Does automation mean slashing staff?

In a recent interview about the rise of artificial intelligence, Manjunath Bhat, research director at market analysts Gartner said “robots are not here to take away our jobs. They are here to give us a promotion – I think that is the way we should start looking at artificial intelligence.”

Whenever people talk about automation in broadcasting, a question always bubbling near the surface is what does this mean for jobs. CFOs see savings by slashing the headcount. Chief engineers worry that a smaller department will mean a smaller voice in future decisions. And operators start polishing their résumés/CVs.

Realistically, in most markets in the world, broadcasters and media businesses implement workflow automation because the alternative is a lot of manual processes. Operations in our industry are getting increasingly complex, as more content is delivered to more users on more platforms, all of whom want it NOW!

Automation is certainly a way of slowing a rise in operational staff numbers. In some cases, it may even create some redundancies, although expecting staff cuts to pay for automation is not a good plan.

I prefer to look at this from the other end of the telescope. It is a certain fact that people are rubbish at dull, repetitive jobs: they get bored and sloppy and make mistakes. Computers, on the other hand, love dull repetitive jobs. Give them the same inputs and they will generate the same output every single time, without fail.

Despite the current rise in interest in artificial intelligence, computers are really not good at creative thinking, at problem solving, at finding complex solutions. Which is not a problem, because that is an area in which the human brain excels.

So the ideal broadcast and media workflow automation system empowers people to make creative decisions which will enhance the company and its brand. Those people are given, directly, the tools to interface with the workflow systems, making it easy for them to set out their creative and operational decisions. The computers then go away and do the dull, repetitive tasks which will achieve the human’s stated goal.To explain what I mean, can I point you to a terrific project called ITV Phoenix, implemented in 2017 by leading UK commercial broadcaster ITV.

Across all its channels, ITV needs more than 1,000 promos a month. That huge number comes from the fact that each promo needs to be delivered as multiple versions: coming soon, next week, tomorrow, later tonight, on another channel, on the ITV Player, online, and many more.

What ITV wanted to do was to give its marketing and creative team a single tool that allowed them to define what they wanted – programme details, sponsors and so on – then get an automated system to create all the assets. Ideally, it wanted the commissioner to be able to see, at the point of entering the data, precisely what the end board would look like, as an instant and certain visual check.

There was nothing on the market, so ITV built it themselves. The automation and graphics comes from Pixel Power, but there was a lot of collaboration, from Cantemo and Vidispine on the asset management (finished assets had to be transferred to playout), Codemill and 100 Shapes on the user interface and custom software and NMR on the overall integration.

Now when the team in marketing decides they want to promote a program they use a simple and visual user interface to set out what elements the promo needs to include. So there is a creative and controlling human doing what it is good at.

If the project needs it, then a craft editor creates a master look for the promo, again a core person skill. But that editor does not then need to spend another week creating all the different versions of the same trailer – that is a dull, repetitive task which is rightly handed over to the computer.

As assets are created, so they are pinged over to the commissioner’s iPad for checking, but of course they are usually right because the end board has been confirmed up front at the point of commissioning. Once signed off, they go to playout via automated QC.

This is a perfect example of the way automation supports people, empowering them to do their job better. The boring tasks are taken over by the computer, allowing the people to do more creative and organisational decision making. That sounds like the promotion Manjunath Bhat promised.

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