An introduction to automation
Today, automation is everywhere: your car has automatic gear shifts, electric windows, headlights, or wipers come on when the weather asks for it. Or think about how your lights can turn on when you come home when it’s dark. Automation eases actions and workflows incredibly, but is it already a part of your broadcast production flow?
Automation isn’t necessarily for the big boys only. In this guide, we investigate how, who can do what. Maybe your small one-man-band outfits can benefit from automating more than you expect… Take ‘De Positivo’s as an example!
A lot of automation processes are pretty basic but highly effective such as a sensor that switches on the lights when it’s dark and it senses movement. The same can be applied to a lot of processes within the broadcasting industry. The key process is to tie software and hardware together and collect the info required to build automated processes.
For example: you could start with a small part of your production such as the playout in your control room. Consequently, a tool could allow a clip to be cued and started on your playout software while at the same time triggering the vision mixer to transition to the clip with the correct wipe. In order to cut to the next item, the tool could trigger the vision mixer again when the clip has finished playing.
However, consider a much more significant change: automate the whole process in one go. It might be a big shift but trust us, this job can be done!
What is automation in the context of TV production and broadcasting?
Automation processes in newsrooms
One example where automation is already being used, is in the newsroom of high-end broadcasters. Think of BBC, CNN, and Sky News. Or you could look more locally at de newsrooms of the Belgian public broadcaster VRT NWS.
These are often very complex shows, containing a lot of different story elements such as local and remote sources, video playout, graphics in many forms, audio segments, camera movements, and a lot of layering and effects going on in the video switcher. They all have to play along nicely and appear at the right moment.
You could manage this manually and in that case, the director seems like an orchestra conductor. He could be standing in the middle of the control room, giving cues and directions to all operators in there. We’ve seen control rooms with 18 operators being directed that way. Naturally, this is a recipe for many human errors.
However, by automating these shows, staff can put out a perfect-looking newscast every single broadcast with a much smaller team. Have a look at our interview with one of the directors of VRT NWS, Thomas Van Praet, comparing the workflow for both the linear and the automated onlie studio.
Automation processes in gameshows, talkshows and entertainment
Another example of complicated shows is gameshows. What happens when a contestant gives the correct or wrong answer? Which audio and video elements should be played? What happens to the scoring system and graphics? There’s an endless list of questions for the production of entertainment shows.
For example, the Belgian gameshow called ‘De Positivo’s’ managed to produce a professional broadcast with an extremely limited team and budget. Take a look at how they pulled this off here.
Despite the complexity of such shows, even today, these shows are still only partially automated. Only the scoring system or graphical elements are automated, but the whole show remains a product of a lot of manual input that is prone to mistakes.
Next to gameshows, there’s plenty of types of shows that could benefit from automation. Have a look at our complete guide about automating TV talk shows.
Why should production teams automate as much as possible?
If you look back at the car and home examples, the idea of automation makes everyday life easier. You don’t even think about gear shifting, turning on wipers, or headlights in your car. So why do you still have to think about telling the playout software operator to cue and start a clip? Or tell the graphics operator to put up a lower third?
Automating these things can make the whole workflow easier. Take a look at our case study of the world’s most advanced graphic overlay platform Singular.Live.
In addition, cloud-based platforms facilitate remote and real-time collaboration, which will be further discussed down below.
Reduce stress and errors
Automating shows makes your life easier and reduces stress in the control room. Will that operator play the correct clip? Will he show the right graphic without typos? Will you get an accurate countdown to the end of that clip? What happens when the clip comes to an end? Automating can ensure everything goes as planned, with less stress and errors.
What happens when new content has to be added to the show, while already recording or broadcasting live? Who does what, and how do people know this is happening? Does everyone have the correct info about that new piece of content? Do people know where it will be aired, how long it lasts, when it ends, and what to do next?
Again, a proper automation tool in your control room will reduce such questions and stress. Here’s an interview with the director’s assistant of gameshow ‘De Dag Van Vandaag’ to give you an image of their job and how they cope with stress.
Automating your content creation process and your control room will reduce manual input and give people working on your show a lot more overview. It enables a centralised and real-time collaboration through a cloud-based platform.
