in there,” says Rochon. “You need at least one, but you can adjust it depending on the requirements of the production.”

Fred Fourcher, founder and CEO of server vendor BitCentral, thinks the appeal of production automation will only increase going forward.

“We see it in the major markets, where the return-on-investment line on Ignite or OverDrive is sometimes measured in months, and sometimes just a few,” he says. “So the pressure to see it implemented quickly is very high.”

BitCentral, which has designed its Precis content servers to integrate with any third-party editor or newsroom computer system, has already implemented Precis with Ross OverDrive at big-market stations like KRON San Francisco and is also working to integrate with Thomson Grass Valley's Ignite. The company currently counts over 60 stations as customers, including CBS affiliate and Capitol Broadcasting station WRAL Raleigh, NBC O&Os WNBC New York and WTVJ Miami, and some 21 Raycom-owned stations.

Don't disrupt workflow

Mike Palmer, Director of Design and Integration Strategies for the Associated Press, cautions that stations interested in device automation should be careful the new system doesn't destroy their current workflow.

“Smaller stations can find some good deals on automation systems that save them a lot of money in terms of manpower,” says Palmer. “But they need to understand exactly what that's going to mean in terms of their workflow. When you give up manpower for automation, you are often times giving up some degree of flexibility.”

For its part, last year AP began offering an automated ingest feature through ENPS to schedule and control feeds from agencies and individual photographers. At next month's IBC show, the company will unveil the ENPS Mobile Suite, which aims to push content from the newsroom system to the Web and mobile devices.

Avid is also looking to facilitate Web video production, both through iNews and its Airspeed playout servers. It has developed a product called ProEncode that is designed to automatically create multiple resolutions of a video clip, so a station that wants to break news on its Website can quickly stream an edited segment before showing it later on-air.

“Everything begins with the newsroom computer system---whenever you have an idea or an assignment, it all starts there,” says Howard. “There is a tremendous amount of metadata that can be expanded out to the Web, or to mobile phones. The face of broadcasting is changing very rapidly, and there are a lot of places to look for efficiencies, not just in the master control room, but in consolidating things to the Web.”

Easy access for both production and repurposing objectives is also the pitch for the NewsKing newsroom computer system offered by La Crosse, Wisc.-based Comprompter, thanks to its asset management capabilities and user-friendly interface.

“You don't have to locate a particular asset because the script-based automation system tracks primary video and will recreate the secondary video either exactly as [it was] originally produced or, based upon the look of the format, the script [that it] is currently being repurposed for,” says Comprompter president Ralph King.

Harris works with final cut

Broadcast technology conglomerate Harris is tackling the file-based news production market with NewsForce, a new server-based system that integrates with Apple's popular Final Cut editing software.

“Our customers were asking us to do that – to have Final Cut as part of the mix,” says Fred Schultz, Harris' Senior Marketing Manager for News Solutions. Harris' server integration to its Nexio Storage Area Network makes it seem “as though the Final Cut operators were editing off of their local drive,” he says.

Harris' automation modules for news also let customers “build to their own needs,” adds Schultz.

The company's ingest content manager, IMOS playlist manager and G-Series auto MOS Inscriber for graphics can be packaged together for less than $50,000.

Besides pushing device automation with Ignite, Thomson Grass Valley is adapting some of its HD content creation technology to smaller stations with its Aurora suite of news production tools, which includes ingest, browsing, editing and playout solutions.

“Our target is to make tapeless production affordable to even the smallest markets,” says Ed Casaccia, Director of Product Management and Marketing for Grass Valley's Digital News Production Systems. “To do this, we have to have layers of functionality.”