OPEN MIKE BY CINDY HUTTER CAVELL

Consider: One Market, One Master Control

TV stations in a market should band together and and create a facility that would provide centralized play-out services for all of the stations’ multiple program streams.The synergies could be huge, and would not be burdened with the heavy fiber connectivity costs that have discouraged regional and national centralcasting efforts.

Centralcasting has been de rigeur for television station groups, both large and small, for about a decade now. A single centralcast facility warehousing content, creating centralized graphics packages, running master traffic and automation programs can provide huge economies of scale for TV station groups.

Typically, however, the savings of centralcasting can be greatly diminished by the cost of sending material to and from the stations and their transmitters. Fiber interconnection can still be expensive, even with the advent of file transfers and non-real-time feeds. Quality cannot be sacrificed.

We have long used technology to make broadcasting simpler and more cost-efficient. Is it now time to use technology and a change in philosophy to realize a new level of efficiencies with possibly no capital outlay?

Consider what I call market centralcasting or metrocasting. What if all of the stations in a large market were to form an LLC to fund a central facility (either an existing facility or a new, purpose-built one) that provided centralized play-out services for all of the stations’ multiple program streams? 

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The synergies could be huge, and would not be burdened with heavy fiber connectivity costs. This is not a huge step away from some smaller markets in which one station manages another through LMAs and other contracts.

The landscape of broadcasting is changing faster than ever. Ten years ago, if the concept of metrocasting had been brought to the GMs in any major market, the bearer would have been shown the door — immediately.  Today, perhaps, management would be more receptive.

BRAND CONNECTIONS

Already, the most competitive aspect of television broadcasting, the local newsrooms, have stuck a toe in the “cooperation waters,” with greater sharing of material — pool cameras, shared news services and shared helicopters.

Perhaps the concept of getting all stations in a market to agree on a company structure is too far-fetched. But suppose an outside company were to build a central playout facility in a market and offered fully staffed services? 

Taking advantage of today’s available technology, it is possible to build a plant which is a good deal less complex than a current TV facility with the flexibility to handle most any traffic system (75% of the stations in the country are now using the same traffic system in any case); most any network structure; and any number of playout streams.

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Such facilities would be unencumbered with offices, newsrooms, equipment storage and studios. Their only function would be to provide playout facilities.

The stations would no longer have to worry about the nuts and bolts (and pains and headaches) of getting the basic programming to the transmitter, and could concentrate on the things that make them special (and money) — local news, local sales and the brand.


Cindy Hutter Cavell is an engineer and practice manager at Cavell, Mertz & Associates. She has been VP of engineering at several TV stations in the country, and GM at the Fox Sports Net playout center in the Houston area. Her specialty is developing realistic, budget-oriented multicast facilities for groups and TV stations.


Comments (10)

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tom denman says:

January 12, 2011 at 8:55 am

This idea has been floated before. The problems are not techncial but competetive. In-market competitors won’t want their programming, logs, or priorities intermingled with their peers. This also puts the centralized master control environment at a disadvantage by being constantly scrutinized by paranoid General Management wondering if the needs of station X is being better served than their station. This world works well for cable channels, but call letter stations are a whole different game.

Roz Smith says:

January 12, 2011 at 8:57 am

And while we’re at it, let’s replace newscasters with computer-generated cartoons with voice actors in Arizona reading the copy.

If we could only figure out how to get rid of those pesky sales people and that horrible woman in accounting.

    Kathryn Miller says:

    January 12, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    one market, one ENG van, one camera

Janet Frankston Lorin says:

January 12, 2011 at 9:05 am

It is a very good idea from a technical standpoint and will work in a few markets. I have attempted this before and it failed, not because of any paranoia, but because most stations are group owned, and every group has its own plan for master control which seldom takes inter-market opportunities into consideration. For example, if there is a Media General station in your market, they won’t participate because they have their own centralcasting system. If you have two companies like that, the economics are no longer all that attractive.

ali amirhooshmand says:

January 12, 2011 at 9:19 am

One of the justifications for devoting spectrum to TV is TV’s ability to disseminate emergency information widely and with immediacy. There’d be not only a risk to the public safety but a political risk to the TV business in the event of the failure of a common master control site. Having every station in town go dark at once would be frightening, especially at a time of public emergency. Providing alternate STL routing should be figured into the cost of any such plan.

    Brian Walshe says:

    January 14, 2011 at 11:46 am

    Absolutely correct.

    Having mirror sites would be more expensive, but a lot better than having “Disaster in the Dark.” And local stations should maintain MCs at their studio facility in the event the grand “MC Solo” plan falls apart for some reason.

http://radiotvtalk.blog.ajc.com/2014/10/07/bet-to-retire-the-game-after-seasons-8-and-9/ says:

January 12, 2011 at 10:00 am

A big concern for me would be quality control. Anytime you hand over a piece of your operation to an “outside” group of people, there is now the issue of continually making sure they meet your expectations. When you take something like this and put control of it outside of the company’s culture, you are taking a risk. Many times you end up creating a “cheaper” on-going problem that becomes more difficult to solve over the long haul. How do you fire people (managers) in this centralized operation who do not meet expectations? Do you have to have a committee meeting? What if only one or two of six stations seem to be having a problem with the metro-centralized master control? It sounds good in theory from a cost savings standpoint but I think there is much to consider for very competitive large markets.

Jill Hatzioannou says:

January 12, 2011 at 10:27 am

While I agree that the concerns of station management had much validity in the past, modern automation systems and signal chain components like MC switchers, servers and branding devices are optimized for multi-channel operation. They are able to mitigate the ‘competitive’ issues to the point where the concern is, “does this facility adequately serve my needs?” What the facility does for the others is irrelevant as long as it works well for me. Given the current stage of the television business, an approach such as this unified master control that can provide significant savings in both opex and capex is likely to be given a fair hearing.

I believe there are two bigger barriers. The first will be the need to interface to multiple traffic systems as this primary function of the station’s operations is less likely to be outsourced. Each traffic system has its own little quirks in interfacing with automation and individual station operations have learned how to work with them. In any given market there are likely to be almost as many traffic systems in place as there are stations. I don’t think that this is a small problem.

The second barrier is inertia. The broadcast business is full of forward thinking, creative and innovative individuals. However, as a business, it moves very slowly to new methods and practices and seems to prefer incremental changes to large shifts. Granted, this is often related to the fact that a significant change in operating paradigm often requires both a significant initial capital outlay and a significant disruption to established procedures, workflow and the lives and livelihoods of people involved. If this shared master control approach can generate savings immediately, sans the significant immediate expense, it will at least be seriously examined by the intended customers. The question then becomes how to address the other issues.

Owen Simon says:

January 12, 2011 at 10:57 am

“The greatest pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do.” Walter Bagehot, economist and Journalist

tom denman says:

January 12, 2011 at 12:53 pm

When looking at the potential cost savings by doing Centralcasting(tm), TV Management puts too much stock in the cost of doing master control. Back during the run-up to the DTV transition, facilities needed to update their video and audio infrastructure to digital format. Centralization of master control, depending on how many stations were being served on the edge, saved a great deal of capex. Fast forward several years, where most stations already updated their master control environment to include at least HD passthrough, the investment in local facilities have already been made. Trust me, unless you can centralize several departments to include; traffic, AP, AR, programming, promotions AND master control, you won’t see enough worthwhile savings to justify creating a central master control environment or paying another group to supply it.


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