TV group sees payoff in group-wide decisionmaking and purchasing. It’s now weighing Grass Valley and Sony for HD ENG.
Within hours after Katrina’s 135-mile-per-hour winds hit New Orleans early on the morning on Aug. 29, 2005, all but one of the city’s TV stations went dark, either from the storm itself or the subsequent flooding. The FCC later reported that almost 100 broadcasters in Katrina’s path were off the air.
The lone TV survivor was Belo’s WWL. Except for a few hours the first night, it stayed on the air. One big reason was careful planning eight years ago by WWL’s Rick Barber, director of technology and broadcast media. He factored in a major hurricane and flooding when he sited and designed the station’s transmitter.
But that wasn’t all. Craig Harper, executive director of technology for the Belo Television Group, also credits WWL’s earlier decisions to centralize technology management of Belo’s 19 TV stations and to standardize the gear within them.
“We saw the value of being able to pool resources during Katrina,” Harper says. “We brought in team members, helicopters and crews from all over the country. They all were familiar with the same equipment so they could step right into the job. Some stations had crews doing live shots, as well. It was impressive to have that kind of manpower on the ground providing that level of coverage.”
Centralization is the heart of Belo’s tech strategy. The group centralized tech management several years ago, Harper says. Each station has a director of technology, who plays a broader role than the traditional broadcasting engineer. Among other things, the directors serve on technology committees that plan, develop policies and choose hardware and software. By buying as a group, Belo can influence the design and availability of features of the gear and achieve economies of scale.
One committee is charged with improving efficiency and flexibility. It came up with the OSI traffic system. Implemented several years ago and based in Dallas, the system manages traffic for all Belo stations.
Now the company is putting in the Sundance Digital automation product, Titan, an SQL-based package for multichannel or geographically distributed facilities.
“Our goal is to be able to run any station out of any other station, should the need arise,” explains Harper. During Katrina, Belo could have operated WWL from Houston if it had been necessary. “It really showed that we had attained one of our goals, to attain maximum flexibility.”
Another group-wide technology is the Grass Valley SD/HD media server, the Profile K2. Belo stations are putting in the dual format server for spot and program playback in either SD or HD.
“All the products played out one format or the other. But our requirement was a system where we could load either SD or HD content into the server and it would play it out in either or both formats. Only Grass Valley was willing to develop such a server. In fact, the Profile K2 was used at the Academy Awards this year to play out all their clips,” says Harper.
Belo is installing Grass Valley NewsEdit for nonlinear editing in its stations. “The primary criterion is product improvement,” Harper says . “Our news organizations create a lot of local content everyday and by giving them these types of tools, we can serve our Web sites, cable channels and on-air newscasts in a highly effect manner.”
Centralizing is not centralcasting, Harper says. Belo has just one centralcasting system, operating its Tucson, Ariz., station out of Phoenix. “But other than that, we just haven’t been able to find business models that support centralcasting,” he says.
Given the success of centralization, Harper says, Belo is committed to it—and to long-term strategic planning. “We take a marathon view of life, not a sprint.”