Let me explain to you how: when your producer starts writing texts for your on-screen talent, the text stays in sync with your autocue software. No worries if your producer, host or autocue operator wants to change some words in these texts: these adaptations are updated real-time for everyone connected to the platform.
We had a chat with an autocue operator about her job on the set of ‘De Dag Van Vandaag’, a Belgian gameshow using automation, have a look for yourself!
Moreover, you can give your host a small tablet instead of these paper cue-cards which reduces paper waste as well. No different versions of printed-out sheets with texts anymore. Only one tool in which people and operators work together with real-time updates.
After we considered the above topics, speed is another reason to consider automating your broadcast processes.
When errors get out of the way, a lot of repetitive human input is no longer needed, the end-to-end process obviously gets a speed bump. As a result, your production runs smoother, starting from writing and brainstorming, over shooting, and editing towards the control room where you record or broadcast your show.
The total cost of content creation remains the primary concern. Employing talented people and their time costs money and the time spent in editing rooms and the studio requires quite a budget as well.
Nonetheless, automation can optimize how people and equipment are working. Wouldn’t it be great if you could produce the same shows for less money or in less time?
To automate or not to automate?
So, even though the benefits of automating seem obvious, why are production companies and broadcasters, big or small, not making the switch? Why do they keep using these tedious manual processes? We think the most significant obstacles holding back the adaptation of automation are people’s mindsets and technology.
Staff mental switch
First and foremost, automating broadcast production processes demands a mental switch for every team member. From management to the smallest crew member, everyone has to adapt and it’s human nature to fight a threat to what’s known and trusted at first. It takes some energy to educate the staff properly at first but naturally, it’ll save you quite a lot of energy long-term!
Moreover, people often are scared to lose their jobs to technology but we’re convinced they don’t have to worry. Let’s illustrate it with two examples.
- The Technical Director (TD)
The Technical Director is the one pushing all the buttons on the vision mixer. Considering the TD identifies as a man, we’ll call him ‘he’ in this scenario. He has to know all 500 buttons and 1000s of menu settings by heart.
During the rehearsals of a regular production, he’s the one occupied pushing many buttons and diving into submenus to set up all the scenes of every part of the show. When the director asks for another shot, he has to press a button, when a clip finishes playing, the assistant counts down, and the TD then has to recall a setting or push one or more buttons to make the transition to the next event,…
It’s a lot to manage in a high-paced TV show. We all know the stress this brings on top of that. And we haven’t even added potential mistakes and surprises into the equation: what if something goes wrong or pieces in the rundown change places? And will the TD cope with that?
You could try to deal with all these high-risk variables OR you could automate a big part of the job of a TD. And ask yourself this question: will your talented TD be out of a job now or will he have more time to be part of the creative process? He could help the director keep an eye on the show’s flow, being confident that the automation will assist him by the time that clip finishes playing? The automation could count the clip down and, by the end, trigger the correct transition, graphics, and other elements to move to the next item.
The result is a show where your TD has more time to work on the look of the show instead of the execution. In that way, a show with fewer errors and less downtime to correct mistakes is created while saving on your production budget!
In most shows, you’ll find a lot of versions of scripts, rundowns, and cue cards for the whole team on paper or in Word, Excel, Google Sheets, … and of course: there’s version 1, version 2, the final version, the final-final version, … we can keep going. The script supervisor, production assistant, hosts and autocue operator have a tough job maintaining the latest correct version each time a change took place.
There’s a significant risk of mistakes and your team losing control because they each have different versions. Furthermore, by stopping the recording and rectifying the mistake, time and money gets lost.
But what if your producer, script supervisor, production assistants, and autocue operator all have access to the same texts? If one makes a change, it is automatically synced for everyone? Think about how much stress and worries this worfklow could reduce.
Does this mean these valuable people are out of jobs? No, automation would make their jobs just much more straightforward and give them more confidence. In addition, this could reduce errors and save production money in the end. We made a complete guide about automating your TV talk show, have a read here.
We don’t think people become redundant by automating. Instead, we believe automation could assist them in their jobs’ tedious and repetitive parts, leaving them room to be more part of the creative process and produce a better show.
