Digital technology, with all its complexities, has thoroughly altered the thought and workflow processes and procedures stations use. While the technology is an important piece of the answer, a successful transition also affects financial considerations through improvement in workflow efficiency.
Unlike the transition to color, transitioning to digital broadcasting has become a government mandate for most countries and must be completed over a much shorter time frame, forcing broadcasters to change their financial strategies. This mandate has bled all but the most affluent stations of capital by requiring internal improvements, moving resources to new encoders, and the purchase of digital transmitters, antennas, towers and other necessities to establish the digital signal. Because that capital expense does not bear an immediate return in efficiency or ratings, the transition can be difficult. Fortunately, once the facility completes its transmission investments, it can implement budgets for other digital technology and strategies that can improve quality and efficiencies and positively affect the bottom line.
Automation has a major impact on workflow and is the key to managing costs and infrastructure more effectively. Introducing automation impacts virtually every part of station, from ingest to traffic and billing. Among the many changes are new modes of master control switching and the mandate for on-screen logos or on-air channel branding. The new digital channels also have required engineers to apply servers in different ways: for recording satellite feeds, program preparation, clips and archiving. The latest development is the need to tie servers to additional demands to support back-office applications. With these added technical complexities comes the additional risk of mistakes and failures if a station adopts the new processes too rapidly.
The advantage to the bottom line is a consolidation of workflow processes that reduces operating cost. Multitasking becomes more prevalent within technical operations. Where a master control operator previously created verification logs, automation enables a master control operator to monitor multiple streams, confirm those streams on the automated playlist, manage satellite record feeds and even prep programming for air. Over time, automation can reduce errors and produce a quieter, and even less chaotic, environment within the station's technical operations areas.
Adding automation also brings multichannel considerations to the forefront. In Europe, centralized broadcast centers are common. But digital terrestrial television (DTT) provides each terrestrial broadcaster the opportunity to broadcast multiple program streams. The requirements for multicasting include a wealth of programming and a large-enough audience capable of receiving the broadcasts. With proper planning, the costs of including multichannel capability as part of a digital conversion should be incremental. But the question remains when such a system would become commercially viable, especially without necessary must-carry rules for secondary channels.
The BBC in the UK and PBS in the United States are currently large investors in multicasting. Not only do these networks have access to enough program material to offer multiple streams; their public-service mandate justifies multicasting for distance learning and other community needs. Unfortunately, commercial broadcasters won't have the opportunity to earn revenue from digital multicasting until there is a substantial viewer base. Automation also enables centralcasting, which carries financial considerations different from those of multicasting.
A properly designed facility can easily build out to support multicasting with only incremental increases in hardware. The costs of adding a second and third program stream is substantially lower than the investment in automation and servers required for the initial channel. A single operator can monitor perhaps as many as five to 10 streams simultaneously using automated alarms.
The required on-air look of each channel determines whether the facility needs additional switchers, graphics systems and other equipment. Often, these subchannels don't demand the transitions and promotions featured on the main channel, so the graphics and transitions between programs can be simpler. This often means it is feasible to use one large server with multiple automated outputs. And although automation vendors typically charge on a per-program-stream basis, the facility can address additional program streams cost-effectively with additional software licenses and inexpensive computer hardware.
The HD picture
High definition is another wild card in the big picture. Local production of HD programming today has few to no practical short-term revenue benefits. With the exception of some HD news production in special markets, most stations will simply pass through a network HD feed or upconvert their SD signal. As with the transition to color, most stations will not make a major leap toward HD until competitive pressures require it.
That's not to say that a station should ignore HD during the digital conversion. Many stations choose to install HD infrastructures — typically wiring and routing systems — now in anticipation of future requirements. Building an HD backbone today does not significantly raise costs. The cost premium comes in the creation of a front-to-back HD facility. One argument against going fully into the HD realm now is that the technology is more expensive today than it will be in a few years. Because the price of commercial inventory typically is based on ratings rather than lines of resolution, producing local spots or providing HD programming in dayparts other than prime time is not yet practical because it is revenue-neutral. By the time the market dictates a switch to HD, stations will be able to do so at a lower capital cost while maintaining revenue.
Start with baby steps
Let's now look briefly at what components are key to a successful improvement in station workflow. While technology is not necessarily the cornerstone of the transition, the equipment solutions you put into place will enable new efficiencies. A broadcaster should design the overall broadcast system by defining functionality, workflow, on-air look and future plans, then carefully selecting the best technology to fit the vision. Along with automation and video servers come new storage, monitoring and other solutions that are radically different from the analog world.
For the majority of stations, the traditional video infrastructure remains intact when converting to digital. While file distribution is becoming more common in the largest facilities, the audio/video router is still the heart of most stations. Unfortunately, except in large facilities with many channels, standards and cooperation among manufacturers have not reached the point where a data network can replace the router. Baseband is still the most cost-effective and efficient means for routing today.
Planning for the routing system is critical during the transition to digital. (See Figure 1 on page 96.) The addition of new core components and the possibility of additional program streams both affect the planning process. Predict the maximum router size you need based on the long-term plan for additional program streams, even though initially it will be loaded only for current demands. This approach means you can easily expand the router as the facility grows, which is much more cost-efficient and less disruptive than a forklift upgrade. Considerations for maximum size also should include the number of production control areas and edit bays within the facility. There are a lot of factors that affect the size of the router, so don't shortchange this part of the design process.
Efficiency is again the key word when selecting a storage solution. As the price of hard drives falls, the industry consensus is to eliminate tape in favor of servers.
A facility can handle commercials and repeated syndicated programming more efficiently if it ingests programming once and plays it from the server repeatedly, without any additional handling. Nearline storage units such as a DVD-RAM device or a data tape robot, can store media that is not on the active playlist. Though tape becomes less important as facilities become more automated, it is still the most inexpensive way to store media long term. An SAIT-based tape robot can store an entire month's programming in less than one foot of linear space. Revenue-generating material such as commercials should still be archived to a standard tape format rather than data tape, in the event of system failure.
Monitoring for digital sometimes requires rethinking the master control monitor wall. Digital conversion has enhanced the popularity of multi-image displays because the windows can be reconfigured according to time of day, type of program material, aspect ratio and number of channels being handled.
Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) for facility-wide monitoring is growing in popularity. Implementation is most practical when building a new facility, or a new subsystem within an existing facility. SNMP allows engineers to monitor and troubleshoot hardware issues from a central location. The protocol displays when and where the equipment has failed, allowing an engineer to pinpoint problems quickly and protect against potential revenue loss. Investment in SNMP monitoring makes the most sense for larger facilities, where the possibilities for signal loss are more complex.
New thinking required
Whether planning for a one-channel digital system, multicasting or high definition, the underlying theme is how to manage the workflow most effectively. This often requires an entire culture change that cuts across all departments. To be effective, that change has to be mandated and managed from the top down. A strong will from all departments and a reasonably enthusiastic effort from the entire staff will result in fewer problems.
Be sure to start by involving the staff in the process of defining what the facility is to be. The systems integrator does its part by interviewing the staff and presenting the most effective options for implementation to the technical and management teams. Following these guidelines allows everyone at the station to have ownership in the transition and sparks interest in making it succeed.
The benefits of a fully digital infrastructure may be hard to measure, but they do result in new efficiencies and improved workflow. When this is combined with improved signal quality and new opportunities for revenue generation through additional channels, the impetus to move forward should be strong. Those stations that do so by planning carefully will reap the benefits first, making them strong competitors in the race for viewers.
Jack Verner is vice president of engineering and chief technology officer for Digital System Technology.