How much have you thought about automating your station's local newscasts? Most stations already use a newsroom computer system to provide automated text and cues for teleprompters, character generators and studio cameras.
To stay competitive, however, more broadcasters are relying on increased automation to add and control more devices without adding headcount, increase control and accuracy during newscasts through dedicated news device playout automation, and streamline routine operations through a common rundown-driven control point. When considering news automation, make sure you're asking the right questions so you get the ideal amount of automation for your needs.
Why would I want automation?
By providing common control points for video playout and graphics servers, news automation gives the producer and the control room staff access to both the program rundown and an interface to the devices. Automation systems can handle routine rundown-based tasks as well as rapid-fire and unscripted events, such as news teases and breaking news. With less need for coordinating and monitoring distinct systems, news automation tracks all events in the newscast and is a key component to reducing on-air errors. In addition to fewer errors and improved efficiency, automation can help broadcast stations reduce or redeploy staff to editorial, craft or other operations positions.
How much automation do I need?
This is the question to ask yourself — and also to ask your vendors. You certainly don't want more automation than you'll ever need, but you also don't want to cut corners and find that you are unable to meet your goals for improved efficiency.
At its most basic, news automation provides production-assist tools that simplify playout of video clips, stills and animations, and graphics. At the other end of the spectrum, full-blown automation systems integrate control of video switchers, audio consoles and camera robotics.
Assess your goals and expectations realistically: Do you want to reduce errors? Repurpose the CG operator? Or automate the entire newscast?
Measure your goals against your budget requirements. Production-assist systems will enable you to meet many of your goals more affordably than full automation. However, you may find the return on investment provides rationale for full automation. An important consideration is how new systems will interface with your existing equipment, as well as planned future technology and device acquisitions.
I have a mandate to add newscasts but not staff. How will automation help me?
Automation should be one of the first things you consider in this case. With central control of multiple playout devices — in addition to routine rundown-based control — production-assist can be the solution to affordably add programming without additional operator needs.
Depending on your immediate needs and budget, automation will help you repurpose or replace your graphics playout staff, for example. If you are transitioning from tape to file-based systems, automation will easily replace the tape operators, freeing them up to edit more stories.
Production-assist automation is scalable, meaning that the size of the crew can be adjusted based on the needs and intricacy of the show. For example, the noon show may have a smaller crew and use more automation than the 6 p.m. show, which has more breaking news and requires more involvement from the crew.
A full-blown news automation system can have a significant impact on your bottom line by enabling a single operator to handle all of the control room functions. All of this can be accomplished regardless of show-by-show differences. Now your morning and noon show can have the same look and feel as the evening shows because the same prebuilt moves and complicated effects are automated.
How will this affect the quality of the newscast?
News is obviously a highly competitive operation, and viewers vote on quality — both editorial and production. Viewers don't care that the station is saving dollars by reducing control room staff by one, two or four people. Viewers want the quality they have come to expect, and they will move on if they don't get it.
With or without automation, the producer is constantly rearranging the show to accommodate time, behind-the-scenes changes or breaking news — while making sure that viewers at home see nothing but a smooth, error-free show. Maintaining this kind of flexibility under stressful situations is absolutely essential in considering automation products, and it can make or break the quality of the show.
News automation in the production control room can reduce the number of hands that touch each element in the on-air process — thereby reducing the chance for human error. By automating rapid or repetitive elements, complicated events, such as multi-clip news teases can be executed successfully by all newsroom crews, not just the 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. staff, providing a more uniform performance across all shows.
We do a lot of breaking news. How does this play into automation?
Think flexibility when considering how news automation systems handle breaking news. As you consider your system choices, make sure you look closely at how well each option handles an unscripted breakaway to live, breaking news and then how easily they resume normal automation and rundown playout. The control room will want the ability to drive the devices manually during the breaking news story.
News automation should take the crew seamlessly to the point of the breaking story — controlling devices based on the script and then, just as effortlessly, relinquishing device control so the director and technical director can control the show in manual mode to accommodate the late-breaking story. Rejoining the rundown after the breaking news should be just as smooth.
