Stations Get New Options

Mar 8, 2004  •  Post A Comment

The way content providers deliver programming and advertising to tape machines or servers at local stations is of key interest to those who manage the process and a growing list of vendors who want to be involved.

Stations are beginning to discover the time savings made possible by digital delivery of content and are exploring the nascent areas of asset management and metadata.

The challenge for broadcasters-those still in the analog world of tape and those who’ve moved forward into a tapeless environment-is to create a world in which all equipment communicates effectively with one another.

“When you walk into a station’s newsroom,” said Steve L’Heureux, president of automation solutions for Encoda Systems, “you see an island of technology that automates a newsroom. It’s the same in the graphics department, in the business systems for traffic and sales and so on. The only way these systems talk to each other is through relatively simplistic application program interface, portals, which pass information from one stand-alone to the other.”

According to the National Association of Broadcasters, more than 1,100 stations in 203 markets are capable of broadcasting digitally, a technological advance that opens new doors for users.

“It’s enabled us to do things we couldn’t do before,” said Ed Cosci, longtime engineering manager of operations for KTVU-TV, Oakland, Calif., and for the four Cox-owned stations in that region. “Without the automation breakthroughs of the past several years,” Mr. Cosci said, we couldn’t be running KICU in San Jose and KRXI and KAME in Reno from here. Servers have made the operation much easier.

“If all your assets are in a server,” he said, “you can just play back from a server. It keeps manpower at a minimum.”

But station managers and engineers agree that stations need to be more efficient to maximize the synergies created by the changing regulatory environment, multicasting and duopolies. That includes the ability to run multiple stations from the same hardware, Mr. L’Heureux said. “The tools we deliver have to become more robust, more integrated. We need the process of integrating individual applications to create an end-to-end solution. “

At the NAB conference in Las Vegas this April, Encoda will demonstrate a traffic system that automates the flow of advertising and programming content from production to air, Mr. L’Heureux said.

“We should no longer look at the individual functions and try to squeeze them together. We should look at total end-to-end workflow from the program owner to the advertiser to the viewer. In what we refer to as the digital media supply chain, future applications have to be tightly integrated, an electronic link from advertiser to viewer, with the broadcaster being the critical hump, so that the right content gets to the right viewer.”

Mr. L’Heureux said he sees natural bridges among the existing islands of technology. For instance, he said, a station’s “as-run” log, which identifies the commercial spots that have run and those that need to be rescheduled, can be easily and beneficially linked to the process that generates invoices for the spots.

“Monitoring by exception,” is how Mr. L’Heureux referred to the process. “Those are two critically important applications,” he said, which can run more efficiently and more productively linked.

In Encoda’s Live Update system, a station’s traffic system is automatically alerted if a commercial is skipped due to unforeseen circumstances, such as a breaking news story. If the spot is part of a campaign that’s been carefully scheduled and can’t be run another day, the station will be able to adjust, rescheduling the spot quickly, before alienating the customer.

“The customer’s happy, and the station captures the revenue,” Mr. L’Heureux said.

Encoda also plans to show at NAB a broadcast-monitoring product it developed in Europe that allows TV stations and cable operators to monitor scores of channels for missed ads and other content glitches with a fraction of current staffing, Mr. L’Heureux said.

The challenge for manufacturers as they introduce new digital-based technology is accommodating the abundance of existing analog equipment still in the marketplace. “You can walk into a station and see that it’s pushing toward digital-the router might be digital, there might be a digital antenna-but a lot of the equipment is still analog,” Mr. L’Heureux said. “There is going to be this transition period.”

Jim Frantzreb, senior product marketing manager for Avid Technology, agreed that videotape “is going away.” But because it has been around so long, he said, “There’s still a tremendous amount of tape-related technology out there.”

The transition from tape to tapeless will require standardization so consumers can use products interchangeably. “Regarding the rollout of digital transmission,” Mr. L’Heureux said, “first and foremost as an industry we have to start embracing some standards.”

But in that area TV is behind other industries such as retail, which long ago was able to standardize bar codes, said Stephen Flanagan, VP for strategic broadcast solutions at Pathfire, which provides content distribution and management technology in the broadcast television industry.

