The top engineering executive for the 14-station TV group is dealing with many issues at the same time to keep pace with the competition and take full advantage of the latest technological efficiencies.
As VP and director of engineering for the 14-station Meredith Broadcasting Group, Joe Snelson has much to think about—upgrading station infrastucture, preparing the way for HD news, implementing automation and workflow systems, evaluating new acquisition formats, dealing with Nextel for new ENG microwave gear and making sure the sky doesn’t fall on Feb. 18, 2009.
In this interview with TVNewsCheck, Snelson shares his thinking on these topics and more.
You have these 14 stations with duopolies in a couple markets, Kansas City and Portland. Tell me, what’s the plan for moving these stations into the 21st century?
The plan is to take these plants that are analog and convert them over to digital. Now, that’s analog to digital, not necessarily HD. We have a new facility being built in Hartford, Connecticut [WFSB], and then we also are going to be doing another remodel at our Phoenix station [KPHO]. Any time that we go in and build a new facility or do a remodel we make the infrastructure ready for HD. That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to install HD cameras and HD traffic systems and what have you on day one, but the internal wiring and all of the grunt work will be HD-capable, so then we simply buy the cameras for the switchers then install them.
Where are you in this process?
Phoenix is coming on board now, but basically all of my markets from Atlanta [WGCL] down to Kansas City [KCTV] are going to have digital infrastructures probably by mid next year or so. Some of those are new stations that were built with digital infrastructure.
So there’s no urgency to get Greenville, South Carolina, Las Vegas and the others on board?
No, but those are on the table. When I say they’re on the table, it’s a matter of developing the plans and deciding when we ought to do those markets.
When you say “digital infrastructure,” what exactly are you talking about?
Primarily, that is your wiring, all the cables that you put in, and your patch base in order to patch around equipment, all of those connectors that you put on the end of the cables. All of that material is capable of passing a high-definition serial digital signal.
That really is the guts of a station.
Well, yeah, because that stuff typically all goes in a computer floor and is layered and, of course, once that’s in there it’s a devil of a time replacing it. A piece of equipment is pretty easy to replace. You just go in the back and undo the connectors, unscrew it from the racks, take it out, put in the new gear, plug it back in and away you go. Now that’s an oversimplification, but nevertheless I mean it’s a lot easier to do that than it is going in and ripping wires out of the floor because you found out that whoever put them in put them in wrong or that it was a substandard grade of wire. That’s horrible.
So, you’re marching through your station group putting in the digital infrastructure. What else are you doing to upgrade your stations?
We rolled out one station with Grass Valley’s Ignite system, actually two stations. We put it in Springfield, Mass., at WSHM and then we also got Ignite going in Greenville, S.C. [WHNS]. In 2007, there will be more of the same. We’re probably going to end up rolling out some more Ignites.
Okay. What’s that doing for you?
It automates newscasts. For instance, in Greenville, we were able to add a morning news show without having to add a lot of additional staff. Prior to Ignite, we were doing just an evening news. Springfield is a low-power station and when we put it on the air we had no news, so Ignite was very important. It enabled us to do more with less.
What other stations are in line for Ignite?
We are going to also be putting that in at our Flint-Saginaw station, WNEM, and in Bend, Ore. [KFXO].
Bend is also a low power right?
Yes, but we put news in there.
Are you on the path to HD production anywhere?
Not specifically. Now, again, as affiliates we do HD pass-through of network programming. That we do. But in terms of local production, no, we are not doing that yet. We are beginning to look at markets where we may do some HD commercial playback like for the NCAA [tournament on CBS] and things like that.
We’re moving cautiously. We are watching. Price points are dropping all the time on this HD equipment, so it’s just a matter of deciding just when the time is right. It’s probably more of a decision for the Paul Karpowiczes than it is for the engineers and technical types like me. They’ll decide when the time is right to step into that arena. [Paul Karpowicz is president of the Meredith station group.]
Probably when the other guy does.
Sometimes that’s the answer and, sometimes, you may elect to be a leader. It just depends.
What are you using for news acquisition now?
We’re still acquiring news for the most part in the DVCPRO tape format, although some of my stations have started using the [Panasonic] P2 cards. Once that tape hits the door, it is then transferred in to the Avid system. At that point, it is living in a digital domain on a server where it is available to anyone at any of the edit stations.
So, it’s Avid for nonlinear editing.
Across our group, we’re pretty much that way except in Hartford. In Hartford, we are using AP for news and, in the new facility, they’re going to use the Grass Valley editing.
What’s the next step in news acquisition—after DVCPRO?
I tend to lean toward the [Panasonic P2] memory card only because throughout my whole career I’ve dealt with mechanics and I know what mechanical devices do when you put them out in 110 degree weather, when you get them out in 10 below zero weather. Mechanical devices are mechanical and they tend to sometimes literally freeze up or whatever.
Obviously, my goal would be not to have any mechanics in the camera at all. Now, that being said, a number of the networks are going with the Sony DVD and, obviously, it’s proven itself to be fairly robust or they probably wouldn’t be using it.
