Al Jazeera is the first English-language world news channel to be headquartered in the Middle East
As difficult market conditions make lean operations an imperative across all industries, broadcasters are seeking more aggressive means of streamlining their workflows, reducing costs, and improving productivity with existing resources. Al Jazeera English is an example of one broadcast channel that has been built from the ground up to leverage efficient resource planning toward a positive return on investment (ROI) and long-term viability within a competitive marketplace and challenging economy.
Al Jazeera English is the first English-language world news channel to be headquartered in the Middle East. Based in Doha, Qatar, the 24-hour HD news channel is available in more than 100 countries to more than 130 million households worldwide. The honors garnered by Al Jazeera English to date include “Best 24-Hour News Program,” awarded at the 48th Annual Monte Carlo Television Festival, as well as nominations for two International Emmy® Awards in news and current affairs.
With unique access as the channel of reference for Middle East events, and with broadcast centers strategically placed around the world in Doha, Kuala Lumpur, London, and Washington, D.C., Al Jazeera English balances the information flow from south to north, providing independent and impartial news for a global audience from a grassroots level, giving voice to different perspectives from underreported regions around the world.
Launched in November 2006, Al Jazeera English is dedicated to setting the global news agenda and acting as a bridge between cultures. The channel is a spinoff of the well-established Arabic-language Al Jazeera, and the two sister channels operate independently from facilities located across the road from one another. Staff members at the news channel include a mix of personnel, both locally based and distributed throughout the world.
Al Jazeera English relies on each of its four broadcast centers for news management throughout the day, with on-air operations and output shifting from facility to facility around the globe, in relation to daylight hours. A large fiber network connects the multiple sites of Al Jazeera English, and the channel hauls in feeds from different broadcast areas, including 69 news bureaus.
With reporters and news distributed worldwide, Al Jazeera English must manage numerous feeds, booking of bandwidth on satellite and fiber links, and ports. In building and planning the launch of the channel, managers understood the challenge of bringing this information into the master control room (MCR) to ensure that content is transferred successfully to the right place, at the right time, and into the right hands.
In addition to requiring a real-time system that would make it easy for staff to see what feeds would be coming in, and when, the broadcaster needed a means of tracking each booking from start to finish. With a complete record of this activity, business managers would have the tools necessary to look back and see who booked a particular feed and how the company’s resources were scheduled to fulfill each request.
To address these challenges, Al Jazeera English chose to build its global newsgathering operations on ScheduALL enterprise resource management (ERM) software. The software enables implementation of streamlined workflows and establishes a platform for more extensive scheduling of the channel’s media resources, staff, and cost accounting not only in Doha, but across all four broadcast centers.
“We evaluated other resource management systems, but we were particularly aware of ScheduALL’s features and advantages because a number of our staff worked with the software at other sites,” said Nick Taylor, head of news operations at Al Jazeera English. “We had a huge project to pull off in terms of building a new station and designing our technical facilities. As we addressed resource scheduling, the selection of ScheduALL was an easy decision for us, given our existing knowledge of the ScheduALL system and its broad capabilities. The software is used worldwide by many broadcasters who consider it the standard for operational management. We saw clearly how the software could be implemented to bring greater speed and accuracy our operations, and we had the benefit of personnel who could take the lead in setting up and supervising the system.”
ScheduALL software today serves as the bookings tool for ad hoc, occasional, and recurring satellite, fiber, and broadband global area network (BGAN) ftp feeds coming into the Al Jazeera English headquarters in Doha, along with its three production facilities in London, Kuala Lumpur, and Washington, D.C. The channel implemented ScheduALL at its headquarters, and each of the other three centers acts as a remote client, tapping into the Doha system over fiber, with an Internet backup available if the fiber link ever should fail. The ScheduALL system brings vital scheduling information into master control as well as other technical areas of broadcast operations, ensuring that events are actuated and completed according to the booking.
Editorial staff in the newsroom generates requests for live correspondent feeds from particular cities. This information is passed on to satellite booking staff, who enter data into ScheduALL based on the booking made with the supplier in that city and the route information required to deliver the feed to the appropriate Al Jazeera English broadcast center. Because many of the technical details, contact information, and IFB numbers required to coordinate feed delivery already populate booking templates within the ScheduALL system, the streamlined booking process moves along quickly and can be completed with a high degree of accuracy. ScheduALL’s intuitive interface and templates eliminate redundancies in data entry while accelerating completion of booking.
