Automated Production Control: What to Look For
Four Potential & Traditional Broadcaster Benefits of Automated Production Control
- Managing multiple types of productions, scripted and unscripted.
- Tighter, cleaner, more consistent productions across all shifts.
- A powerful ROI that enables OPEX savings or repurpose staff for more content creation.
- Reduce complexity of live production; monetize web and mobile content.
There are a few other significant benefits.
It's Not Just Television Anymore
Over the last five years, the newsroom has been transforming faster than any time in recent memory. Reporters who were once tasked with delivering content for the five, six or eleven o'clock news must now deliver content for traditional workflows AND social media like Facebook Live, Periscope, and plenty of others. This new layer of distribution has created intense pressure for news organizations to perform on a 24/7 news cycle. Today's reporters might get sent to cover a fire, Tweet about it on the way to the scene, and then as the photographer is setting up the bonded cell network, start broadcasting from their cell phone to Facebook Live talking about the event.
This dovetails into the reality that viewing habits have changed. Younger viewers don't watch linear television; they consume their content on web and mobile. Broadcasters have not been able to monetize content created for web and mobile as successfully as for linear productions. The intense demand for current web content has created the need for second and third control rooms; however the CAPEX for these projects is far less. This will continue to be an obstacle until a proper level of monetization is achieved for web and mobile content.
What is Automated Production Control (APC)?
Automated production is a software layer that resides in a broadcast facility which allows a single operator to control the various devices needed for a given live production. A proper APC system should be able to handle both scripted and unscripted breaking news style productions seamlessly. The APC solution should be the central point of communication and control, no additional third party playlist tools should be utilized as these ancillary software systems can easily get out of sync when breaking news or rapid change is occurring. APC solutions, the right ones, should scale from single M/E products, all the way to four M/Es and greater.
Things to Consider with APC
APC can bring a number of efficiencies to your broadcast environment, most notably fewer on-air mistakes, which translates into a higher production quality. The fact is that not all directors or operators are created equal. They come with varying abilities, which can be visible during weekends and early mornings. APC adds consistency across all days and shifts. There can be an ROI, if your solution can automate devices such as audio consoles, and it's worth noting that many APC solutions struggle with audio, requiring a manual audio operator which works to negate many of the benefits.
Customers tell us they are looking for flexibility first. This means flexibility in handling all productions in a facility. APC solutions need to be simple enough for any experience level of operatorsthis could mean a technical director, graphic artist or producer. APC solutions must be intuitive and customizable to meet the needs of the production, as not all productions have the same level of complexity, so choose an APC solution that allows users to customize their UI to match the exact needs of the live production being produced. Whether it's linear over-the-air, web or mobile, broadcasters need a single tool to manage however many control rooms with one unified workflow.
A scripted production can easily be done with any solution, but change is inevitable and broadcasters need a solution that can quickly and easily handle any type of event whether scripted or unscripted. In studio, live or outside of the confines of a newsroom computer system (NRCS) or a script, the solution must be able to deliver a very dynamic show and deliver the same quality production consistently every time. If your APC solution falls apart during breaking news or unscripted production, you should consider a replacement.
Typically, integration consisted of interfaces with various third-party devices needed for live production. The dawn of the web and mobile era has caused the demand for APC solutions to now include integration for all platforms that help manage online content. Platforms like a facility's CMS are no brainers, but what about social media management? What about managing all of the content, logins, and passwords for Twitter, YouTube and Facebook across your facility? What about the ability to track a story's trend in the social media space? How about the ability to set a kill date for a particular story on social media? Your APC solution should have an answer for regional multicasting, the embargo of content and the proper SCTE insertion of ad breaks for linear, web and mobile.
What is the Typical Timeline from Box to On-Air?
