Rather than controlling its stations’ operations from a centralcasting hub, some broadcasters, including Media General and Barrington, are opting for the monitor-and-control approach, where master control at the stations is left more or less intact, but is controlled and monitored from a remote location.
To offset steep losses in revenue this year and last, TV station groups, big and small, are taking a hard look at centralizing operations in hopes of cutting costs and arresting falling profit margins.
Media General is not among them. A pioneer in centralized master control, it’s been enjoying the attendant efficiencies for five years.
Today, the station group remotely monitors and controls playout at all 18 of its stations from hubs in Columbus, Ohio, and Spartanburg, S.C.
“No. 1, we were looking to reduce our expenses,” says Matt Heffernan, general manager-central broadcast operation, in explaining Media General’s early adoption. “The other part is being able to bring all our stations up to a level of efficiency, quality and control across the board. That’s proven out.”
Media General’s system is a prime example of the monitor-and-control approach, in which master control at the stations is left more or less intact, but is controlled and monitored from the remote location. That location can be a hub as in the case of Media General or another station in a peer-to-peer setup in which any one station in a group can control any other.
A more radical approach called centralcasting or hubbing involves removing master control from the stations and assembling and feeding programming to them via satellite or fiber from a hub.
But Media General and others believe monitor-and-control is the way to go. With it, they say, stations can operate on a standalone basis if necessary. That provides redundancy and preserves the owners’ ability to sell the stations as self-contained operations.
What’s more, they say, the approach is not reliant on costly high-capacity links between the hub and stations that are out of the broadcasters’ control.
Among its proponents is Barrington Broadcasting. Keith Bland, senior vice president for technical operations at Barrington, said the station group considered centralcasting, but settled on monitor-and-control. Using Sundance Digital automation gear and a hub in Traverse City, Mich., it has implemented it at six stations and will soon bring two more online.
The approach met the group’s criteria, Bland says. “One of our inviolate design rules was that, no matter what, the system can’t preclude the operation of the station manually and locally without requiring any significant reconfiguration,” he says. “Another was that it cannot put a station in a position where if it were sold separately, it would have to spend a huge amount of money for reestablishing a master control.”
Bland also doesn’t find centralcasting particularly efficient. After running the numbers, he said, the savings did not outweigh the costs.
“People tend to over-think this,” says Bland. “The truth is almost all the station gear has an IP interface anyway if it is reasonably modern and can be run from a PC — information systems, servers, master control switchers, transmitters, EAS.”
Bland says that Barrington’s system has cost less than $1 million to implement with most of money going into the stations for video servers, cross-converters and modern equipment that can be controlled via a computer.
“Just do it,” Bland says. “Bottom line is to make the stations operate more efficiently. Most of these stations are automated anyway. It’s a waste of a human resource to have someone sitting at a console essentially watching an automation systems operate and they are only there in case something fails.”
Media General’s system is built on the Florical automation software. Its Columbus hub controls the group’s eight NBC affiliates, while the Spartanburg operation directs what hits the airwaves at 10 others, a mix of ABC, CBS and CW affiliates. By September, the 18 stations will be broadcasting a total of 30 channels.
To keep thing running smoothly, Heffernan tries to use the same equipment in all stations.
“With every station having essentially the same gear operating essentially the same way, when we have a problem or a software upgrade in the automation, we can basically address that issue once,” he says. “It’s very easy to get that information out to the stations and have everybody apply the patch or change to the new way of doing things once.”
“Shared knowledge” is one of the benefits of centralizing, he says. Problems happening at one station usually have been experienced at another and can be quickly corrected.
Media General also uses the monitor-and-control approach in handling ingest of syndicated programming and interstitials. The material is received and recorded at each station, and the timing and other data are also fed upstream to the hubs so that they can schedule and otherwise manage the material.
“I believe we are still fairly unique in that we control the acquisition of programming via satellite or via Pathfire centrally,” Heffernan says. “We get efficiency from not having seven or eight people prepping and segmenting the same shows every day.”
For the sake of redundancy, the Florical ShowTime software that manages the ingest system has been installed at the stations as well as at the hubs, Heffernan says. “If the stations get cut off from the outside world, we can switch to them and they can still acquire their programming locally.
Heffernan says he has considered centralizing ingest at a central location and then pushing it out to each station, but doesn’t think it will be happening anytime soon.
“The pipe needed to do that is still pretty expensive. More important is survivability,” he says. “If those data lines go down, we want our stations to be able to continue to operate and continue to serve their communities.”
Media General has also centralized control of its transmitters and Emergency Alert System.
According to Heffernan, the cost of it all was “roughly $150,000 to $175,000, including video servers. Some stations would be a little less and some would be a little more.”
And, yes, Media General has earned a return on the investment, he says. “It took between one and two years.”
Rodney Mood, COO of Crispin Corp., a master control broadcast automation supplier, expects to see centralization grow in all its forms. “We certainly have had more serious interest in centralization now than ever before,” he says.
“Several years ago this was the hot topic for the industry and something everyone looked at, but many took the cautious path and watched to see how some of these new projects would pan out,” he adds. “Taking what they’ve learned in watching these projects and working with vendors like Crispin to thoroughly investigate the upfront costs and ROI, they are now starting to put together more cohesive plans for merging station control and are starting to move forward.”