A smarter approach to real-time workflows

Petter VizrtPetter Ole Jakobsen, CTO, Vizrt

Today, sports broadcasters, content and rights owners and producers have a difficult challenge: they have to create more with less.

First, the style of television is changing. In something like sport or news, audiences have come to expect more graphics, and a more fluid visual style. If you were to watch something from as recently as five years ago, you‘d be surprised by how static it felt. You’d also appreciate how much more engaging today’s programming is, and how much more enjoyable and interesting it is to watch.

Until recently, the action would be presented, and maybe there would be a caption. Now we expect much more. In sports, we assume there will be motion graphics to make it clear when we’re going into a replay and out again. That graphic sequence itself will vary to make it clear why we’re seeing a replay: audiences are told, visually, whether you’re watching an attempt at goal, witnessing a foul, or celebrating a touchdown.

At the same time, the production team has to contend with more than just the television broadcast. Online and mobile subscribers want to see the key action instantaneously, and neatly packaged for their platform.

The challenge is not just about getting high quality content into the right format for the target device, it’s also about doing it quickly. If you’re consistently the fastest to get the goal to the iPad, then consumers will choose your service rather than a competitor’s. This not only secures audience loyalty, but also ultimately adds revenue to the bottom line.

And, there is more pressure than ever on controlling costs. Budgets are tighter and throwing staff at the job – even if it was practical – is not an option. So workflows have to be smarter to make production richer, faster and easier. To achieve that, the technology platform must be enhanced to allow teams to do more with fewer resources. The best media asset management technology should empower journalists and allow them to be creative with their storytelling – all without operational barriers.

Note the emphasis on ‘smarter’. Budgetary constraints mean there’s no CAPEX for a wholesale technology replacement, just as there is no OPEX for increased staffing.

Changing the paradigmField

We have a very clear idea of what a television production workflow involves. There are a number of devices – graphics generators, servers and so on – which all feed into a production switcher. There, the vision mixer brings them all together, often in multi-layer effects, and the director and PA prepare and cue the sources.

It’s the way that television has always been done, and so naturally there’s resistance to a paradigm shift. But we have to ask if this approach is right for content, like live sports, which involves many layers, fluid graphics, and delivery in multiple variations to multiple platforms.

Traditionally, every time a new element is added, the director, producer and operator behind the production switcher all sit around and debate how this can be achieved. Then, in the heat of the event, they have to remember what they decided and how to do it.

It’s time that we move from ‘how’ to ‘what’. We should define what we want, then let the technology deliver it. Simply by taking out the ‘how’ step, we de-stress the live production, and open up huge new capabilities without adding to the burden of operational staff.

Adding the intelligence
The solution to making this transition lies in bringing all presentation items, from design through to render, into a single system.

In this case, ‘system’ means just that. It may not be a single device: it could be an intelligent master device controlling a number of others. This does not man casting aside existing production servers and switchers, as these likely represent significant infrastructure investments that your staff has experience using.

Today’s best and most advanced systems are capable of packaging content and optimizing delivery speed within a media asset management environment, while wrapping in branding and graphics. The success of these systems and the companies behind them depends upon those abilities and a constant requirement: speed. Now is the time to take these capabilities and use their intelligence to smooth and speed workflows.

As previously discussed, fluidity in graphics is essential to todays’ broadcasting. That’s hard for manual operations to achieve. So it makes sense to design the fluidity and the transition logic, into templates that work with the graphics and other content in a single stream.

The mere suggestion of templates however, suggests rigidity, and that is absolutely not acceptable. So templates themselves must be highly flexible, and allow for continual changes and updates. For example, these tools must empower journalists in newsrooms to easily create and edit their own graphics and make changes right up until playout. That, in turn, calls for big processing power because if you’re going to allow the content to be updated right up to the point of transmission, then you need to render in real time.

This kind of flexibility also allows the elements to be kept separate, which benefits the workflow in numerous ways. You can define audio to start when the lower third reaches a certain point, or a motion graphics sequence to be triggered by something in the video. For a human operator to work out how to do that under pressure is risky and limiting. Again, we want the operator to be focusing on the ‘what’ and not the ‘how’.

An integrated system for all platforms

A platform that manages all content in a central repository, where production staff can produce video files for broadcast, mobile, and web in one seamless workflow is the system of the future. These integrated systems—accessible from a standard PC or desktop—allow quick start up and delivery of all media assets to any platform in one workflow, and come pre-configured in packages targeted to specific types of production or bundled for a single system that handles many different types of production. The best of the best of these new systems allows broadcasters to make edits to video and graphics from within their native newsroom system until the moment content is sent live to air. The edit decision list (EDL) and graphic information are stored as metadata, with the video and graphics playlist then sent to the control room, with the final piece played back in real-time on-air – automatically sized and distributed online and to mobile devices. The workflow saves space by storing only original files rather than clogging servers with edited content, and saves time by performing the conforming process live with automatic multiplatform distribution.


Speeding the workflow

Packaging clips for online services can also be templated, and driven by automated triggers. Sports events are routinely logged live. It‘s simple to write a script that says when a certain event is tagged, clip the video from the growing file ten seconds before and after the tag, add the standard branding graphics, and send it to the content delivery network.

That meets the need for speed. Today online and mobile delivery of ‘live’ sports clips is measured in minutes. We can achieve delivery in seconds, and that‘s what rights owners want. It is also, of course, what audiences want.

All of this is possible with technology now available. More important, it can be integrated with the equipment you already have. Some of the today’s most advanced solutions do not require replacement of existing video servers, only to know what your existing server is doing.

What is essential is a shift in mindset. Move away from relying on manual processes at the heart of the operation and shift towards a flexible but standardized automation workflow. The approach does not take away from the expert eyes controlling the broadcast and delivery, it just lets them focus on the content rather than the mechanics of creating it. Now that must be good news – for viewers, programme makers, broadcasters and rights owners alike.

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