It’s the same as the analogy we made earlier: a driver is not becoming redundant in an automatic car. He’s still in control and chooses the best spots to stop and travel to. In the end, he has a safer and much more enjoyable trip.
Will everything go as I want once I push that single button to start a whole chain of events? Management and crew can take it one step at a time and automate a single part of the process but a crucial part of the mental switch people have to make is having confidence in technology. It will no longer be a human pushing that button, moving that fader or cueing and starting that clip. Software behind the scenes is doing it all.
Once you get your feet wet and your confidence grows, you can move further. Before you know it, your whole production process, including the editorial and technical part, is fully automated.
As mentioned before, also for news production, automation is highly recommended to ease the lives of the editorial / production team. Have a look at what An Toeloose, editor-in-chief at VRT NWS had to say about the challenges of online news production.
Another reason why automation hasn’t been adopted yet is technology. All the different hardware and software need to talk to each other to allow automation to work well. Your automation will be seriously lacking or impossible if that’s not possible.
It’s not enough that there is a serial port or GPIO present to make automation work. Have a look at the back of your machines, and see what connectors are there. Chances are big, you’ll find BNC and XLR connectors for audio and video, possibly USB ports for a mouse and keyboard, and as we said, serial ports or GPIO ports.
Most of the time, they allow you to control some aspects of your hardware. But do they give feedback on the current state of your hardware? Mostly, they don’t.
If your equipment has an ethernet port, check your manuals. Let’s hope your hardware manufacturer didn’t slap an RJ45 port on it and only uses it as a cheaper alternative to an actual serial port.
If it really is an IP port, you might be in luck. What does it allow? Let’s hope it is not only to update the firmware of your device. Let’s hope there’s an API behind it! An API is short for Application Programming Interface. It’s an acronym to let you know your hardware (or software, for that matter) can be monitored and controlled by other software or hardware.
Such an API, since it works over IP, works bi-directional. You can send commands to it, and it will answer back with an ‘OK’ or information about what happened. Or it will even continuously output information. But, unfortunately, while many software suppliers have a very well-documented and powerful API available, many broadcast equipment manufacturers don’t. If they do have it, they restrict the use by making you pay for it separately or have you sign NDA’s to use it.
Cheap hardware and software (vMIX, BlackMagic Design, Newtek, to name a few) have free and well-documented APIs. The simple fact they do, makes a whole ecosystem of developers exist around these brands. Developing software to control, monitor, and even extend the functionalities becomes easy now.
Software that talks and listens to many of these over your network makes for the holy grail: real automation. ‘Real’ because now you can monitor the state of your hard- and software live and take action accordingly, automatically.
When you’re in the market to buy new hardware or software, ensure it has an API available, free of charge and with proper documentation.
Don’t be afraid of IP either! If your kids can set up a network at home, a seasoned engineer with basic networking skills can do that. The biggest hurdle to take here is your IT department and the networking guys in there.
Make sure they become your best friend and learn their lingo. Terminology like ports, routing, subnet, and protocols should not hold you off. They might fear hacks, intrusions, and other doomsday scenarios. Make sure you start working with them and grow confidence on both sides.
Most broadcast companies have completely separated office and production networks. While this seems expensive, you gain in security and stability. Obviously, you shouldn’t connect your copier to the same network as your vision mixer. But once that’s out of the way, a lot becomes possible.
Which elements of the production process can be automated?
This brings us to the best question to ask now: what will you be automating? Is it a show heavy on the graphics? A lot of layers, animations, video files, and graphics on top, which all need to play in perfect sync? You could start by looking for solutions that can trigger your character generator, still stores, and/or playout software.
Did you think you couldn’t automate an audio engineer? We’ve seen it being done: audio levels being corrected live, human-like by software. Did you think a cameraperson, together with a director, can’t be automated and broadcast a round-table discussion with five people as if humans were calling the shots? Again, we’ve seen it working and know it can be done. So, as we said before, the only things holding you back are the technology at hand and your trust.
First, have a look at your broadcast production. Where do you see many repetitive tasks burdening the smooth flow of your show? Depending on which part, you can start investigating how to automate this task. Talk with your team, operators, and management, and see what comes up. We’ve seen plenty of examples worldwide, and we can assure you: everything in broadcast production environments can be automated.
