Newsroom automation: Helping broadcasters target new audiences
By Ian Fletcher
The television newsroom is one of the last areas of the broadcast facility to fall under the spell of automation. But it’s not a resistance to change or a lack of will on anyone’s part that’s to blame. It’s because the processes involved are so complicated; even the most straightforward news operation has demands that would place enormous pressure on a traditional playout automation system.
BBC News 24 uses OmniBus Systems’ station automation system to manage its broadcast operation. The system is linked with the BBC’s own news production package, ENPS, via an interface specifically developed by the BBC.
And when you start to analyze the requirements of an advanced, 24-hour rolling news service, you quickly realize they can often border on the unreasonable. Topping broadcasters’ wish lists are performance, reliability and speed, quickly followed by the ability to make last-minute changes in the control room as well as the efficient, robust management of the vast amounts of media and information that flows through the entire procedure.
A rolling current affairs channel, for example, can easily transmit the same number of elements in one hour that a traditional news-and-entertainment service puts out in an entire day. And let’s not forget that those elements are changing dynamically all the time.
The newsroom system has to continually update the running order — often with just seconds to spare — while the automation system has to respond equally quickly. By its very nature, news is a live, often unpredictable beast. So you can’t simply rely on a list of scheduled events that happen at pre-ordained times.
While some broadcasters are content to simply play out clips from a server, a higher level of automation is needed if real, tangible benefits are to be achieved. There doesn’t seem to be much point in installing automation if all that it’s required to do is duplicate an operator’s role.
BBC News 24, for example, was a rolling news channel set up with a budget that would not have stretched to the number of people needed for a conventional broadcast operation. It insisted, however, on keeping its production values as high as possible.
That meant headline sequences with 14 clips playing back-to-back with separate wipes, captions for each individual story, seamless cuts to the presenter and graphics with a music bed running through underneath.
All that now happens every 15 minutes with absolute reliability but with no prior run-through. It asks a lot of its automation system, but the alternative would be a number of people pressing individual buttons. Even if that were that financially viable, the chances are that mistakes would be made.
But this is the kind of area where automation excels. The production requirements can be captured in a set of macros that define the look and feel — the headline summaries and the transition into the weather, for example — and the automation system can fire it out repeatedly.
The challenge from a transmission automation perspective is to ensure that those elements are correctly compiled — the late changes to the schedule, the ability to control complex vision mixers, etc. It’s potentially more troublesome than merely controlling a master control switcher, where the only requirement is the selection of the appropriate cross-point. There is, for example, the process of pre-setting the next story up on the correct ME bus on the mixer.
At another facility, the software was designed to automatically sift through the script for instructions such as ‘story 2 using presenter X on camera 3 with picture Y as the over-the-shoulder still’ and pre-set the information on the mixer ready for use. The real creative work is done prior to that in the script, where the journalists are able to define those kinds of details.
With the continued proliferation of news channels, this approach gives broadcasters an edge over their competition when it comes to presentation. A bulletin delivered by a single, full-screen presenter reading from an autocue simply isn’t enough anymore to keep viewers’ attention. They crave sound bites, video clips and all-singing-all-dancing graphics, all of which is a far easier proposition with effective automation.
Acquisition and management
But there’s far more to the digital newsroom of today than the automated playout of material. Ideally, you should address the whole process, beginning with how the media comes into the facility. It’s not uncommon for a major broadcaster to record 200 to 300 news stories a day via fixed agency feeds that come in on the same satellites at the same time every day. Supervising all that can be manually intensive, but all that can be removed simply with an easy-to-use record schedule that chooses a server and allows each piece of footage to be named.
The next issue is how to manage the space on servers. Again, the same software can be programmed with rules on how long the material can be kept intact.
But some facilities exist where, despite the installation of systems and servers, the same numbers of personnel actually spend more time making their news programs because they still have to undertake vast amounts of manual intervention, copying of files and server management.
If you think you have problems trying to keep the hard disk of your PC relatively clutter-free, imagine the issues facing a news broadcaster that is taking in hundreds of hours of footage every day.
ITN implemented an OmniBus station automation system to control its upgraded London facilities. The installation also features the company’s Hy-Brow browse and browse-editing system, supplied as part of Inspiration, Quantel’s integrated news/sports production system.
While some server management can be undertaken by operators making editorial decisions on what material should be retained, a lot of it is best left to the rules-based and reliable automation system itself.
The same is true when material is ready to be moved to an archive or near-line repository. If you’re accepting material digitally, it makes sense to try to keep it digitally, but you have to decide just what material is moved to an archive, when it should be transferred and the method to be used to move it.
The role of journalists
One aspect that should never be forgotten, however, is the relationship between the original recorded feed and the edits that have been made from them. It is common for a journalist to need, say, just a few seconds’ worth of material from an hour-long feed. But the use of those few seconds often prevents the deletion of the longer clip. The answer is to firmly understand that different servers operate in different ways and to put the software intelligence layer above them.
Automation, as well as the increasing use of digital asset management, can transform the working lives of journalists by placing all the tools they need on the desktop.
Traditionally, journalists have spent a lot of time on their feet — walking to the ingest area to make a booking, waiting for the tape, taking it to a viewing area to make notes, returning to their desks to write a script before going to an edit suite, arranging a voiceover and graphics and so on. And all that comes together in a control room, where lots of people are responsible for putting all those elements together.
That model is changing now, and much more of the control has been given to the journalists themselves. With the tools we’re now giving them on the desktop, they can browse media, request feeds to be ingested, create captions using templates and drop them all directly into the script using the MOS protocol. All that information then can be read by the automation system with all the correct elements assembled as the story plays to air.
We’re putting more power into the hands of journalists, but we’re also putting them under more pressure. Without the numbers of people around them, if the journalist misspells a caption, for example, it goes on-air misspelled.
And not everyone takes to that kind of responsibility. The goal, then, is to get the balance right by giving journalists greater creativity without making their jobs unnecessarily stressful.
A new kind of audience
This, in turn, is helping broadcasters react to a new kind of audience. Viewers are becoming more discerning; they no longer want their news three times a day or even hourly but, ideally, would like to see what’s happening in the world at a time that’s convenient to them.
They also want to see more in-depth coverage of a story that’s relevant to them as well as sports and weather in greater detail. After all, they have always traditionally read different newspapers that offer them different approaches to reporting the news.
In the UK, there is a rapid growth of enhanced news services on digital satellite channels that provide viewers with a number of alternative streams that basically comprise repackaged material sitting on the broadcast servers. The cost model for running that sort of service is incredibly small, so the automation has to carry out the whole enterprise with just two or three extra personnel alongside the existing operational staff.
The personnel are provided with the tools that allow them to draw on the material that’s already available on the servers, re-edit and re-voice it where necessary, and assemble it into a looping playlist that runs on multiple channels. This is an excellent use of new technology to provide what the viewers appreciate as an invaluable additional service … and all at very little extra cost to the broadcaster. Surely, that’s good news for everyone.
Ian Fletcher is technical director for OmniBus Systems.