If the integration and rollout are planned well, this change is not something that will affect the viewers' experience. Typically a facility will spend a few weeks stacking and racking the new equipment. We spend a week commissioning and two weeks of training. To help ensure there is no impact to production, training typically occurs when the production crew has down timethis might be afternoons, mornings or weekends. Your system should support dynamic templates which help to drastically reduce the size of your library and the time it takes to create production events. The more tools a vendor can provide, in terms of device creation and setup, the more sophisticated the solution.
Basic APC Checklist
While evaluating an APC solution should be a very involved task for news, engineering and technical management, there are some basic things that you want to look for during your evaluation:
The Unexpected Should Not be an "Oh No!" Moment
- Does the APC have a positive track record with current users? Any APC system provider should be able to provide a list.
- Does the APC easily manage all the devices that you need it to, and do it well, especially if those devices are from a third-party manufacturer? Remember, no third-party list applications should be required.
- Can the APC handle both scripted and unscripted programs and can it easily go unscripted if the need arises? In addition, can it make that transition quickly and smoothly?
- Does the system come with templates that you can modify? Do these templates suit your needs or will you need more?
- Does your system constantly monitor your NRCS during a live show looking for errors and updates? Notification of problems is essential.
- From both the news and production side, how easy or complex is the system to learn and operate, and more importantly does the vendor provide you with the proper software tools to help make modifying your event library easy? If not, find one that does.
Things happen, change during a newscast is inevitable. Breaking news doesn't happen during hours where scheduled operators are on-site. Can the APC handle this type of change? Is your unscripted workflow as easy as your scripted? If not, you need to find a solution that handles all the rigors of live production. Can any level of operator or station talent operate your system? Does your system have a purpose built automation panel to help improve the operation? Your system should also support tablets, which can allow talent or other operators to help during those breaking news/unscripted moments in live production.
When it comes to an APC solution, it's all about the C Control. It's this type of control that is the center of the broadcast universe over all devices in a live production. All of the data and all of the assets that come into your APC need to be controlled for playout. When stories move, drop or get deleted, the APC, through the NRCS, must manage it. Scripted and unscripted productions, breaking news or any place where there is change in the production workflow, your APC must excel. It's this type of control that delivers tight, clean and crisp productions. Even when there's chaos behind the scenes, the viewer will never know.
Size Doesn't Matter...Until it Does
Your size today might not be your size tomorrow. You might be the smallest of the small, needing just a 1 M/E switcher for live production in your local market. Or you may need many more M/Es for programs broadcast to millions of people. The reality is that any APC under consideration must be able to accommodate your size today, tomorrow and next year, and from one to multiple control rooms.
One of the benefits of an APC is that it becomes fairly easy to leverage those CAPEX funds to more than just the production(s) that it was originally purchased for. So while you may have two 30-minute newscasts and a Sunday public affairs show today, it's easy (from a technical workflow standpoint) to expand the running times of those shows or launch new ones.
User Generated Content (UGC)
Today everyone can generate content. Thankfully, a good portion of that content is newsworthy. Your APC system, with its social media component, must be able to handle UGC along with a variety of codecs from different sources. As formats change and files get bigger, it's becoming more difficult to move content around, especially as most broadcast facilities aren't set up to manage a bunch of different codecs from different sources. This means they typically have to be brought into a big, heavy iron transcoder and converted into a format you can then handle and broadcast. This adds time to air. How does the APC solution that you're evaluating handle UGC? If there isn't a purpose built transcoder, with a growing file workflow, chances are you have big holes in your UGC workflow.
A Final Word
When all is said and done, an APC is all about nowgetting to air "now."
The viewers want to see what's happening or affecting their world "now." Your APC must give you the tools and the power to get to air and online fast and it must be faster than your competition so that you can be first to air. And that's the final point...a great APC solution can get you to air first, with the best quality that your viewers (and advertisers) deserve.
At the end of the day, it's about eyeballs, ratings, advertisers and promotional bragging rights. It's not just about linear over-the-air productions anymore. If your APC solution doesn't have a strong live, streaming, social media and on-demand content workflow, you and your viewers are missing the boat.