Secondly, if you want to automate audio mixing to assist your audio engineer, many audio mixing consoles, even the cheapest ones, contain an ‘AutoMix’ feature. It correctly levels the microphones in a panel discussion so your sound guy can manage other tasks or audio sources.
Or you could also have a look at Artisto by On-Hertz. It’s a fully software-based audio engine containing all the levelers, mixers, inputs, and outputs you might need. Then, build your audio pipe with it and automate everything via their Rest-API.
Lastly, if you want to assist and automate your PTZ camera operators, some brands (PTZ Optics, Panasonic) have their own people-tracking software. When the camera sees a face, it starts following it according to the framing parameters you gave it. It might also be worth it to check third-party solutions from brands such as Seervision or MrMoco.
Examples of automation in TV production and broadcasting
How we can help you automate parts of your production or even the whole show, depends on what you want to do. Therefore, we lined up some tools which can help in specific parts of your production or even go all the way. The choice is yours in the end.
Your current vision mixer
This might surprise you, but why not start there? Many new and even older vision mixers have tools like e-mems, macros, and scene settings. The naming might be different, but once you dive into this big boy’s manuals and menus, you might dig up some helpful automation tools.
In most modern vision mixers, you can save the current state of the whole mixer or parts of it and recall it later. That simple process is already automating aspects of the TD’s job. Make a simple note of the corresponding scene number on the rundown for each part and you’ve already made the first steps.
But that’s not all. If your vision mixer incorporates media playback features, you can go even further. It could have ‘still-stores’ or even ‘clip players’: import show openers, stills for on-set screens, animation for stinger-wipes in your switcher’s media players, and include them in your macros.
To top it off, many recent vision mixers allow you to assign such macros to any button. So, your number ‘1’ button doesn’t have to be camera 1. It could very well be your show opener. Hit that button, and your opening bumper plays with audio, it transitions to a wide shot and after 3 seconds, it fades into a close-up shot of your host.
At the same time, it could open up the keyer to show the lower third with the name of your host. All this magic could very well be possible with your current vision mixer.
Bitfocus Companion with Elgato Streamdeck
This is one nifty tool! On one side, Companion is an application that installs on Windows and is a free download. On the other side, Streamdeck is a box with 6, 12, or 32 buttons. List prices are around 200 Euro or USD, depending on the model.
The configuration utility allows you to program each button for a specific action. Since this is open-source software, many manufacturers started developing plugins for this. That means, out of the box, you can control a lot of hardware and software using many different protocols. Moreover, if no plugin exists and your tool has a documented API, you will be able to build your own commands and buttons.
In addition, you can add different commands for various tools under one button. Consequently, you can set delays between each command. Taking our earlier example, you could create a button that controls your playout software, your vision mixer, and your character generator to build your show opener. One button to start your intro, wipe to your wide shot, and cut to the close camera of your host after some seconds.
But we’re not done yet with Bitfocus Companion and Streamdeck. The Streamdeck buttons are little video screens in themselves. Each button can get your own icons, colors (depending on the state of the software), or even thumbnail previews.
For example, a button to cut a camera on air can show a live video preview or it can be red or green, depending on the tally state. We’ve seen many examples where very complex shows with vMIX as a vision mixer and playout software were fully controlled using Bitfocus Companion and Streamdeck by one single operator.
This software is not free (USD49 – 149 depending on which version you choose) and is similar to Bitfocus Companion in many ways. However, where Companion is limited to using a Streamdeck as a user interface, Central Control allows you to use many different hardware panels with buttons and faders.
Many midi-controllers are supported, as are the hardware panels of Newtek Tricasters. Each button on these can perform many more functions by using them via Central Control. For example, use faders on these midi controllers to control your cameras’ shading or build slow motion functions to your playout software.
The limits are only what your creativity and tools’ API allow. Moreover, take into account that Central Control listens back to your software. This in itself can be a new trigger to perform a new action. It allows you to build pretty nifty automations.
Consider this example: if your graphics software API supports it, you can build automations where a lower third only comes on when a close camera of that gameshow participant is on air. Only when the lower third animates ‘off air’, the vision mixer can change sources.
