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How to get the most from studio automation

Blog
20 May 2015

Studio automation software is a very efficient and simple way of consistently delivering high quality television productions.

But how do you really know whether automation is right for you and your channel? Most who switch do so because:

•    Programme production quality varies considerably depending on who is directing, vision-mixing, operating the audio, lighting etc.
•    The channel is rebranding, refreshing its technology, or changing its style and looking to add a new level of complexity and depth to studio programmes.
•    Competitive broadcasters deliver higher quality programmes with fewer people in the gallery.
•    You want to use the staff you have more creatively.

The wrong reason to adopt studio automation is purely as a cost saver. Yes, automation can pay for itself inside a year, but, in order to do so, it needs the full cooperation of everyone involved.

If it is perceived as a job-killer, automation will be extremely hard to implement and may fail. However, if it is presented as a job liberator – it’s far more likely to succeed.

What do you want to achieve?

Before you start, establish what you want from an automation system. Do you need it to build new shows with a high degree of complexity or do you just want to get more out of the existing kit?

Planning on the structure of a programme should be started even before there’s any kit in place.

Extra devices can be added later on, but if there is a clear idea about how a show should look and which devices will do what, it will be much easier to set the system up correctly and verify that everything works as planned.

Which workflow and why?

Constructing workflows for a new operation with automation is very different from retrofitting a gallery.

These workflows should be agreed as early as possible in the planning process and designed to ensure optimal performance with the new systems, instead of just modifying the old one.

Workflows often end up looking like their predecessors, mainly because a ‘that’s how we’ve always done it’ attitude prevails and not necessarily because it’s the most effective way to use an automation system.

Consider who should be in the gallery and where they will appear in the chain. The best option may not be to have everyone manning their usual station.

Because automation systems rely on input from an NRCS, it’s beneficial to move a technical person from the gallery out into the newsroom to work more closely with journalists and news producers.

Having access to an expert with an overview of the running orders will help those in the newsroom if they have technical questions about automation commands in the NRCS.

Automation champions

To ensure an automation project is a success, consider appointing a studio automation champion to be the diplomat, motivator and ‘go-to’ person for the rest of the crew.

This should be someone that directors can ask automation-related questions and who can get involved with setup decisions and show design. 

The more an automation project also becomes the champion’s project, the more likely you will have a passionate advocate who will want to maintain and evolve the system and above all, teach, assist and support the other automation users.

Keeping order

Using template or skeleton running orders minimises how much a journalist needs to do, and restricting the number of people who can access the running order helps limit potential mistakes.

Stories should also be moved to a restricted ‘on-air’ queue regularly.

When building an automation system, create enough templates so that a programme is not dull, but not so many that the director and gallery team are likely to get confused and make mistakes on-air.

Most news channels have a certain look and structure, so it makes sense to try to be consistent in the automation templates as well, keeping the non-standard templates for ‘specials’.

Beware the moving camera

It has become the classic problem for automated newscasts – and there are examples on YouTube and Televisual to prove it!

Robotic cameras do exactly what they are told. They don’t make mistakes. So too with an automation system.

It tells all its attached devices to follow a specific set of pre-defined commands and is especially good at repeating trivial tasks.

Problems usually occur when camera moves are built into stories and automation templates get moved around, dropped or cancelled in the running order.

Therefore, a camera may be in entirely the wrong position for the next story, or perhaps it has been told to focus on a news anchor sitting at the studio desk when the talent is actually standing next to the monitor screens.

Sometimes, when the robotic camera commands are built into news stories, the camera just can’t physically get from A to B as specified. It’s very embarrassing but very avoidable.

Instead, camera moves can be fired manually from either a touch screen connected to the automation system, or the camera itself.

Automated camera moves can also be limited to the parts of the programme that don’t move around in the running order, like the openings or other consistent events.

A simple message can be relayed from an automated audio player to let the presenter and director know that the cameras will start moving from ‘the big screen position’ to ‘the seated position’.

Intercom chatter is generally not welcome on set, so giving the workflows and camera operation more in-depth consideration during the entire rundown is always a good idea.

Of course using the incorrect template or not pressing the right button will trigger the wrong move.

However when you consider all the channels that have mastered the art and skill of studio automation to deliver top-quality programming, and analyse their return-on-investment, automating your workflow is a change that every smart broadcast organisation should be seriously considering.

Rex Jenkins is MD of Vizrt UK, the company behind studio control system Viz Mosart.

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