Those are the key drivers leading TV groups like Gannett, Fox, Media General and Post-Newsweek to adopt systems that allow it to create and manage graphics production for as many — or as few — locations as desired, giving a consistency to group-wide design and bringing new efficiencies to the bottom line.
Two years ago, as part of a corporate mandate to improve efficiencies by consolidating operations wherever possible, Media General centralized graphics for all 18 of its TV stations at corporate headquarters in Richmond, Va.
Dubbed MGFX, the operation “handles news, marketing, sales, outdoor and even a little bit of set design,” says General Manager Jim Doyle.
And without conceding any quality, he says, it has whacked 40-50 percent off the group’s graphics budget.
“Right now, if you’re a TV station, it’s all about cost. The responsible thing for any station group…is to explore centralization models,” he says.
Groups that haven’t already explored “the responsible thing” certainly are now as they try to figure out ways to prop up profit margins in the face of declining revenues and a limping economy.
And broadcasters are being encouraged to centralize by vendors offering the means — among, them, Vizrt, Chryon, Miranda, Harris and Avid.
The implementation of a graphics hub allows for a substantial reduction in staff costs, reducing — if not completely eliminating — graphic artists at stations.
“Let’s say you are a group of 15 TV stations,” says Grigory Mindlin, VP of creative service for VIZRT. “You can hub all your graphics creation to one station. Where you used to have one or two artists per station, now you have a staff of five in one city. You can do the math.”
“Every station typically has one or more artists creating the same graphics as other stations so there’s a redundant effort going on,” says Teicia Gaupp, technical marketing specialist for Avid On-Air Graphics.
In addition to reduced payroll, proponents say centralization may lead to an overall improvement in graphics since the hub can be staffed with the group’s best artists.
A key is a good order management system that allows stations to request graphics from the hub.
And one of the tricks is to standardize graphics across a group. “You utilize more templates,” says Mindlin. “You don’t get as many unique graphics.”
Standardization is not a negative, says Gaupp. “It gives you a stronger consistency of look across your stations so when you tune in you know that’s part of a group.”
Avid has been working with Gannett on centralization and other operational efficiencies, including graphics, Gaupp says.
“What we did is went in and helped identify those areas and savings that could be found across many different areas — savings like brand consistency, more fluid production and fewer resources required to pull it all together,” she says.
“We helped them standardize their look. All of their stations had a unique look — unique graphic elements, logos, theme music — and all of that stuff drives costs.”
Gannett is using Avid’s Deko for graphics creation, but Chryron’s AXIS as the centralization platform.
Chyron’s Todd Martin says AXIS “distributes the graphic workload away from dedicated graphic designers to other staff members at each station, leaving the graphics hub to concentrate on building customized graphics and animations instead of standard news graphics.”
According to Martin, AXIS is a hosted application, meaning that there is no need to install proprietary equipment across all stations to make it work because it is all online. “All that is required is a subscription to the service and Chyron handles everything else.”
Martin says Chyron’s order management tool is “a simple Web entry form [that] creates an order that is added to a list of requests which the designers can fulfill.” AXIS, being a centralized solution, allows all users to access newly created material, not just the station making the request, Martin adds.
The Fox Television Stations are in the process of centralizing graphics with AXIS.
For Harris, the core of its solution is a centralized graphics server, Inscriber Connectus.
The system “allows customers to set up a centralized database or file server where all their graphics assets can be stored and accessed,” says Curtis Mutter, manager of Harris’ G Series Product Line.
“From any location on the network or across the Internet, users can log in to this database and either publish graphic content or download content to their system,” Mutter says, adding that Connectus is “platform agnostic.”
“One of the big problems in moving CG graphics around is [that] as the graphics get more and more complex, they’re referencing lots of different file types,” he says. “What Connectus will do is actually package up all of the required assets and publish them to the server.”
Connectus integrates with Harris’ production graphic, master control and branding tools. “We’ve also integrated directly into the Windows shell,” he says. (A version for Mac is in the works.)
“What that will allow you to do is manage any file or folder on your system through the Connectus tool. I can right-click on any file — a PDF file, a folder containing my After Effects projects — and I can publish that to the Connectus server. Another user in another location can download that content and continue working.”
Because multiple users can access a single project, Connectus keeps a revision history, Mutter says. “If I need to step back to an older version, I can grab that from the server.”
The Harris Connectus solution is in use at CTV stations across Canada, but Mutter says the system is appropriate for use on a smaller scale as well.
“You could even use it in one facility where you might have a graphics design room where people are generating content for one or two on-air devices.”
VIZRT’s Mindlin suggests that centralized graphics doesn’t require all artists to be in a single location. One customer, a group with stations in mid-size and small markets, has some stations with one artist and some with none.
Whether artists are centrally located, or spread across a number of locations, the VIZRT offering is providing more than cost savings, Mindlin says. The VIZ Artist is a real-time graphics tool that “doesn’t have any rendering involved, he says. “This makes it very easy for people to collaborate.”
“It’s an open file so you can have multiple people in different locations working on the file together,” Mindlin adds.
At the center of the VIZRT solution is the VIZ Graphics Hub, “basically a proprietary database where all the graphics reside,” Mindlin says. “The database can exist in multiple places. In a group scenario, each station would have its own graphics hub. A graphics hub would replicate from one station to another automatically.”
The VIZ Graphics Hub integrates with other VIZRT products including Object Store, which “is basically like Google,” Mindlin says. “You can search for clips and images with metadata.”
Order Management is another strength, Mindlin says. A graphics request is sent to the hub and a placeholder is created. When an artist creates the graphic, “that order automatically replaces the placeholder. So, the producer doesn’t have to even go back and search for the order that was fulfilled.”
Media General’s Doyle says his group’s decision to adopt Miranda’s XMedia Suite was greatly based on XMedia “having an effective order management system” at a time when others did not. That’s where the efficiency is.”
According to David Jones, senior vice president, Miranda, the XMedia Suite comprises XStudio for creating graphics templates; XBuilder for building pages; Xplorer for viewing graphics; work order and asset management software; and the XMedia server for managing all the graphics assets.”
“One of our differentiators is we can control the graphics for our systems, but historically we also always control other people’s playout devices,” Jones says. “We can do centralized graphics for our XG playout device, but we can also control graphics for Chyron and Deko boxes as well.”
Jones adds that the workorder management software allows everybody across the station group to manage the graphics creation process. “That’s very big for us.”
The Miranda system is also being installed at Post-Newsweek stations.
“This has been a big business for us for the past two years,” Jones says. “It’s been accelerated because of the recession. If our customers can save operational expenses by moving to a centralized graphics model, now is the time to do it. The return on investment is quite quick.”
While Doyle counts the savings from his centralized graphics operations, he is looking to further monetize it by taking on contracts from other stations and station groups.
Already, the Media General MGFX graphics operation is providing news graphics for four Fox affiliates that have contracted with Media General stations to produce local newscasts.
“We’re doing graphics for those shows,” Doyle explains. “They have a distinct look from the Media General stations.”