Once the booking is confirmed, it appears along with other scheduled feeds in a workflow rundown in the master control room, where a visual display akin to a flight arrivals and departures board provides an at-a-glance overview of expected feeds. Booking data is also delivered to the facility’s audio control room and to its technical and communications areas, where staff can dial up the remote studio if necessary, perform technical checks, and dial in the IFB. Once the service is established technically, live video is on the air. Master control then confirms the feed has been delivered and notes any details or issues on the completed work order, which is later checked against the final invoice with any discrepancies outlined for the vendor. Key benefits gained from this streamlined process are decreased days sales outstanding (DSO) and quicker time-to-revenue.
The workflow itself is quite short, as the time from request to airing of video is dictated by the fast pace of the live news environment. Views of the rundown are customized by operation areas, so the view in master control and audio control is different than the view provided to journalists in the newsroom. Thus, as different events come to their start times, the appropriate staff can open up work orders, check data, make sure the feed is being actuated according to the booking, and completed as required. An integrated cost-tracking capability links external supplier costs to each work order, supporting financial reporting and enabling rapid reconciliation of each booking with resulting invoices.
“While our ScheduALL-based booking system is very complex, it provides a very simple interface that offers the right information to the right people,” said Taylor. “Because the staff that shaped and administer the system can customize it, we can easily create another view or even roll out the software to another area of our business.”
One area in which Al Jazeera English plans to expand its ScheduALL use is in managing the channel’s tape library, in which all tapes are bar-coded. The channel issues raw stock to camera operators, and when rushes come back, they are brought into the media library. With bar code data entered into the ScheduALL system, managers and staff will gain even better control over the flow of video through the facility. The channel also is extending its use of ScheduALL to include rostering, starting with personnel scheduling at its London broadcast center. The development of a Web-based interface will enable easy access to updated scheduling information by authorized users on the Al Jazeera English network.
With ScheduALL, the automation of feed scheduling and actuated workflows has improved efficiencies at Al Jazeera English in leveraging existing resources and allowing users to improve their productivity; greatly enhancing the financial visibility of key projects across multiple business units around the globe; and contributing to improved cost-control efforts.
By providing a template-based system for bookings and automatically populating those templates with stored details previously entered into the database, ScheduALL enables staff at Al Jazeera English to schedule feeds quickly and without redundant, time-consuming entry of delivery data. On very busy news days, automatic alerts from the system are valuable in preventing costly double bookings and reducing the possibility of on-air clashes. In addition to reinforcing the accuracy of bookings, the ScheduALL software makes booking information available across the organization, providing staff members with a constant view of live information in the format best suited to each person’s work and responsibilities.
Business managers at Al Jazeera English benefit from ScheduALL because it provides a clear picture of the channel’s editorial content and how resources are being directed and managed in bringing news stories and content to air. As the channel continues to extend its use of ScheduALL, managers will gain a broader perspective on how all elements of the operation – including personnel, media, equipment and content, contribute to the news gathering and delivery workflow.
By leveraging current booking data, ScheduALL enables business and financial managers to view, on a daily basis, how specific costs compare against projected budgets – managing vital profit margins and measuring their return on investment (ROI) in real time. The transparency of information across multiple sites and throughout the organization as a whole, gives financial managers an audit trail that can be used to evaluate costs against profits and to make critical business decisions about current and future investments in equipment and services, both internally and externally. With up-to-date information about orders and purchases made, which staff members made and authorized the request, and who completed the work order, financial managers can completely audit the system and make sure resources are being used to their fullest. With cost data tied closely to each work order, the channel is equipped to make business decisions that have a direct and positive impact on its profitability.
“As an international news organization, we need an effective means of tracking our booking costs and making sure that we are using our resources to their fullest potential,” said Taylor. “Financial reconciliation is among the most challenging aspects of managing our operations, and ScheduALL offers valuable transparency of real-time information across multiple sites, encompassing the whole organization. The detailed audit trail provided by the software allows us to evaluate critical areas of our operations and make informed decisions about how we manage and invest in resources.”
Through the integration of ScheduALL into its broadcasting, operations and technical facilities, Al Jazeera English has taken a proactive approach to building smart, profitable operations that can withstand the pressures of a challenging economic climate.