Bonten Media’s vice president of engineering (or vice president of headaches) has a full plate, overseeing the operations of the group’s stations in seven markets. What’s occupying his time theses days is increasing efficiency, implementing HD news, finalizing the DTV transition and gearing up for mobile DTV — all while keeping an eye on costs.
With stations in seven small to mid-size markets from Tri-Cities, Tenn.-Va. (DMA 92) to Eureka, Calif. (DMA 195), Bonten Media is not among the major station groups, but it is grappling with many of the same technical issues: increasing efficiency, implementing HD news, finalizing the DTV transition and gearing up for mobile DTV.
Here to discuss it all is Tom Cupp, who handles engineering for the entire group out of his office at WCYB Bristol, Va., the NBC affiliate in the Tri-Cities market.
An edited transcript:
Every TV station group seems to be doing everything it can to operate more efficiently by deploying the latest technology. What’s Bonten doing?
We do have automation at two of our stations [WCYB and WCIT] and that’s something that we’re looking into at all of our stations. We’re just kind of taking it one at a time. They’re the two largest stations and they have multiple programs going out on the digital channel.
What kind of automation?
Master control automation, where the system is controlling the master control switcher, the servers and tape machines where they’re available.
What automation system do you use?
We use Crispin.
What about centralizing things like graphics, master control or other common functions of the TV station? Have you looked into any of that?
We’ve just kind of glanced at it. [Bonten CEO] Randy [Bongarten] came from Emmis, which was doing some centralcasting when they owned TV stations. They had an operation out of Orlando. I actually visited a lot of the Emmis stations to check it out, but we haven’t moved ahead on anything.
Your stations are spread out all over the country — Tennessee, North Carolina, Montana, Texas, California. That doesn’t seem to lend itself to centralcasting.
Yeah, they’re separated, but there are a lot of innovations coming along. We had a problem in North Carolina, getting our signal from WCTI to the old WFXI studio and transmitter site because of the swamps and terrain. When we bought the stations, we consolidated master control at WCTI. But we were never able to establish a good microwave link between the two locations. It just had so many fade problems typical in that area.
We’ve now been able to replace one of our microwave hubs. We send an HD signal over an IP system, over fiber, and it’s working quite well. So, innovations like that are going to make centralcasting more attractive.
So you’re saying that that suggests that you may be able to interconnect these stations down the road.
Yes, I think so. We’ve been very happy with that connection in North Carolina.
What about automated news production like Ignite or Ross Video? Are you considering that?
Yes, we have. We’ve looked at Ignite and I’ve been up to several stations that had the system in place and all. I’ve had several discussions with our news vice president, Kim Montour, about it. It’s something we are definitely be interested in. The improvements they have made in that area since the very early versions have been really tremendous.
There seems to be a trend also towards using lower cost ENG camcorders with a top end of $10,000 rather than $30,000. Are you a part of that trend?
Oh, yeah. Just by coincidence the JVC rep was in here this morning with their two new cameras and that’s something we’re looking at. The days of the big expensive camera are over. The JVC cameras actually record in an Apple Final Cut Pro format so that it’s making the editing a lot easier. You just take the little card out, pop it into the editor and away you go. The timing has really worked out well for us. As we are looking to buy, the lower cost cameras are really coming of age.
Is it the Apple output format or the price tag that appeals to you most about the JVC units?
Some of both. We’re also looking at P2 and at Sony. We haven’t made a decision to go with JVC. They just happened to be in here today. You know, here at WCYB we were the first station in the market with Betacam SX when that came out several years back and a lot of this technology that’s in the newer cameras was in the SX. We’re familiar with a lot of it. The problem is getting it off the camera and into the editor.
Of course, you know that Sony and Panasonic also have $10,000 cameras out there now.
Right. It’s kind of a buyers’ market right now. So we’re definitely going to do our homework and evaluate them all.
Are you in a position where you can make a buy this year?
We probably will. We’re looking at doing it at our North Carolina station first. We’re at the point where we need to change out our cameras. They’re DVCPRO and they were one of the early adopters of that. So, we’ve repaired these and kept them going, but it’s time.
So where are you in terms of HD news at your stations?
That’s one of our top two priorities. We do not have any stations doing HD news. There’s basically two parts to that: the studio and field production. We’re probably going to do the field production side of it first and then go into the studio part of it next.
That’s sort of backwards isn’t it? Most go with the studio first so they can get an HD newscast on the air, even though they are still SD in the field.
Yeah, we’ve talked about that and you’re right. It may be considered backwards, but the field equipment we have just needs to be replaced. So that’s why we want to get into that area first and get good field equipment.
You’re going to stick to your normal replacement cycle, in other words.
Right. Everything we shoot we’re going to archive in HD. So when we do convert over the studio, we’ll have everything HD.
When do you think that HD conversion will happen in the studio?
I’m hoping that we’re able to start next year. The way the economy is this year has just kind of put a freeze on a lot of stuff and we’ve had to replace quite a few transmitters for digital last year. We’ve also bought new encoders [the Harris Net vx] for most of our stations this year. So we’re getting ready for mobile TV, which is our other priority. With the new encoders in place it will be a pretty smooth conversion over to that.
How quickly do you think you can get a mobile DTV signal on the air?
I’d like to see us do something next year, at least start next year. By buying these encoders at our main stations we’ve taken the first step in that direction because it’s just one board to get us the mobile application. We also have to upgrade our exciters at our transmitter sites, but we are pretty well positioned to do that so it won’t be too expensive.
How are you doing in terms of DTV?
We’ve been on quite a while in all of our stations with a digital signal.
Have any made the final switch? Were they part of the early group that made the leap on Feb. 17?
No. We made a group-wide decision that we were going to wait till June 12.
Are you set to go?
Yes, we’re ready to go. I mean we were ready to go in February and it’s just given us a little bit more time to test things and make sure that all the T’s are crossed and I’s are dotted.
What feedback are you getting from your viewers on the digital signals?
Where I am here on the Virginia-Tennessee border, it’s very mountainous. We hear back from a lot of people that are trying to use rabbit ears and they just don’t work in locations like this. So in our DTV announcements, we’re encouraging viewers to use an outdoor antenna and a VHF/UHF antenna because we do go back to a V after June. So, it’s been mostly reception questions like that, but I’ve been very surprised at how few calls we have received. We’ve ran several of the soft tests. We think we’re very well prepared in this area so we expect it will go real smooth.
Are you disappointed in the propagation of the signal, the reception?
No. I’ve been happy with the digital reception. We’re in Bristol here and we have viewers down in Knoxville that watch us. I never thought the digital signal would get out as well as it does.
Well what else are you working on? What’s keeping you up at night?
Anything with a computer in it.
No, things are running pretty smoothly for us. I mean there’s day-to-day challenges. Sometimes I call myself the vice president of headaches instead of vice president of engineering. We’re moving right along and hopefully next year the economy will get back on track and we can start making some of these changes that we talked about.