How automation is changing the television industry as we know it

Charlie Spargo's picture
by Charlie Spargo
Alex Bassett

Alex Bassett, director and lead technical consultant for many of the world's major broadcasters, takes a look at whether automation really is the silver bullet people are looking for.

Automation in live television is not a new concept. In fact, it's been around for many years.

A traditional TV setup includes a director, technical director, graphics operator and production assistant, as well as multiple cameramen, audio engineers, lighting directors and technical support. These highly skilled people output a programme put together by a team of producers who have scripted, edited and reported on the stories of the day.

As budgets have tightened, major broadcasters have had to look at ways to continue to make informative content while keeping high production values. Fortunately, technology has continued to evolve and manufacturers across the industry now offer various automation systems as a solution. In brief, this means that rather than an entire crew operating all the equipment, a piece of software - which can be used by just one person - controls everything.

More accurate than humans?

Now, do I think automation is a solution for all broadcast scenarios? Certainly not. It should be measured against what's required by each production, and how it fits into the company's existing workflows and culture. It's often presented as a cost-saving exercise, one "more accurate than humans", even as "a one-time investment to save money on high operational costs over time." Don’t get me wrong, it can do this - but only when set up smartly. The reality is that this is not always the case!

Manufacturers suggest that the system can be operated by anyone from any background - be it a non-technical producer, or even a presenter while presenting. In its simplest form, this is true. It really is as easy as hitting one button to go to the next segment! If nothing changes, this concept works.

However, in live television things are rarely this straightforward. There is often breaking news, video packages still being worked on, and reporters in the field in challenging conditions. It can cause a whole host of technical issues.

In a traditional workflow, producers can rearrange the order of the programme and inform the director, who communicates this to everyone before the crew reacts. But when software has replaced your crew, the director has to make sure the appropriate coded commands are made, so the next segment goes on air as it should. In the heat of the moment, it's far quicker to direct a person than it is code a certain command into the software.

I don't want to do the manufacturers a disservice; when you build this kind of setup, there are shortcuts to help get you out of problems. But I firmly believe automation in its current form still needs someone with a technical mindset and the ability to make sure things are configured, coded and of broadcast standard before being taken to air.

When automation's involved, every command has to be right

Theory versus reality

For example, as a director, it can be extremely daunting when things change quickly and you look down at your equipment - often a computer keyboard - and have to know which button to hit to change what is currently on air to what needs to go next. And remember, once you press it, it will be on people’s TVs whether it's right or not! This can certainly be learnt, but it takes years to refine - and really is the difference between high-end production and something amateur. While I appreciate that anyone can operate these systems, it still isn’t quite there yet - at least not when things start to go wrong.

On the editorial side, automation has created a new type of producer, one who has to be more technically savvy than ever before. Depending on the setup, they can now configure everything - from camera moves, to lighting, audio and graphics. They're now, for example, responsible for adding all the words and timings on graphics so they appear and disappear with the correct information at the correct time.

Producers know the story and can see the pictures they are editing, so rather than tell a graphics operator when to play it, they tell the system. Seems more efficient right? But it comes with caveats - timing and accuracy of spelling both have to be good for this to look perfect. It appears automatically however it's been saved - without the second pair of eyes a graphics operator brings. 

We've all seen this on TV. Something like ‘John Smith’ being spelt ‘John Smiht’. The software does show everything that's been saved, so a director can amend, skip, remove or add anything if required. But it means that the now one-man crew must check everything before it goes on air, as they're ultimately responsible for quality control. A tough job!  

A new generation of producers and directors

While the systems are often removing traditional roles of cameramen, audio engineers and graphics operators, what's being created is a new evolution of specialist technical directors and producers. They need to not just understand their new role as director and all the technical roles that have been removed, but have an in-depth understanding of what the story actually is. They're now not just responsible for showing this as accurately as possible, but using the tools around them in the most creative and engaging way so that viewers understand the story.

Automation is currently still an unfinished product. It does work, just not as well as it could. In fact, it's at the most technically advanced it has ever been; it can control more equipment and is more powerful than ever. Automation systems certainly provide the ability to do many things well and accurately, but are currently only as good as the team that has installed the system as wel as those who operate it.

Working with automation in practice

With both Euronews NBC and the recently launched digital network NBC Signal, the technical team, manufacturers and I had to work on solutions to production scenarios that the ‘out the box’ product could not cater for. During both projects we managed to successfully utilise automation in a different capacity. This is never as easy as it seems due to the different needs from the production teams, facilities and resources available.

Euronews was a brand new studio with new technical facilities. It meant we had the opportunity to build new workflows based around the production goals. NBC Signal already had all the TV facilities and studios in place, so this project was about exploring technical ideas and using the most advanced infrastructure solutions available without compromising what the production teams wanted.

Each project is really different on a micro level. The people working on them choose the amount of automation they want to include, and find different solutions that suit the production. But on a macro level, project results are often very similar; they're now two very efficient setups that can scale with production and business needs - but only because people have come up with creative solutions and not just followed what the software dictates. 

Innovation and evolution are streamlining TV production

Looking to the future from a staffing perspective, the lines between editorial and technical production will continue to blur. We are entering a time where a technically savvy producer or an editorially savvy technician could balance both sides, and achieve an editorially strong and technically accurate programme. This will only continue to evolve.  

An area that would be exciting to explore is voice control. This really would change everything. We see more and more of it in our everyday lives, and as machines continue to get smarter and AI continues to develop, it seems perfect to apply it to live TV. This will further break down the editorial-technical barrier, and let producers and directors act truly in the moment. Rather than having your head down looking at a computer screen to make a change, a director on the fly can say “take camera one,” and the system will know what that means. This applies the efficient nature of automation and the flexibility of a traditional crew setup to any scenario.

Whether people agree or disagree with the idea of automation, it's clear that it's here to stay. While it's not a one-size-fits-all model, it does have ability to improve the majority of productions - but only if set up the right way.