Automation And Cloud Drive Studio Workflows
Broadcasters are already heavily exploiting production automation tools to produce newscasts with lean control room teams. With improvements in IP connectivity, they said they are now turning to the private and public cloud to find new efficiencies in their production workflows at TVNewsCheck’s NewsTECHForum event on Tuesday.
Many vendors upgraded their systems at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to support more remote workflows, said Jeff Birch, VP engineering for CBS Television Stations. With the latest automation software, CBS-owned stations are now able to produce newscasts with only two people in the control room, a director and a TD. And the goal is to reduce that to a single operator by early next year.
The latest edition of automation software also allows remote production across stations for disaster recovery efforts, with a single console in New York able to light up and direct a control room in Los Angeles, he added.
“As opposed to having just a computer system in the control room, the computer is basically running the control room these days, with one person sitting there riding shotgun on top of it,” Birch said. “The connectivity has been key — we’ve seen the speeds that all the vendors can provide to us increase four, five, six-fold in the last couple of years, so you can do a lot more with a lot less. You can see more sources, and you can control more things in real time. So overall, it’s allowed us to not only remote things better, but use less resources to accomplish the same production values that we used to do two years ago.”
New Studio Advantages At WTTG
WTTG, the Fox O&O in Washington, also uses automation software across all of its newscasts, relying on Sony ELC software and Vinten robotic camera systems. The station is doing just under 90 hours of news and other live programming per week, and at least 60 hours of that is driven by the ELC software, said Jim Beahn, WTTG VP engineering and operations.
The station’s morning programming, which tends to be more spontaneous, still uses an audio operator and a robotic camera operator in the control room.
“We find that we still do need that one person to be able to touch up the shots and keep things centered,” Beahn said. “And that same person can also shade the cameras.”
WTTG moved to a new IP-based facility in a modern office building in Bethesda, Md., last year, with a spacious open floorplan and camera-ready newsroom. Its studio presentations have become much more graphics-intensive compared to its former home, which had a few hanging monitors and a modest LED monitor wall.
“The new studio is just layers of monitors and LED monitor walls in the background, and a lot of things move around,” Beahn said. “So, what that means is now the producers have to program all of these monitors.”
WTTG’s newscasts use Chyron graphics with templates that are created by the Fox station group’s graphics hub in Tampa, Fla. In addition to using those templated tools to place graphics in the rundown for lower-thirds and full-screen graphics, producers are employing them to program graphics for the LED monitor wall backgrounds and hanging monitor arrays. That includes creating varied looks for different shows, such as a cityscape background for the morning news and the inside of a law library for a midday court program.
“It gives us a great deal of flexibility as they run through the program,” Beahn said. “You can do weather and then you change what’s in those monitors to augment the story. Or then what’s really helpful is you can do a totally different show.”
The adoption of a 2110 routing infrastructure in the new plant gives WTTG additional flexibility to reconfigure control rooms and generate live shots from various locations within the building. The newsroom can also function as a set unto itself and is actually the home base for a daily afternoon news show that speaks to writers and also interviews passing pedestrians on the street level.
WTTG’s new plant can also take the same feed and easily run it through different encoders to better support multiplatform production. The station now has a dedicated podcast studio with the ability to televise podcasts live. And there is a separate small control room set up just for streaming to the web, a concept that debuted at Fox’s Phoenix station a few years ago.
“You could have a producer/anchor running the entire operation,” Beahn said. “They have a switcher, audio capability and Zoom capability. Or you could bring in a LiveU remote and stream out programming, such as a hearing or a car chase.”
Disney Pursues Flexibility
As it designs a new broadcast center in downtown Manhattan, Disney is looking to take all of ABC News’ production workflows off dedicated broadcast hardware and move them to software applications that can run remotely on common compute. The network is aiming for there to be no difference in the user experience for its news personnel whether they are in the building, in a news truck or working from home, said Fabian Westerwelle, executive director, media & technology operations for Disney DMED Tech Production Operations.
“Flexibility is really the key for us,” Westerwelle said. “It’s all about not making the building the central part of the actual technology but making the building just another place where we produce content.”
Disney’s new building not only has to accommodate ABC News’ big production load, including its 24/7 ABC News Live streaming channel, but also connect to various bureaus around the world. The facility will also support sports production for ESPN as well as local news for ABC-owned WABC New York. So, the DMED team has taken a hard look at the compute, storage and network tools needed to create a “software-defined architecture” that will allow for easy sharing and support a variety of workflows.
