Will Your Newscast 'Ignite?'

Psychologists tell us fear can be a good thing, if we’re afraid of the right things and react appropriately, but not so good when it’s irrational and incapacitating, or prevents us from facing facts. When TV news people react fearfully to the news that their station is adopting an automation system like Ignite, their fear is not unreasonable considering consider what can go wrong.

For example, KHON in Honolulu suffered through months of missed cues, dropped audio, and frozen video after the station adopted Ignite, culminating in a June 2007 train wreck of a broadcast that weekend anchor Jai Cunningham described on air as “smooth as sandpaper.” After several failed attempts to introduce a segment from a golf tournament, sportscaster John Veneri added, “I’ll tell you what folks, this really sucks.”

KHON’s bad night lives on as Internet video, and ammunition for anyone arguing against newscast automation. But the technology also has its success stories, and KHON eventually became one of them.

“It was rocky, I would say, for the first few months,” News Director Lori Silva said. “Once we got through that rocky period, it's been fine.” The specific problems with the “smooth as sandpaper” broadcast were traced to a faulty installation of the software. But mostly it was just “a big transition for our directors and technical people,” she said, given that the software essentially took over the work of four or five people.

With Ignite, the director’s plan for a broadcast is programmed into the system and played back with audio, video, and graphics transitions cued by the computer system rather than by technicians. It’s often deployed in combination with robotic studio cameras. Grass Valley, a unit of Thomson, acquired the base technology from ParkerVision in 2004. Since then, the software has gone through a complete rewrite, making many criticisms of the technology obsolete, says Product Manager John Benson. “The early adopters were really going out on a limb,” he said. “The older, first generation system did have a lot of limitations. But now directors tell us they feel they’re more in control and executing their productions faster and cleaner now than they ever did before.”

The stations implementing Ignite aren’t necessarily cutting back on their news operations – some are using the efficiencies they gain through automation to shift personnel to producing content for the web, affiliate stations, and digital channels, he said.

Adam Wright, senior director at WFFF in Colchester, Vermont, who launched three new newscasts within the last year on Ignite, and says moving to the technology can be a positive experience if you prepare properly. “I won't lie to you and say the system is foolproof,” he said. “There certainly can be mistakes, but a lot of them can be prevented by double checking and triple checking.”

“Don’t be scared, that’s what I tell people – you can do it,” said Mark Rosen, News Director at WJBF in Augusta, Ga., whose station was among the first to adopt Ignite. His station experienced some “hiccups” early on, “but they weren’t enough to make us throw up our hands and say this isn’t going to work,” he said. “I think it’s a testament to our people. They weren’t going to let it beat them.”

Rosen agreed that preparation is important. “Have a backup plan to your backup plan,” he said, so that you know exactly what you would do if automated switching between segments fails, particularly in the beginning. “Once you’ve prepared for it, it doesn’t happen,” he said.

Some fears are unfounded – for example, the notion that Ignite can’t handle breaking news. Current versions of the software feature “late breaking news keys” that a director can use to quickly cue up live shots or recorded segments that weren’t part of the original plan, or to orchestrate broadcasts that are by nature largely unpredictable.

“That part of it is not a problem,” KHON’s Silva said, noting that the system worked fine through this year’s primary and general elections.

In fact, that feature can be one of your best defenses, WFFF’s Wright said. “I would recommend getting to know your way around those late breaking news keys really well because if the automation messes up on you, that’s all you’ve got.”

At WRTV in Indianapolis, which used the ParkerVision system before recently upgrading to the HD version of Ignite, engineer Mark Barnack has reconciled himself to working with the system, but he can’t bring himself to sound enthusiastic. “It’s all computerized, so if the computer crashes, you’re pretty much stuck. It isn’t as flexible as when we had [more] people here,” he said.

Stations adopting the technology should “be prepared to have a lot of mistakes on the air and things that aren’t quite right until you get all the bugs worked out,” Barnack said. On the other hand, it saves a lot of money, he acknowledged. “If you’re willing to give it time, it’s not a bad thing to have.”