- François Legrand
Senior Project Manager
- Pierre-Luc Longtin
Automated production control rooms have existed for a few years now within CBC/Radio-Canada. In the context of the French Services, the first instance of such a thing was in Ottawa, which automated a portion of the Ottawa news broadcasts; following this, implementation of automated control production rooms was carried out in Sherbrooke, Trois-Rivières, Saguenay, Rimouski, and Quebec City using Ross Video’s OverDrive solution.
Upon seeing the success of these regional implementations, a project arose to do the same within Radio-Canada’s Centre de l’information (CDI, news centre) in order to handle late-night programming on Radio-Canada’s Réseau de l’information (RDI), which, unless there is special coverage of breaking news, consists of rebroadcasts of the day’s programming. The idea was to be on-air 24/7/365, but without needing a fully-staffed production control room after hours. The project ended up taking a different direction, but the automated production control room was completed nonetheless.
The purpose of this article is to explain how Radio-Canada chose to push that concept of an automated production control room further than any other broadcaster had before and forge a path that others have since followed.
An Evolving Concept
Given that the automated production control room was completed, it was tasked with handling RDI’s production control needs during weekend evenings. The first real test of the new facilities took place during the 2012 student demonstrations in Montreal and the three-to-four hour special event programming that took place daily to cover them. It quickly became apparent that the facility could handle the situation in automated mode.
As a result of this success, an initiative was started to extend the automated production control room’s tasking beyond RDI’s weekend and regional news programming to cover all news produced in Montreal, regardless of whether it would be broadcast on RDI or on Ici Radio-Canada Télé. Granted, a national news broadcast is substantially more complex than a local one in Quebec; what differentiates Montreal is that extensive research was carried out, both within and outside of the Corporation and, when the project was born in its new format, it became clear that no other broadcaster in the world was using automated production control facilities to produce a national newscast. Consequently, this allowed Radio-Canada to be the first to roll one out (although the BBC ended up following suit a few weeks later with their own automated production solution for national newscasts).
When viewed in comparison with regional facilities, the difference in Montreal is that there is a much higher degree of complexity involved as well as the fact that, in the regions, one can have a fairly solid idea by 5:00 PM of what the news newscast will look like when it hits the air at 6:00 PM. In Montreal, if a big news story breaks at 5:00 PM, it can require everything about a newscast to be changed on-the-fly before it hits the air; consequently, a much greater degree of flexibility becomes necessary. Another detail that sets Montreal apart from the regions is the amount of infrastructure involved in any given newscast: a regional facility will have one set and a production control room, whereas the CDI contains seven sets – each containing a plethora of cameras, microphones, monitors, teleprompters, and other equipment – and three production control rooms (as well as another one for CBC’s English newscast in Montreal).
As you can likely imagine, all of this adds up to a large degree of complexity for an automated production control room to handle. On the one hand, processes are automated, which does simplify the amount of labour involved during a broadcast but, on the other hand, methodical preparations have to be done to ensure that all of the infrastructure and equipment that will be used during the newscast works smoothly at broadcast time. It is worth keeping in mind that this infrastructure extends beyond what is being used in the building to a series of external audio and video sources, from broadcasting trucks all the way down to telephones. Consequently, the Development Team (made up of Pascal Viau and Patrick Boutin) had to develop a series of tools and workflows to simplify the running of multi-set shows; the team had to define what would be necessary to have in an automated production control room’s toolbox to allow for quick changes within this sort of dynamic, multi-set environment. Building this toolbox took several months.
In the past, production personnel would take their cues from a line-up in Avid ’s iNews system and execute the instructions contained in that line-up manually. In automated mode, there are still a small number of things that are done manually, but the Production Team has a series of templates that they can input into iNews to perform a variety of tasks that used to require manual intervention within the production control room. Teamwork is extremely important in the automated production environment to allow for the quick changes that usually arise during breaking news situations to be handled within a live broadcast. Given the open nature of the system that is now in place and its extensive use of iNews macros, which allowed otherwise complex coding to be considerably simplified, new templates and procedures are constantly being created as part of an on-going process to improve the system’s ability and efficiency within the very fast-moving environment of broadcast news.
In the past, the CDI had two large production control rooms, one that mainly handled RDI newscasts and another that dealt mainly with Ici Radio-Canada Télé content and national news broadcasts, as well as a smaller one, Régie (Production Control Room) 3, which was dedicated to producing pre-packaged content. Régie 3 was the one chosen to handle RDI production during late afternoons and evenings in automated mode.
The notion behind the second phase project was to make the weekend production control room available and transfer all the newscasts that were normally produced in Régie 1 to it, thus allowing Régie 1 to be rebuilt as an automated production control room, and then do the same with Régie 2; thus giving the CDI two additional automated production control rooms after an eighteen-month transitional period.
At this point, complete news broadcasts have been aired from Régie 3. Régie 1 will be completed in November 2013 and RDI’s programming will follow immediately afterward.
Given these design concerns, the new control room was designed with these ideas in mind. It started off as a sort of triangle, but it became more of a lozenge with the passing of time and a process of progressive improvement and refinement. According to our research, CBC/Radio-Canada is the first broadcaster to adopt this sort of ergonomic design.
Figure 2 – The View from Above
Radio-Canada decided to adopt Ross Video’s OverDrive system because it is the solution that the French Services know best, given that it has been implemented in the regional stations; consequently, it seemed like the best solution to adopt in Montreal as well. In the interest of synchronicity, CBMT, CBC’s English station in Montreal will switch over to the same system simultaneously. Ross Video’s system has seen fairly widespread adoption within the industry, as it is also in use at CTV, TVA, RDS, Musique Plus, and City TV, amongst others.
The keys to any automated production control room’s success lie in the system’s ability to communicate with and control a wide variety of peripheral equipment, such as video servers, audio consoles, character generators, audio clip servers, camera controllers, etc., as well as the automation in the delivery of news content to CBC/Radio-Canada’s digital platforms. The Ross Video solution interfaces seamlessly with the equipment used by Radio-Canada, which made their solution the most one most easily adaptable to the Corporation’s needs. The system has been, and continues to be, extensively modified to respond fully to CBC/Radio-Canada’s requirements.
Given that CBC/Radio-Canada has pioneered the process of automated production control of national newscasts, the Corporation has had to forge its own path insofar as reaching determinations about a series of factors, such as the manpower necessary to ensure seamless and successful airing of newscasts. To a certain extent, this will remain a work in progress, but the benefits of increased efficiency linked to automation have been clear from the outset.
Ultimately, aside from cost savings, the goal is for the Corporation’s programming to be more digital and easily interfaced with the Web in order to be able to do more with the resources that CBC/Radio-Canada receives from the Canadian taxpayer.