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Broadcast automation grows with the times 

The pandemic has highlighted the urgent need to access assets remotely, and that has become the new normal. Automation makes it easy for broadcasters of any size to deliver compelling programming even with entirely remote operations. 

Running a broadcast channel without automation would be a formidable challenge as indeed it was in the early years of television production. Station managers had a limited range of options centred on continuous live operation or sourcing from film. Video tape made the whole process easier from 1956 onward though at huge expense in terms of hardware, head-wear and the tape itself. The first commercially available magnetic hard-drive server was also launched in 1956: IBM’s 305 RAMAC. It held 5 megabytes of data and quite literally weighed a ton.

Video tape technology advanced over the decades to the point where most of a station’s daily output could be preloaded onto cassettes or cartridges under robotic control. This opened the way to continuous round-the-clock transmission. Mass-produced IT equipment appeared around the same time though many more years of development were needed before data servers achieved the capacity, speed and affordability to make them the logical medium for broadcast television.

Also read, Virtual production is coming of age.

To keep up, news organizations have endeavored to automate as much of the process of getting news into viewers hands as possible. This has meant a renewed focus on metadata to drive cloud-hosted infrastructures and IT-centric technology to get content into and out of the cloud in the fastest and most efficient way. Once this is done, stations can put more reporters in the field and give them the ability to capture, edit and insert stories into the station’s rundown list remotely—or even distribute stories online themselves in minutes (or less).

The most important thing about the cloud is scalability. Today all the systems, cameras, switchers, graphics, audio and others have been migrated to virtualized software (via micro-services) that, thanks to distributed processing infrastructures, can be accessed from anywhere by lots of people simultaneously. News content (and viewers) have benefited significantly, as reporters, producers and editors now have access to a myriad of story-related resources at their fingertips. Today’s automation means creating content once and then using it multiple times automatically across many digital platforms. It also means controlling equipment and sharing resources in a highly automated workflow in order to support a digital-first strategy that most have adopted because online is where the majority of people now get their news.

Broadcasters need a post-production workflow that can prepare content to be ready to air within minutes, rather than necessitate labor-intensive editing. 

The widescale adoption of COTS and cloud infrastructures has seen software workflows expand within news organizations. This has helped minimize time-consuming processes in a variety of ways. Another aspect is that with the flexibility and scaling coming with COTS and cloud infrastructures, software tools for automation of news scheduling and production are becoming more accessible to a higher number of users. It becomes possible to remotely access a news automation and run a breaking news show or to spin up an instance in the cloud to create an additional news production unit and distribution outlet within minutes—i.e., for additional news coverage during a crisis.

COTS and cloud infrastructure can provide some relief to time constraints, but the software at the core needs to be intuitive, flexible, and ready to handle any broadcaster and producer need for automated news scheduling. This process can now be totally automated. Production teams have now taken it to the next level and begun scheduling news rundowns either on premise or in the cloud. It’s having a very positive affect.

Broadcast automation is an essential part of any modern radio station. The automation systems that may have sufficed for a station’s needs a decade ago don’t necessarily meet the many new demands of today’s broadcast and streaming environment.

Today’s top automation systems must be compatible with traffic and music scheduling software, work with a variety of mobile platforms, and be easy for both technical and non-technical personnel to use. At the same time, they must be flexible enough to meet the challenges of new signal-distribution platforms and whatever else the future of radio may hold.

From the initial limited uses of these systems—primarily replacing tape-based analog carts to play music, spots, and liners—automation quickly became indispensable for almost every on-air function in radio. Modern automation systems allow for airshifts to be voice-tracked, either on-site or remotely, thus reducing personnel expenses. They also provide improved operational efficiency, permitting a smaller operational staff to handle music scheduling and traffic for multiple stations or program streams within a cluster, including HD multicast channels.

The criteria for a new automation system includes easy configurability and robust support from the automation vendor. Most important of all, a system that would be easy for staff to learn.

Broadcast automation

Earlier automation architecture worked with traffic and scheduling systems by importing logs once or several times a day. In a world that’s increasingly moving to the cloud, modern automation systems need to be much more flexible than their predecessors. They need to be so designed that they remove the limits earlier systems imposed on the number of stations that could be supported, for instance. And instead of forcing a playback module to be on the same machine that houses an audio card for playout, today’s audio-over-IP (AoIP) world allows for much more creative overall system architecture.

Broadcasters often turn to automation initially as a cost-saving exercise. The idea of large upfront capital investment in automation systems seems logical rather than have the ongoing operational expense of multiple staff. It is also often pitched by manufacturers as a way of generating more accurate, consistent and higher production standards as machines will execute the same sequence in a programmed way. This removes the human element of any potential mistakes.

There also maybe scope for semi or part automation which can provide a happy medium but again the production requirements need to be considered before finalizing a decision. 

Also, automation brings out a different element of creativity depending on how it has been set up. The operators who are left to drive this system have to think as directors, technical directors, camera and audio operators. This means this role now has full creative and technical vision.

None of the solutions being offered by manufacturers at the moment feel finished. Despite automation existing for a while now, not one ‘out the box’ product currently feels like an actual finished solution, it doesn’t do what it should do-to be truly flexible to all production scenarios.

What is more common is the customization from different broadcasters working with manufacturers to build a product that suits their needs. A really common issue that is now being addressed is the control surface needs to essentially be one giant shotbox with an array of touch screens. That is something that is far more interesting long term.

The top end manufacturers are all very similar – they just have their own interfaces. An alternative is to build your own in-house automation or semi-automated system using existing equipment.

What would an ideal automation platform of the future look like? The foundation has to start with an intuitive, web-native technology platform, with built-in comprehensive security features and the ability to self-heal. And, of course, optimal performance, a flexible agnostic architecture and the flexibility to grow with an organization is imperative as needs evolve and production requirements expand.

Security is on everyone’s minds, as reports of new cyber-attacks and network intrusions seem to be increasing at an alarming rate. With the growing acceptance and use of cloud-based workflow platforms, data needs to be transmitted and stored securely, with access configured to ensure that individual users, or groups of users, only have access to resources which they are permitted to interact with or manage. Any changes in access will need to be applied immediately whether on-premises or in the public cloud, so the ability to change permissions easily as a project evolves is vital.

Also, must be self-correcting. For example, if one of a router’s outputs suddenly became inactive, the automation system would know about it, bypass the problem and then find an alternate solution. It hasn’t necessarily “fixed the problem” but it has enabled a workaround on its own.

Playout automation is expected to continue to be implemented in a mix of public cloud, on-prem orchestration and hybrid deployments. It will be infrastructure agnostic, meaning it can operate in different remote locations and across different devices — all connected through the cloud while still working effectively.

The perfect system will bridge the gap between network on-prem storage and a cloud layer. 

Often, and especially in times of peak demand, broadcasters need additional computing power. An ideal system needs to easily handle the provisioning of additional servers (on-premises or cloud) to automatically handle demanding workloads and provide critical redundancy options.

The IP workflows of tomorrow require functionality, flexibility and resilience and a key aspect is the ability to deploy, manage, host and upgrade a range of broadcast services from a single intuitive unified interface. Future systems will need to provide a flexible, scalable architecture for multiple functional services to run on, supporting broadcasters as the media landscape evolves, and as cloud and IP technologies continue to be more widely adopted.

Madhu Gupta, Assistant Editor

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