This is an entirely different tool. It takes schedules from News Room Control Sytems and visualizes them in a powerful user interface for your control room staff.
When setup right, it only takes one button (F12) to step through the different steps. Each step will control the associated hardware and software. And this is where the real power of Mosart lies: it can still control many older hardware and software using serial protocols and GPIO commands, together with newer protocols.
You build your templates for your news show, representing each possible look and feel: what does a live cross-talk with a remote journalist look like? Which split-screen preset to choose on the vision mixer? What graphics overlay from your character generator? Which clips for your playout software to play out? And when do we want this: After a set amount of time? After a button press of an operator?
Furthermore, when you load the rundown, every element of it will be mapped to these templates. Seeing this in action is the ultimate form of automation. Be that as it may, keep in mind this is aimed at high-end facilities with a matching price tag. Companies such as BBC use this for their main TV news.
Another approach to the same solution is Skaarhoj: a Danish company producing all kinds of very sturdy operating panels. They all connect over ethernet to your network. Inside they developed their own software to handle a massive list of devices and software. Often they come preloaded with presets for specific appliances, but you can change any button, fader, knob, or even T-bar to perform other actions or a combination of actions.
It’s really powerful once you dive in. The buttons can give feedback, as do the little displays found near most buttons and knobs. Use these to have physical buttons to control your software-based vision mixer, playout software, audio mixer, and so on. Give each button or fader specific functions and you’re automating your production!
TinkerList originated from a multicamera director in Belgium, who saw the need to simplify gameshow and talk show productions.
In a web-based environment, fully cloud-based, researchers and journalists can collect information (text, pictures, video files, …) around a given topic. Consequently, they can place it on a calendar to assign it to the day the show would run. This information is available to all staff working on the show in their own specific views. In addition, that content can now be used to start creating items and added to a rundown for a particular episode.
When you arrive in the studio, you load that rundown in their Tinker Cuez application. It is connected to your studio hardware and software. From now on, it’s simply a matter of clicking the ‘card’ (item) in the rundown, and it performs the actions you want to happen. You choose how far you want to have Tinkerlist building your automation: it can simply be a matter of controlling your playout software, but we know setups where it allows a true ‘one-man-band’ production.
Only one journalist operates the whole studio by themselves, using Tinker Cuez. No technical crew present at all!
But it doesn’t end there: behind the scenes, they have a so-called ‘Automator’. This is a brand-new feature. Where at the moment, Tinkerlist has to build the integration with your hardware and software for you when you sign up, using this new Automator, you can start doing that integration yourself. With a little technical knowledge, you can integrate Tinker Cuez with different protocols over IP, to define what you want to control and which information you need to trigger new actions.
Challenges, problems and the future of production automation
We really hope you enjoyed this guide to help you get started with broadcast automation. Whether you’re a big budget broadcast setup or a one-man-band streamer, automation is possible for all of you. The only things that could limit you are your own doubts, and sometimes technology 😉 .
We see that last one evolving very quickly. New products often come with an API now. When it’s well documented, any broadcast engineer can start exploring and tinkering, and with the solutions we suggested, start building automations.
The future is video. That’s for sure. Print media added pictures at first, and are now doing video as well on their websites. Social media channels are all focussing on- and embracing live video. Therefore, more and more video is being recorded or streamed live everyday.
But producing good quality video demands skills. Learning how to direct a show, frame a shot, and get good audio from a microphone are all crafts that are still mastered by only crews in TV studios. Nevertheless, we firmly believe technology is catching up very fast.
There are well-performing tools out there already to automate almost any part of your production flow. You couldn’t even tell whether the show is fully automated or not.
And that’s where we’re going: automated monotonous audio and video work. Operating that camera in the back of an auditorium to follow that presenter in the front all day? Technology will take over. The same goes for vision mixing, audio mixing and so on.
Will this leave a whole generation of skilled operators unemployed? We don’t think so. If they play it well, they’ll get to do more demanding shows which are not ready to fully automate them. Or they might set up their own business, use automation tools, and take it all in their own hands.
The future of video might be in technology, but people will still be the creative brains creating great content with this new technology. We’re looking forward to your productions!