Acquisition of four more NBC affiliates gives station group critical mass to centralize control, but not content, of all its NBC stations.
With the acquisition of four stations from NBC, Media General will have the critical mass to go ahead with a plan to build a broadcast hub for its NBC affiliates.
“We’re still reaching a determination as to the appropriate place to centralize the NBC facilities. It was on hold primarily because the deal was in the works,” says Ardell Hill, senior vice president of broadcast operations for Media General.
The new stations are WNCN Raleigh, N.C. (DMA 29), WCMH Columbus, Ohio (32), WVTM Birmingham, Ala. (40), and WJAR Providence, R.I. (51). Subject to FCC and Justice Department approval, the $600-million deal is expected to close by the third quarter of 2006.
The station group now owns 26 network-affiliated TV stations, concentrated mainly in the Southeast. As part of its makeover, the group also plans to sell its CBS affiliates in Birmingham, Ala. (to comply with the FCC rule banning ownership of two TVs in small markets); Wichita, Kan.; and Chattanooga, Tenn.
When all is said and done, Media General will have 27 network-affiliated stations and reach nearly 11% of the nation’s 110 million TV homes.
Hill pointed out that such sales and acquisitions create problems. “When any technologically intense or complex company like a broadcast property makes a change these days, technology has created all these wonderful new things, but it has also created a complexity that’s pretty unique in and of itself.”
In 2004, the company centralized master control operations for all of its CBS affiliates in Spartanburg, S.C., under a distributed control model, which leaves all video content and switching functionality at the station, but puts it under the control of a remote operations center.
It’s a model that Hill intends to apply to the NBC affiliates as well.
Hill has long been an ardent proponent of the tapeless production workflow in the newsroom. He has been overseeing a long-term effort to standardize and centralize systems like acquisition, news platforms, traffic and even graphics. Now the challenge is to fit the new stations into his regime.
The company has been aggressively rolling out the new Panasonic P2 solid-state camcorders for news acquisition, along with such Grass Valley products as NewsEdit nonlinear editing systems, M-Series intelligent video digital recorders (iVDRs), and Profile XP Media servers.
“We’re also moving aggressively towards newsroom automation systems,” Hill says. “We’re installing the Grass Valley Ignite newsroom automation systems at four more stations as we speak. By the end of 2006 we hope to have nine or 10 stations running it.”
He explained that, in many cases, what the new stations will see is just a logical replacement of gear, as their current systems are amortized. “They’ve got old, used DVCPRO tape in the field, and we’ll move them onto our standardized platform of P2 gear,” he says.
Even integrating the back-office systems is a complicated process these days. “It’s not anything dramatic, but at the same time, people want to get a paycheck, and they’ve got an e-mail address, and all of their personnel records. In the past, it used to be that you’d bring over a large box of files and say, ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬Ãƒâ€¹Ã…â€œOK, here you go.’ “
For Hill, one of the key challenges will be returning some local autonomy to the new stations. Under NBC’s system, network programming originated from central hubs in New York and Miami and went directly to the transmitters without ever actually residing at the stations.
“We’ll be migrating them to our central master control plan. Their model is to feed directly to the transmitter; ours is a distributed model,” he says. “So we’ve got to build out the infrastructure at the four stations to allow them to bring content back in-house, and have that content remain resident in each of the properties.”
“You add all of these things up and it’s a lot of work,” he says. “There are some folks that are going to work some long hours to get the systems in sync with each other and to migrate from their way of doing things into ours.”