The solution is to use a Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) to connect to centralized compute, which depending on the application could either be a Disney data center or a public cloud platform. Live production applications like graphics are more likely to use a private cloud approach, while other functions like the newsroom computer system (NRCS) or media asset management (MAM) may be at least partly supported in the public cloud. To that point, ABC News already has its archive in the public cloud today.
“They can log in from anywhere in the world via VDI session and get access to the software solutions that they need to do the work at any point in time,” Westerwelle said, “It’s not just them being able to work from home, it’s them being able to work from anywhere. It doesn’t matter if they’re in the building in one seat or if they’re in a control room or if they’re somewhere else, they’re logging back into the same exact session that they need for the work they’re trying to do.”
The DMED team is looking to create the same amount of flexibility for studio production, outfitting sets with LED walls that can be easily reconfigured for different shows and choosing live production systems that can run on nondedicated hardware.
“The reality that we’re trying to get to is that we can run any studio from any control room,” Westerwelle said. “A lot of that we’re already doing. But the traditional limitations have been that a lot of those solutions are very dedicated-hardware-based, and they have to be locked in between those studios and control rooms. The philosophy is to decouple all of that and be able to run any studio from any control room and also run controls for studios in the other bureaus and locations.”
Amagi Targets Live
Software vendor Amagi has gained traction in the U.S. market helping both major networks and local stations launch new OTT products, such as FAST channels, with its cloud-based master control product. The company is now pursuing a footprint beyond playout with improved live capabilities and graphics tools.
“The first generation of streaming channels was largely clip reels, or recorded content, kind of stitched together,” said Stephen Bach, Amagi sales manager, news vertical. “Or maybe it was a very rudimentary playlist of the live newscast, or maybe a slightly delayed newscast, and then replays of that until you were back live on the air. And now our clients are doing much more sophisticated scheduling for these FAST channels. And one thing that has really been a theme is the ability to go live at any moment.”
Since Amagi’s master control software is operated through a web browser, any credentialed operator can turn a channel on live. Bach said that a lot of the company’s local news customers are using that capability to broaden their streaming coverage.
“When maybe they’re not in a live simulcast, they’re covering and extending events,” Bach said, “maybe covering political rallies or campaign speeches in their entirety, where otherwise it would just be a soundbite on the newscast.”
One new live production customer is virtual news channel Coindesk TV, which is using Amagi to insert graphics including headlines from its website and a running ticker of cryptocurrency prices.
Part of the development for Amagi’s production control capability is integrating its cloud software with traditional control room tools like switcher panels to make it easier for broadcasters to use the technology to switch between cameras or hit a break.
“One of our themes of our work the last few months has been tying that to physical switchboards,” Bach said. “Using APIs so you can actually take the switchboard that the technical director is accustomed to hitting and mapping that to master control in the cloud, which I think is going to be a very important signal of convergence between these two worlds.”
CBS’s Birch said such integration efforts would make using the cloud easier for CBS’s “more veteran staff” who are used to traditional switchers and audio consoles, but that many younger personnel are very comfortable using a keyboard and mouse, or perhaps a touchscreen, to control a production. The CBS stations have already been using the cloud to produce their CBSN streaming product, and Birch expects the technology to slowly spread into wider use across their news operations.
“At the end of the day, we’re trying to give them the best of both, so that anybody can sit down and put a show on regardless of what you’re used to doing,” Birch said. “Going forward, I see less and less traditional work surfaces in the control rooms; I see less and less traditional control rooms. There are plenty of folks out there today that have got a mouse, a keyboard and a couple of monitors, and they’re in somebody’s office, and they can cut a show with that and do it very well. I see that’s where it’s ultimately going.”
Scaling Into The Cloud
The air-chain for ABC’s round-the-clock streaming channel, “ABC News Live,” currently runs entirely on on-premise hardware at the network’s uptown broadcast center. But that could change in the move to Disney’s new building downtown. Westerwelle envisions a hybrid approach, with perhaps the base playout capability remaining on-premise in a private data center but other support applications or contribution pieces living in the public cloud.
Disney has already done a fair amount of testing of live production in the cloud, and Westerwelle is confident that ABC News could do it today if it wanted to. But he said that given scale and other factors it doesn’t make sense now to aggressively push to move live production into public cloud. Instead, he would rather “scale into the cloud” when the number of productions bursts beyond the typical monthly baseline, something the DMED team is currently considering.
“The industry is to a point where we can run full-fledged live, multicamera, replay, graphics-heavy events and productions in public cloud if we wanted to,” Westerwelle said. “It’s a matter of scale and how many we’re doing.”
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