The Newsroom Revolution

Remember the scene in Broadcast News when the TV intern races down the hall of the newsroom with a vital videotape? That scene is now as out of date as the newsboy screaming "Extra, Extra, Extra!" on the corner. The world and the TV newsroom have changed.

These days, content is ingested into the file server and then accessed almost as easily as any other computer file. While that streamlines the workflow, it also introduces challenges.

When it comes to adoption of IT technology within a TV station, no area has benefited from the workflow enhancements like the newsroom. Nearly every aspect has been touched by the computer revolution, the end result being better storytelling and faster creation of sharper, snappier story packages.

"I don't think there's [an editing] system that exists today that doesn't use IT components of some kind as an essential part of linking the bits and pieces together," David Schleifer, director of Avid Broadcast and Workgroups. "We started out as a computer company playing in the broadcast market, and we have off-the-shelf IT components making up our entire system."

Nonlinear editing systems like those offered by Avid are just one of the areas that embody the use of IT-centric gear. But the tight integration of nonlinear editing with newsroom systems and graphics devices exemplify the benefits.

That integration is changing job descriptions and the geography of newsrooms. Executives at top broadcast networks and station groups are now planning newsrooms in ways that don't resemble the old departmentalized style of laying out a newsroom operation. Journalists, for example, will edit on workstations that give them access to the footage, editing tools and templated graphics so they can build an entire story package themselves.

In an ideal world, the end result will be stories that better reflect the reporter's vision. And, instead of building simple type-driven lower thirds, the graphics department will spend more of its time creating complex, work-intensive elements that lend punch to a newscast. Says Thomson Broadcast Chief Technology Officer Ray Baldock, "The newsroom is a great example of where the use of IT is streamlining workflow, because it makes content more accessible."

Moving video content around as files requires reliance and diligence when employees create metadata, especially the text tags attached to the file that describe what is in the file. Anyone who has ever simply downloaded pictures onto a PC from a digital still camera has run into the challenge of not having enough metadata. Finding that picture of Aunt Lois with cousin Sherry can be complicated if the words "Aunt Lois and cousin Sherry" aren't associated with the file.

Add to the confusion the fact that video servers store content in different formats. To ease that situation, the industry has created MXF (or the Material eXchange Format), a wrapper placed around a content file so that it can be transferred from one video server to another more easily. The file still has to be converted from one file format to another, but the user can at least tell what is in the file without opening it.

"Sony has put all of its eggs in one basket, centered around MXF," says Hugo Gaggioni, chief technology officer and vice president for Sony Broadcast & Production Systems Division. With companies like Sony, Snell & Wilcox and others helping drive the MXF standard, it's easier for other vendors to become MXF-compatible. Gaggioni is confident that it will one day be taken for granted the way connector cables are in today's traditional video facilities.

Sony has another big bet in broadcast: XDCAM, a new acquisition format that embodies the transition to working with video as files. Content is recorded on special DVD disks, and low-resolution versions of it can be blasted into an editing system at up to 50 times real time. The low-resolution version can be used to make editing decisions and choose footage so that, when the footage arrives on the server system, it can be put together quickly, or "conformed," at the higher resolution and then played to air. Reporters' ability to edit on a laptop while heading back to the station, says Gaggioni, "enables a multitude of material to be finished in the field very fast."

Says Pinnacle Systems strategist Al Kovalick, "Sony's XDCAM and Panasonic's P2 formats are the missing link for tapeless acquisition. And that first part of the process, acquisition, is the most important part: As it enters, so it shall be." It's the move to XDCAM and P2 that could end the days of video except for display on a monitor.

The advantage in the newsroom goes beyond workflow improvements. IT-based gear is cheaper, Schleifer points out, because, instead of buying broadcast-specific equipment, a manager can buy computer components that don't have to be essentially custom-built.

Sometimes, however, those components require some changes. "They'll need to be tweaked or specialized bits and pieces added," he says. "Another downside is that the station needs to protect against viruses and improve security."

That usually means portioning off a part of a station's LAN strictly for newsroom use. That way, who and what goes into the system can be monitored and safeguarded. Says Schleifer, "The less exposure critical systems have to the rest of the world, the better."

Manufacturers, he says, also face a new challenge: making sure their products are compatible with the latest operating systems and computer hardware.

As a result, both vendors and customers have entered a new age, when constantly updating products via software changes may become the norm. It's a new twist on the properly maintained tapedeck that engineers could keep running for a decade or longer. Now IT engineers keep a facility up-to-date with the latest versions of software or operating systems. "In the non-IT world," Schleifer says, " those types of changes would have to be done with a forklift."