How will automation affect my news workflow?
Every station is different, but a typical newsroom workflow usually follows a fairly standard sequence of events. (See Figure 1.)
Functionally, news automation should not significantly change your newsroom workflow. Stories still need to be produced, and in order to be produced, they need to be assigned. To put them on the air, they'll need to be placed in a rundown and have the proper device elements triggered at the appropriate times.
But consider how automation can affect other parts of the newsroom workflow. The rundown will be tied in with the devices, so whatever changes are made in the rundown will be automatically reflected in the instructions for device activation. Your vendor should be able to tell you whether changes in both directions — inventory on devices and events on rundowns — will update bilaterally so that background communication is continual and accurate. For example, when a new clip is complete and ready for air, you want it to appear in an updated inventory on the video server and trigger an indication to the producer or technical director that it's ready in the playlist.
In addition, automation can streamline the control room workflow. Without automation, the director is orchestrating a wide range of simultaneous actions — video switching, audio, cameras, graphics, stills, video playout and talent. With automation, the director has fewer parts to manage because the automation system is coordinating the other devices based on the script. It's a fully functional workflow, with fewer moving parts and a reduced chance for error. (See Figures 2 and 3.)
Automation should cut the number of steps it takes to deliver a high-quality on-air product so that the producers, TDs and other members of the staff don't have the distraction of triggering device playout and can focus on their responsibilities. The most common first reaction to the pending introduction of news automation is, “We can't do it that way because we've always done it our way.” But, with good training and rehearsal practices, the staff will become comfortable and embrace automation's step-saving features.
What kind of training will my staff need?
The training required to get your staff at a readiness level appropriate for on-air operations will depend on the complexity of the system that you purchase. If the system is a full automation solution that is integrated with a new switcher, audio control and robotics, then the amount of training should include sufficient instruction time and rehearsal time to ensure that the staff is proficient with the automation, additional hardware and any changes in workflow — both in the control room and the newsroom.
If the system is a production-assist type system, then the learning curve generally is smaller because, in many cases, existing control room equipment and workflows are already in place. Involving the newsroom staff in the process from the beginning is key because they will be integral to the success of news automation implementation.
How do I migrate from my current workflow?
One way to migrate is through practice, practice, practice! You can rely on your familiarity with the staff, program and operations to help you make this transition. Your vendor should also be able to provide best-practices guidelines or even develop the workflow alongside you.
If the system is full automation and is replacing most of an existing control room, stations will often stage it offline and rehearse shows, with talent, until everyone is comfortable. If you are buying a smaller system, you can rehearse shows offline between the real shows by moving device control between shows and reconnecting in time for air. Your own training and common sense will prevail here.
What about archiving? Do I need a separate system?
Your need to archive material depends on what your station needs for future newscast use, library and legal requirements. If your station simply wants to archive “keeper” news stories and purge the rest, there are newsroom automation systems that will allow you to import a completed rundown, parse out the clips to be deleted, play the “keeper” list to your storage medium, and then generate a text or ASCII file for your records.
There also are automation and third-party vendors that provide more enhanced features as needed. In any case, archiving can be a significant consideration and should be investigated as its own investment, rather than as a tag-on to your other operational requirements.
How does redundancy work?
A sound backup plan is a major factor in choosing an automation system. Nothing is more painful than going to black or extending a commercial break during the “A” block of the 6 p.m. newscast while you reboot your automation.
Here are the questions to ask about any automation system: Is there a failover provision? How is it architected? How fast is the failover? Is it fully automatic? How fast is the recovery? What can the control room still do manually?
You cannot pay too much attention to redundancy and failover in your on-air automation operations.
Is it worth the money?
You can consider options ranging from single-seat or single-device production-assist right up to total station automation, so your own needs, capabilities and goals will help answer this question. Calculate your return on investment based on the criteria that you created — whether it is to reduce expenses, improve quality, provide consistency across all of the newscasts, or all of the above. With the variety of systems available, you should easily find a system that is quality-conscious and flexible, while meeting your workflow and budget requirements.
Scott Blair is a product manager for the on-air products management group at Avid Technology.