“[Historically] in this business, standards have been accepted after they’ve become de facto,” Mr. L’Heureux said. “Digital is being driven largely out of standards coming from the [Advanced Television Systems] Committee, and this will allow us to bring to the marketplace true end-to-end solutions out of standards developed by users. At Encoda, I have one engineer, Chris Lennon, whose sole purpose is to represent Encoda on various ATSC standards committees.”

As stations and vendors grapple with integrating the old and new, some broadcasters have begun to introduce delivery systems that send content to stations through digital files rather than use old-fashioned videotape. Last year Warner Bros. Domestic Television began delivering its syndicated programming to stations in the United States and Canada through Pathfire’s digital distribution technology.

By its own estimate, Pathfire is being used in more than 1,100 TV stations, delivering CNN Newsource as well as the ABC NewsOne news feeds. Last year’s agreement with Warner Bros. sparked considerable interest in the community of television stations and networks. Similar deals are expected regarding program delivery. Still, other syndicators, such as Tribune Entertainment, are skeptical about file format distribution and want to see the cost savings before they take the plunge.

CNN Newsource spokesman Chris Wilmore said his company’s use of Pathfire’s Digital Media Gateway has eliminated the need for daily, scheduled feeds and their corresponding wait time, created better categorization of incoming material and allowed for more precise selection and dubbing by stations. CNN Newsource has installed both transmit and receive fibers in more than 200 stations, covering approximately 60 markets, making it easier and quicker to send video.

Pathfire’s Mr. Flanagan said he already sees new applications and creative ways to manage assets other than news. A key area for the future of his business, he said, “is the whole emerging area of metadata,” referring to the indexed information that accompanies transmitted programming. “It’s important for this industry to embrace metadata,” he said.

This data, hidden from viewers but vital to programmers, might include the name of a show, the file format, sound format and whether it’s in color. Mr. Flanagan said there is much room for growth in this area. “The new information may be even more important to the user-who are the stars, do you have rights management, what are the contractual obligations? We can take metadata to a significant new level,” he said.

Cox’s Mr. Cosci agreed that metadata holds great promise. “This is what we’re waiting for-for the metadata to be embedded in the programming,” he said. “All the prepping information, the timing, start of message, end of information would all be there in th
e server or the archives [with] no manual intervention necessary.”

Mr. Flanagan too sees additional uses for metadata. “Wouldn’t it be great to be able to go into the database of `Friends’ and find any episode Janet Jackson was in? To know how many runs a show’s had? A feature-rich metadata model can be taken and moved into the asset management model.” That would help organize content distribution for scheduling and other creative approaches, he said.

But today the term “asset management,” which initially referred to a station’s storage devices, to different broadcasters means many different things, ranging from storage itself to the ability to search and browse stored material, automate workflow and create and track multiple iterations of video.

“For asset management we need enabling, storage,” said Jim Frantzreb, Avid’s senior product marketing manager. “We also need other tools-editing tools, transfer tools for handling the movement of video files. And not just within the work group. In news, you need something that lets you see exactly what there was at any given moment. With a tape-based TV station, even now, everybody’s fighting for the tape.”

Avid’s Unity concept created a new storage architecture, using a distributed file system available to both Windows and Mac clients. “It enables a collaborative work group,” Mr. Frantzreb said. “What we needed was a purpose-built system to enable people to access the same high-resolution media simultaneously-a media network, as opposed to a storage area network.”

Maynard, Mass.-based SeaChange International, probably best known for providing video-on-demand equipment and software, sees its role as complementary to the work of television programmers because it enables the new business of on-demand.

“There’s billions of dollars worth of business being run on broadcast distribution platforms,” said Joseph Ambeault, the company’s director of broadband systems. “We have a vested interest in the future of that business.”

SeaChange, which works with hardware and software vendors, including Harris, Avid, Thomson, Sony and Panasonic, advises networks and content providers to get out in front with the repurposing of their content. “If you don’t deliver it to customers,” Mr. Ambeault said, “someone else will.

“Let’s make the most of that content. Look at the digital video recording technology. A local broadcaster can beat DVR by providing an on-demand offer,” he said.