TECH SPOTLIGHT

Outsourced Master Control Drives NBC O&Os

After going it alone for eight years, NBC Owned Television Stations outsourced its master control centralcasting to Encompass Digital Media. From a single hub in Atlanta, Encompass handles basic master control chores for the 10 NBC O&Os — their main channels as well as their subchannels as well as six of NBCUniversal’s Telemundo stations. The classic hub-and-spoke centralcasting model runs on the Snell Group’s Morpheus software-based automation and media management system.

NBC is a centralcasting pioneer, having begun running master control for WVTM Birmingham, Ala., out of WTVJ Miami in 2001. That experiment evolved until NBC was operating all of its stations from just three hubs in New York, Los Angeles and Miami.

Then, in 2009, after NBC had spun off WVTM and some of its other smaller stations, it decided to outsource the centralcasting duties to Crawford Communications, later bought by Encompass Digital Media. From a single hub in Atlanta, Encompass handles basic master control chores for the remaining 10 NBC O&Os — their main channels as well as their subchannels. (It also serves six of NBCUniversal’s Telemundo stations.)

Like all pioneers, NBC experienced troubles over the years. It wasn’t easy getting the various centralcasting iterations to work effectively and reliably, but, according to NBC executives, all is well now.

“[Encompass] is a much better solution than the three hubs and it is an incredibly well backed-up and manned facility,” says Valari Staab, president of the NBC Owned Television Stations. “I don’t get a lot of complaints from the stations about the way the master control is being run.”

Tina Silvestri, senior VP of operations at the group, acknowledges that earlier generations of NBC centralcasting were not “100% perfect. But that’s to be expected in any project of this size. Today, we are very comfortable with Encompass and the system.”

For NBC, Encompass uses a classic hub-and-spoke centralcasting scheme running on the Snell Group’s Morpheus software-based automation and media management system.

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Jeff Morris, VP of technology operations for the NBC stations, says Encompass mainly deals with syndicated and network programming and advertising spots. Local news is not managed in the centralcasting model. Each station still switches its own local news programming.

“They have a system in place to acquire our content, prepare it for air and QC it,” he says. “They do the typical master control functionality of watching the playlist, making sure the next event is cued up and the media is there, and making sure it all executes on the air flawlessly.”

The single-hub system continues to evolve, Silvestri says. “Anytime a new need has arisen since 2009, they have adjusted and added features or done what’s necessary to get what we needed. If there’s something more wholesale that needs to be done, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

Encompass’s Atlanta operation is huge, complex and the first of its kind in American broadcasting. The current company was formed in 2008 and has grown through the acquisition of several companies, including Crawford and Ascent Media in Los Angeles.

Among its services is a new generation of master control software that replaces expensive hardware and allows for lower-cost IP connectivity. Its goal is to offer broadcasters a centralcasting service that’s both reliable and affordable.

In addition, Encompass provides network channel origination, digital media distribution and delivery. In essence, it captures, distributes and enables the consumption of media on multiple platforms. It ingests media in all formats and distributes it via satellite, fiber and accelerated IP and FTP clients.

Encompass’s client base is a mix of media companies and governmental entities. In addition to NBC, its clients include A&E Networks/Lifetime, Sony, CBS, Disney/ABC, BBC Worldwide, U.S. Department of Defense, MTV, ESPN, NHL, Discovery Networks, DIRECTV Sports Networks, NFL Network, YES Network, Scripps, Hallmark, Channel Five and TV Guide.

Encompass declined to be interviewed for this story, but Don Rodd, SVP of engineering and technical operations, discussed the NBC project during a Snell-sponsored webinar.

“The hub is responsible for the aggregations of all the content,” Rodd said. “We do transcoding as well as QC-ing. As playlists are processed here locally in Atlanta, that content is moved by the [Snell] Morpheus-based system to the edge servers that are out at the stations.

“We also do a variety of live events that range from morning shows to sports events,” Rodd said. “Functions at the hub include monitoring of playback and live-event switching, satellite/baseband ingest, receipt of electronic delivery, media management and automated transfers to/from all spokes.”

Encompass built the entire NBC project in only 88 days, a timeline that Rodd said “was very aggressive.” Snell’s technology was used because the company had experience moving files through a large network — rather than just from rack to rack in a facility — and it had a large library of third-party drivers for equipment.

“Being able to do live very well was also a requirement,” Rodd continued. “By live we really focused on ‘JIT’ [join in progress] scenarios. This means if we’re in a live sporting event and it goes long or ends up being shorter than anticipated, there may be ‘join in progress’ scenarios that differ by cities. So the flexibility in being able to end a live event on a city-by-city basis was key.”

In the webinar, Encompass pegged the on-air reliability of the NBC system at  99.996%.

An unexpected benefit of the centralcasting system occurred to NBC in August as Hurricane Irene moved up the East Coast, Silvestri says. “Since the hub is not co-located with any of our television stations and it’s a remote operation, it offers us an additional level of redundancy in emergencies.

“We could have instantly routed another station to one that goes down. For example, at the push of a button, we could have routed WNBC into the Philadelphia DMA if WCAU had been taken off the air. That would have been far more complex in earlier years.”

Snell’s work done on NBC’s centralcasting model contributed to the development of ICE, its channel-in-a-box technology that rides on top of Morpheus and emulates much of the NBC functionality in integrated software.

Encompass now offers ICE along with Morpheus for new clients so it doesn’t have to replicate the many outboard components configured for the NBC project, says Simon Derry, CEO of the Snell Group.

A major benefit of Snell’s solution is that ICE is scalable and modular, and works in a single channel up to hundreds of channels, Derry says. A single channel can cost less than $100,000 and the price goes down as the number of channels increases.

According to Morris, saving money was not the main factor in NBC’s initial decision to pursue centralcasting. “At the time, we were looking for the best possible solution to meet our business needs. We evaluated a variety of options and the decision was not made based on cost. It was made on what was the best fit for our company.”

Encompass has become an extension of NBC, Silvestri says. “Though Encompass is obviously a separate company, its operation is integrated into ours. All of our employees at the television stations have relationships with the staff at Encompass. It’s really as if they are an arm of NBC, which is a great feeling for us.”

Silvestri also says that NBC has its own space at Encompass and has its own full-time employee there. “That gives us an additional layer of accountability.”


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