The Humble Beginnings of Broadcast Automation
“INDUSTRIES 4.0” is a series dedicated to examining methods of automation within different sectors, how twechnology has helped solve existing problems, and how the future of the industry will be shaped by automation.
For the first article of the series, we will be looking at automation in the ever-growing world of broadcast.
The AM/FM Crisis
When FM stereo was debuted in 1961, many stations chose to simply take their sister AM stations and simulcast the programming on FM. Eventually, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) called for more on-air variety and in 1966, imposed a mandatory minimum number of separate programming between AM and FM stations. Scrambling to fill the new airtime on FM on limited revenue, stations turned instead to radio automation.
First invented in the 1950s, the first radio automation machines played 45 RPM records using a jukebox-like mechanism. This offered low stability, however, as the selector mechanism had to be cleaned and lubricated often to prevent the powerful motor from smashing every record. It wasn’t until the late 60s that enough improvements had been made to provide the kind of stability that would be enough for most of the bigger FM stations.
The new automation system consisted of four boxes of two-track reel and one-sided tape, threaded accordingly by the DJ. The 100 Series contained current hits, the 200 Series had the oldies, the 300 Series had “recurrents” (songs released in the past seven years that are still relevant to the public), and the 400 Series was for nighttime airplay. The tape reels at this point needed to be constantly changed by DJs in the AM studio, which was a time-sensitive task requiring precision and speed. After putting in the cart tapes containing the jingles, commercial spots, PSAs, weather and time checks, and mandatory hourly station identification, the system can now be programmed. Each system differed from one another – Some were computerized, and others used switches.
As the 70s progressed and FM became more dominant, many automated FMs went live, and some used automation for AM programming. Eventually, many automated radio stations began to further automate their workspace by pre-recording shows prior to airtime and playing it at the appropriate time slot. This practice is still met with controversy today as it makes the programming feel generic and artificial.
While the concept of broadcast automation began humbly in radio, today it is focused on television. With the technologies available, broadcast studios have begun to explore the possibilities of automated equipment to ease the process of television broadcast, in addition to live effects that help capture viewers.
Automation systems tend to be put into place as a cost-saving initiative. It makes sense to prefer large, upfront capital investments in automation systems over paying ongoing operational expenses for multiple staff. Today’s manufacturers pitch automation systems as capable of generating more accurate, consistent and higher production standards, while removing possibilities for human error. However, the degree of automation varies across different scenarios and different broadcast studios; for instance, one could opt to have semi-automation or part-automation. That’s why it’s important to have staff with both technical and editorial understandings of what’s required.
As with every known application of automation, the use of machines brings up concerns of whether it will replace existing jobs. In television broadcast, the roles of operators become diminished with the use of automation, and many worry that it will minimize the creative efforts of trained craft professionals. While there is some truth to this concern, the reality is that automation brings out a different type of creativity entirely. Instead of being primarily labeled as technical staff, operators working with automation will now be asked to have creative vision. They have to learn to think like Directors, Technical Directors, Camera and Audio Operators all in one, combining creativity with their technical skills. The Director will also need to have more artistic license so that the rigidity often found in automated content may be removed.
The need for multi-skilled operators in automated studios may mean that more specific technical roles are being eliminated, but this should be no cause for alarm. The workflow of broadcast is inherently fluid, and every role will likely require, at the very least, basic knowledge of every aspect, including cameras, audio, and directing. The shift towards automation will simply require broadcast workers to be given the latest training, and for staff to stay up-to-date with current products and technologies.
Alex Bassett, a Director and Technical Consultant who has worked on various studio automation projects, envisions a new breed of Directors emerging – either tech-savvy Producers or Technical Directors with editorial awareness: “Because when you get to a point in automation where you are running at the leanest capacity, you need people to understand both sides of the production more than ever.”
For now, there is no one-size-fits-all automation product being offered to broadcast studios. Instead, a more common package is customized solutions concocted by studios working together with tech manufacturers. Bloomberg Radio’s New York studio, for instance, uses a proprietary control and automation system developed by Bloomberg itself. The system includes camera automation, in which cameras are set up for the position of each talent or guest so that it is pre-framed without any physical movement or adjustments to the camera. When asked if there were any difficulties in the design, Bloomberg Global Radio Manager, Anthony Mancini, says, “the biggest challenge was thinking about radio differently. Where is the medium going? What haven’t we done yet? What is new and exciting that we can do that this space can help us achieve?… In the end the push by our technology team and designers helped create a space unique to radio but still fitting the mold and culture of Bloomberg.”
Mancini’s comment emphasizes the importance of choosing the right system to match your company image and style. For Fox Sports, this meant the inclusion of real-time AR elements to create cutting-edge content using cutting-edge technology, including graphic elements by Unreal Engine, Zero Density studio software, and BlackTrax real-time tracking system to automatically trigger events on the set, whether it’s lighting or AR effects.
By making the impossible appear before our eyes, using AR in broadcast is not only captivating, but also magical. BBC News recently aired a segment using AR to spotlight Mars. Against a NASA garage backdrop, the presenter motions toward a floating 3D Mars, on which the locations of various probes can be seen around the planet as it spins on its axis in a virtual universe.
After a brief explanation of the probes on Mars, the garage door slides open to reveal a model of NASA’s InSight lander, which rolls its way towards the presenter. The spacecraft appears perched on top of a virtual chunk of the red planet’s surface; using AR here helps viewers to instantly visualize the presenter’s discussion of the probe’s mission and instruments, and helps to clarify complex information.
Studios of Tomorrow
The current growing trend of studio automation will breed a further hybrid of Producer-Directors as primary operators. Bassett says he would like to see voice control being implemented, which would break the barrier of programming machines at the user level, and with machine learning functions, would make for a highly flexible product.
With use of AR and VR still on the rise, it will be very interesting and exciting to watch how the world of broadcast companies will aim to improve their studios to culminate in the studio of tomorrow.