Do you wait until you are ready to go HD before you fully embrace one of these tapeless formats?
Not necessarily, no. I mean the memory card will work for either format [standard-definition or HD]. I don’t necessarily see the decision of changing out the recording format to stand or fall with whether you go HD.
Now some of that might get determined if you’re starting to look at replacing cameras. You might sit down and look at that and say, do I want to buy HD cameras or do I want to buy SD cameras. Honestly, that’s strictly a budgetary thing driven by market pressures.
Now, let’s just say you’ve got 14 camera systems in your station that need to be replaced. Well, you may not have the budget to buy 14 HD cameras so you say, well, golly, it isn’t that big of an issue right now. We’ll go with 14 SD cameras, or, you may say, we’re going to keep the best of the old ones and buy seven new HD cameras. But that is all driven by the station, the general manager, the market. It’s more than just a straight technical decision.
When you make the decision to go to HD news, will you phase it in? Or, will it happen all at once?
What is an HD newscast? Well, for most stations what an HD newscast might consist of would be maybe three high-definition cameras in the studio. Obviously, they’ve got to have a high-definition switcher to switch those cameras. They may do their weather graphics in HD. They may also do some of their still stores and over-the-shoulder shots in HD, but the field acquisition—meaning what the folks in the field go out and gather news with and what the live trucks shoot—may still be standard definition that is upconverted.
They may make the next step. They say, okay, we’re going to go buy a bunch of HD cameras and go shoot news in the field and bring it back and edit it in HD. Then, another year or two later, they may decide to do our live shots in HD. So you know, you’ve got three different prongs here when you start talking about HD for news on just how deep you go.
But I would say that for most stations, the beginning point is to get like HD studio cameras and HD switching equipment in the studios so you can switch those HD cameras.
What about centralcasting? I’m looking down your list of stations and I see you don’t have much geographic clustering.
Well, you’re absolutely right and, basically, I have looked at centralcasting since 1997 and I continue to look at it. If I were to really sum it up, the two challenges that keep my group from doing centralcasting are: 1) network diversity and 2) geographic diversity. Those make it very difficult for me to centralcast.
You’ve got all these different networks [CBS, MNT, Fox, NBC and The CW] and the geographic diversity. I mean Meredith stations are just about shotgunned across the country. We’re all over the place. We’re not clustered in one location.
Is the cost of transmission the real obstacle?
Yes. Distribution is the problem. There are two models of centralcasting. There’s what I used to call the Ackerly model and the New York Times model. In the Ackerly model, the assets were all at one location and you simply used fiber or microwave or whatever to send it out from the central location to the remote locations. The other one, the New York Times model, is that of remote control where all of the assets still stay at the station, but you simply control those stations from another location.
What’s wrong with the latter? There’s no big cost in telecommunications, correct?
Well, right, but the problem I run into is you still have to have a librarian at the local station to ingest commercial material and keep the server cleaned and everything. When I look at the cost of labor for our group, by the time I whittle it all down, I’m not making a lot of profit on it and one big loss during the Super Bowl or whatever would wipe out all of my profit.
You would lose all the pennies you saved over the course of a year and your job, probably.
Yeah. So, honestly, the New York Times model is the only one that would save any money at all, but, when I start looking at the risk and benefit side of it, the savings just aren’t astounding. Part of that is that, at our stations, our people that work master control typically multitask. They don’t just do master control. The master control operator is off tuning in live shots or playing back news tapes or one thing or another so these people aren’t just devoted to sitting behind a console all the time reading a newspaper and magazine during the moments that they’re not playing commercials. I mean a lot of the time they are doing other stuff, everything from supporting news to one thing or another. My point on that is, if I go to centralcasting and I go, okay, you’re gone, you’re gone, you’re gone. Now who’s going do those other jobs? So it gets real complicated.
The Sprint-Nextel change-out of broadcasters’ analog ENG gear seems to moving a lot more slowly than anybody expected. Where do you stand?
We have a master frequency relocation agreement—an FRA—with Nextel that is in place and executed. Each station then has its part, which would be the addendums with the various pieces of equipment and everything. We have that in place in Las Vegas at KVVU so we’ve begun the ordering and what not there. Other stations are getting close to a final agreement.
What’s your sense on the industry as a whole? Is the program moving quickly enough? I think they have a 2007 deadline right?
Something like that. Actually, I think it’s going to snowball. There’s going be a mass scurry to get this thing done and, like I say, even though Vegas is the only one I have in place, I’ve got one or two other stations that are close to getting their addendums in place. So I suspect this thing could really accelerate.
Are you concerned about the deadline for making the switch from analog to digital broadcasting?
No. We’ve made the DTV transition pretty cleanly. All of our facilities are up and running at maximum power. I will say that when February 18, 2009, comes, I’m not going to be telling the guys to start tearing out all the old analog equipment. I may let it sit a month or two and see what happens.
Yeah, there may be riots—the storming of the FCC.
Exactly. And some e-mail comes flying down that says quick, turn the transmitters back on for three weeks.