When some stations started multicasting digital subchannels there were a number of engineering issues that made the process cumbersome. Today, although there are different methods to launch a diginet — from using network-configured equipment to running second channels through a station’s main master control — most broadcasters say the task is neither tough nor expensive.
Tech Makes Multicasting Cheap, Painless
When Kyle Walker, director of engineering at Weigel Broadcasting, was helping to launch This TV in 2008, his goal was to make it as easy as possible for affiliates to begin broadcasting the vintage TV and movie network on a subchannel.
“We’re trying to sell this to the local stations, so we’re trying to convince station executives this is an easy way to go,” he says. “Even in 2008, there weren’t a lot of stations doing subchannels, because GMs didn’t want to deal with the technical hurdles.”
Today, it’s a no-brainer to launch a second or third channel, Walker says.
Other broadcasters would agree. Although there are different methods to launch a diginet today — from using network-configured equipment to running second channels through a station’s main master control — most broadcasters say the task is not tough.
“There really isn’t anything too tricky about it,” says Pat Ingram, director of engineering for Dispatch Broadcast Group. “As long as you have a good engineering staff that knows what they’re doing, you can easily launch one of these channels.”
Weigel is a phenom when it comes to diginets. In addition to This TV, it also produces and distributes Me-TV and distributes the Fox-owned Movies! network.
Its WCIU Chicago uses nearly the entire 19.4 mbps throughput of its ATSC signal, broadcasting one HD channel and four SD diginets, including a local programming channel that often airs high school sports, Me-TV network, a Chicago-only variant of Me-TV called MeToo and This TV.
“The comparison I always point to is the cable industry,” says Weigel’s Walker. “When Time Warner Cable launches 90 channels that they’re doing local ad insertion on in New York City, they don’t have 90 people working in traffic banging out logs for 90 channels.
“Our goal is to make it where [creating] a log would take 20 minutes a day, and through these workflows we put into place, it has worked out that way. It’s more cookie-cutter. It’s more of a cable mindset.”
When a station launches a This TV channel, Weigel gives it a specific list of equipment to purchase and instructions on how to set it up. The broadcast group learned from that 2008 launch and made Me-TV more robust by providing a decoder and a network-configured box that automatically inserts local station IDs and corner logo bugs.
“Me-TV is a model that mimics a network affiliate like ABC or NBC,” Walker says. “You go through the negotiation process. We tell you, almost with a gun: ‘Here are the requirements. We’re going to send you a box. When you hook it up, you’re going to hook it up like this.’ We want to it to be as reliable as possible. We leave nothing to question.”
The network box feeds the programming to a switcher that allows the station to insert commercials from a local server. Me-TV sends stations a cue signal at the start of every commercial break.
“It’s designed so the local operator doesn’t have to do anything,” Walker says. “We want it to work this way so local stations can focus on the main channel, where they have to worry about breaking and producing news. The dot2 can just run in the background and be a revenue generator.”
The Me-TV box, which includes the local ad-insertion feature, is actually a customized version of Thomson Video Network’s Sapphire channel-in-a-box solution. But it can be used as a true channel-in-a-box, however, only in some situations, Walker says.
KFMB San Diego, Calif., for example, runs the Me-TV box with only local ad insertions — no long-form playback or local live break-ins.
“Here in Chicago, we do some local program insertion different from what the network is doing, so that approach doesn’t work for us,” says Walker. “But if a station says, ‘I just want to add a dot2 and I’m not going to try and run a repeat of the newscast and all I want to do is run local commercials,’ in many scenarios, that’s a cost-effective approach.”
Walker says it would cost a station only about $20,000 to take that approach with Me-TV.
The proliferating channel-in-a-box solutions are proving ideal for multicasting.
This month, Cordillera Communications’ KVOA Tucson, Ariz., launched NBCUniversal’s Cozi TV diginet using Harris’ Versio channel-in-a-box, becoming the first U.S. customer to buy Harris’ all-in-one master control solution.
When the signal is received via satellite from NBC’s Cozi TV, it’s decoded and is fed into Versio for playout.
“In the past, that program stream would be a source into a master control switcher and within that switcher, you’d have to deal with everything from EAS to running crawls, to other sources for your commercial content, and any other program content,” says Andrew Suk, VP engineering and operations at Cordillera. “There were just a whole slew of things that went into running that channel, not the least of which was commercial content.”
For commercial content, stations needed a separate server, says Suk, and some additional hard drive space to handle the commercial load. “You also needed some level of automation to control it, and a traffic tie-in to that automation system and to that switcher so you can know what’s all going out.”
Suk says Harris hit a homerun with Versio because everything needed to run the Cozi channel is included in the box. The station was already using Harris switchers, graphics cards and servers, and has been an OSi traffic customer since Harris purchased that company in 2006.
Some stations continue to launch subchannels the old-fashioned way.
Last month, Dispatch’s WBNS Columbus, Ohio, replaced the AccuWeather diginet with Tribune’s Antenna TV. That was a huge change, says Dispatch’s Ingram.
AccuWeather supplied the station with a server that wasn’t big enough to store commercials, forcing Ingram to modify the system so commercials could be played on it. He says Antenna TV runs like a major television network where stations get times during the day when commercials can be run.
The Antenna TV satellite feed goes into the dedicated decoder and then into the station’s routing system, which is part of the station’s master control automation that’s tied into its existing traffic system.
“Our system is built out to handle multiple channels the way it is,” Ingram says. “We could still add another two or three channels if we want to and don’t have to resort to a channel-in-a-box, which really limits what you can do.”
Ingram says the station uses Crispin Broadcast Automation that lets operators control every possible aspect of a broadcast.
“That includes everything from controlling our satellite recordings, to moving our dishes — literally everything,” he says. “We cannot get that kind of versatility with a channel-in-a-box, plus we don’t want a second device controller talking to our router for our master control. That tends to get a little hairy when you do things like that.”
At WBNS, the Antenna TV channel is set up side-by-side with the regular master control and is monitored continuously, Ingram says. “We treat it as if it were a main channel.”
Ingram says the biggest challenge in setting up a subchannel is getting the automation set so commercial timing is right. “The basics are always the same. It’s just getting everything coordinated and set up right.”
Cordillera’s Suk says he doesn’t understand why some stations have yet to take the plunge in multicasting, broadcasting a diginet or two.
“Launching a subchannel is a very efficient use of spectrum and that’s frankly why we did it,” he says. “And in terms of an investment, it’s dirt cheap today to go ahead and put one on.”
This is Part 3 of our Diginets Special Report. Read the other parts here.