The Florical GM and former NBC O&O guru is one of the few in the business with a broad background in centralizing master control at stations. He discusses broadcasters’ renewed interest in centralcasting as well as spelling out the three major variations along with some of the pros and cons of each.
If experience equals expertise, then Shawn Maynard may be your man when it comes to centralizing master control at TV stations.
In 2001, the NBC O&Os hired Maynard from Florical Systems to help develop a pioneering centralcasting operation and bring new efficiencies to the station group. Over the next five years, Maynard did just that, building a system with master control hubs in Miami, New York and Los Angeles.
In 2006, Maynard returned to Florical as vice president and general manager. In the role, he provides know-how in implementing centralcasting along with the TV automation tools needed to do it.
In this interview with TVNewsCheck, Maynard discusses broadcasters’ renewed interest in centralcasting and its variations and some of their pros and cons.
An edited transcript:
We’ve been hearing a lot about centralcasting and its many variations. What accounts for the resurgence of interest?
The economy. Advertising dollars are down and the Web, digital signage and other media are taking a bigger share of the dollars that there are. So, station groups that were not interested in centralizing operations before because it was too risky or technically too difficult are taking another look. They see centralizing operations as a way to lower operational expenses on an annual basis. That’s always the driving force behind any kind of new technology.
Can you promise a speedy return on investments to a broadcasters who installs one of these systems?
Oh, absolutely. Media General began centralizing out of a hub in South Carolina back in 2004 and lowered its payroll by 40 full-time hires. That’s a significant savings.
They’ve expanded the system since then, too.
Yes. They’ve built another centralization hub in Columbus, Ohio, that runs their NBC affiliates and they reduced another 40 head count.
Even with a promise of a good return, many stations are reluctant to spend money on anything these days. Are you finding it difficult to close deals?
Right now, capital dollars are frozen and we’re not seeing much spending in the broadcast realm at all other than just necessities.
When it comes to centralization, I feel that they should have done it a lot earlier when they started to see the decline in the economy. They should have just moved on it.
One of the challenges that broadcast groups run into is the knowledge base on actually how to create a hub. Everybody is getting to the point where they believe this is the right, logical choice to make, but the knowledge base on how to actually accomplish it is not really out there. There are only a handful of people that have actually built and run hubs. With that small of a knowledge base, it’s really complicated for a small- or middle-market station group to make the investment and experiment.
One of the most complicated parts about building the hub is not the technical piece. Technology is what I consider the easy piece. The most complicated piece is the operational, the day-to-day of insuring that this operation runs smoothly with very few defects.
Other than NBC and Media General, what are the other groups that are deep into this?
There are several groups out there. I know Gannett is doing centralization with Crispen. Gray Television uses Florical out of Tallahassee and they’re growing their hub project, adding more channels. Meredith and Barrington are also doing something. So there are some people out there experimenting and trying to put it together.
There are a number of different approaches to centralizing. Can you discuss them?
Let me go through the three different models I see. There’s central storage and central play out, a true centralcasting model, where you play everything from the hub. Even local news is sent back up the pipe for play out at the centralized hub.
Is anybody doing that?
Emmis Communication was doing that out of Orlando back in 2002 before it sold its TV group. They were doing the true centralcasting where everything is played out from a centralized environment and nothing is touched locally.
OK, what’s the second model?
The second one would be sharecasting, where there’s some stuff that plays out from the hub and some stuff that plays out locally. It was pioneered by NBC and Florical in 2001.
All local material — whether it’s local news, whether it’s a late news promo — still plays from a local video server. There’s a switcher at the local level and you can switch from the local to the hub for all the other programming. You can switch back and forth very naturally and you see no latency. The viewer, the person sitting on the sofa, doesn’t notice where it’s coming from.
And the third model?
No. 3 would be what I call central control and monitoring. Media General had chosen this approach. Everything at the local station, the master control, is intact, but the operator happens to be 500 miles away at a centralized hub looking at the same screens that he would if he were at the station. We created a product called S.M.A.R.T Central, which has a built-in remote AirBoss, our flagship automated playout product. No matter where you are, you can log into any PC and run AirBoss and control playout of a station.
So what’s your advice to a station group that comes to you and asks which approach to take?
My advice would be to definitely go with the central control and monitoring. We created a model wrapped around that called hybridcasting. That allows the broadcaster, using our S.M.A.R.T. Central product, to run normally in a local environment with local master control. But let’s say you want to start to get into centralcasting, but you don’t want to do the major investment. So during the day and primetime, you can run with a full staff, but after midnight when you’re not getting paid anything for advertising, you can have one of the master control operators in another one of your stations just link in and run the station remotely. It’s a peer-to-peer method or a shared method.
Do you see a place in broadcasting in the pure centralcasting model where everything is assembled in one place and pumped back out to the stations?
That certainly is a model that I think traditional broadcasters like the best. The reason they like it the best is because they feel more in control with the video distribution when they have one centralized location and have all of their equipment in that centralized location. That also means, by the way, that their capital investment is lower because they don’t have to create and maintain a master control at 10 or 20 sites.
What’s the downside to that?
The downside on that is the operational expense is still fairly high because of the enlarged fiber pipe that you need to maintain. The cost of that has come way down over the past 10 years, but it’s still not low enough. If I am a small-to-middle-market television station, there’s no way I can justify the cost of the pipe in terms of head count reduction, especially when I’m paying minimum wage to some of the employees.
The beauty with centralized control and monitoring is that all I need is basically a bonded T1 line. That’s somewhere in the neighborhood of $600 to $1,000 a month and I can afford that.
What do you think of this idea of competing broadcasters in a market turning over master control to a centralized facility owned jointly or by a third party.
What I’m hearing more is broadcasters offering to operate another broadcaster’s facilities.
So one station in the market steps up and says I’ll take care of yours.
Right. I’ll take care of yours. You just pay me a service fee.
I guess the problem there is that broadcasters might be reluctant to turn over their client list to their competitors.
That’s exactly right. I don’t know if we can accurately predict what actions the broadcasters are going to take over the next 12 months because when the economy spirals down, people make very unpredictable decisions and very risky decisions to try to stop the bleeding. Any number of these choices out there could become a reality.
Is the BXF interface that promises to unify traffic and master control ready for primetime yet?
I certainly hope so. I don’t know of anybody really implementing that for what it really promises to be. At NAB in 2008, we demonstrated a true live BXF interface with WideOrbit. We were able to show that dynamic relationship back and forth and it was really impressive and got us a lot of press at the time. It offers the opportunity to dynamically change the business model considerably to where master control becomes a thing of the past and becomes just a buzzword for how TV stations used to run.
You say you demonstrated this in April 2008, but you’re still not certain that this is ready to go. Why?
You’re going to have to see a change in the broadcasters’ mind set. We still have a lot of broadcasters who like the tangible. When you start moving into this electronic distribution world where things are very intangible, their comfort level is just not there. The times may start to change that culture, but not fast enough as I see it.
So we need somebody to step up and try it?
Absolutely. We need pioneers. My goodness, this industry used to be full of pioneers. What we have seen over the past 20 years is really an absence of pioneers. There have been so many layoffs and stations going bankrupt and big name engineers losing their jobs that people have become protectionist. They want to protect their jobs so they always go the same safe route. You know, I’d rather fly the propeller airplane because I know it’s proven technology to get me from point A to B. I’m not going to fly this jet engine thing.