Brett Jenkins, VP and CTO of Media General, which now includes the former LIN Media stations, discusses the challenges of integrating the technical operations of both broadcast groups, how to deal with the upcoming spectrum repack, the growing role of digital and its unique demands, how technology is helping the group’s stations share local news stories and his thoughts about the future of terrestrial digital television.
It’s been about nine months since the merger of LIN Media and Media General became final, and in that time Brett Jenkins, VP and CTO, of the combined company has tackled the challenge of integrating the technology and technical personnel of two large, independent broadcast groups, each with their own unique broadcast engineering cultures.
Combined, the new company, which retains the Media General name, has become one of the country’s largest multimedia organizations with 71 TV stations in 48 markets and a sizeable portfolio of digital and mobile platforms.
Jenkins, who formerly served as VP and CTO of LIN Media, has an extensive history in the television business, which includes a stint as VP of technology for Ion Media Networks and various executive positions with Thales Broadcast & Multimedia as well as Thomson.
Besides his responsibilities with Media General, Jenkins serves as a board member of the Advanced Television Systems Committee, helping to chart the future technological direction of television with the development of ATSC 3.0.
In this interview, Jenkins discusses the challenges of integrating the technical operations of both broadcast groups, the growing role of digital and its unique demands, how technology is helping the group’s stations share local news stories and his thoughts about the future of terrestrial digital television.
An edited transcript:
The merger between Media General and LIN Media closed in December 2014. What are the biggest engineering management challenges you face when integrating two formerly large, separate broadcast groups into one consolidated operation?
First, let me say what’s not a challenge. We’ve got some of the most talented engineers in the industry working on our team, from the corporate staff, to the station chiefs, to the station staff. I think we have established a technology culture at Media General that encourages autonomy, leadership and innovation. When you work with great people, the challenges seem a lot more fun.
That said, the biggest challenge in the integration process is picking your battles. There are so many things that could be done, and the larger the company gets, the longer the list of possibilities. So, we’ve had to really refine our technology strategy and try to focus on what we think will drive the most value for the organization.
What preparations is Media General making during this pre-repack timeframe to get ready for the channel repack following the FCC’s spectrum auction next year? Maybe things like engineering, structural and mechanical studies of transmission sites, inventories of existing transmitters and antenna systems, etc.? Are you concerned about whether there are sufficient industry resources — tower crews, manufacturing capability, etc. — to get the repack done in 39 months?
We’ve done quite a bit of work to try to understand the repack in relationship to the auction, so we can have a better idea of the size, scope and impact. Now, we’re in the process of taking a comprehensive look at all of our RF infrastructure to get a next level understanding of the expected efforts and costs associated with each potential channel move.
We expect to have a mix of market situations that present various difficulties. With 71 stations to shepherd through the process, I confess it seems like a monumental task. To accomplish it in a 39-month build-out period could put too much strain on the available resources. I hope the FCC will be willing to help the industry make the repack a smooth transition so that consumers don’t bear the brunt of a really aggressive timeline.
What are your thoughts about transitioning from baseband video to IP? Is it on your radar screen? If so, how will it first take shape — master control and playout, perhaps?
We’ve been looking at IP video in our station and production infrastructure for a couple years, watching the progress that vendors are making, and trying to keep our ears to the ground as folks begin experimenting. We will be very cautious about the transition.
In my opinion, there are two main reasons to think about moving baseband to IP. First, reducing our cost of ownership, in other words upfront costs and maintenance.
And second, providing more flexibility in what can be done in the video environment. Before we start to move in this direction, we’ll first want to make sure that the technology is stable and reliable.
Next, a transition has to be supported by real cost of ownership considerations, and right now I’m not convinced that we’re there.
And finally, we’ll want to make sure that we apply the technology in a way that allows us to take advantage of the flexibility it affords. I believe that the flexibility will come into play first in situations where we are doing live production rather than for playout. But that’s just my gut feeling.
Is there any desire to centralize certain operations, such as master control, playout, traffic, back-office operations? Would a move from baseband to IP make some of that easier? (I’m thinking of Disney/ABC’s announcement of moving master control and playout to the cloud as an example.)
Both Media General and LIN Media had a long history in back-office centralization. Almost all of our master control, playout, monitoring and traffic systems were centralized before the merger. We’ve been working to evaluate the slightly different methods that each company was using, and we’ve come up with what we think is a “best of breed” centralization design that balances the needs of a company our size. It provides for very efficient economies of scale while keeping a very high level of service and reducing the exposure of a technical or other failure.
We’re in the process right now of implementing that solution across the group, and will be working on that well into next year. We had a chance to look at IP as the basis for those systems, but concluded that shifting to new and unproven technology was too great a risk when you consider your entire operation (and all your TV ad revenues) is built on these systems. And as I said before, I have yet to see a cost advantage.
As the Internet and mobile grow in popularity among consumers, is there a need for stations to retool their news production workflow to support news creation and distribution across all platforms all the time? If so, how is Media General approaching this?
The proliferation of digital distribution is absolutely having a massive impact on newsroom workflows. The most obvious implication is that almost any story is now “breaking news” because you can get it to your audience without waiting for the evening news. (The only other option we used to have was preempting programming).
But we also have to realize that digital audiences don’t necessarily want the exact same product that they get with on-air news. You really need to tell the same story differently and craft it for that platform’s audience.
In terms of our newsrooms, we’re not really in a “retooling” mode anymore. We’re now in a state of constant evolution and change where we are always evaluating the systems we’re using.
Generally, we focus on helping our journalists to be more efficient because all these new modes of consuming content have increased the workload on the people doing the storytelling. One of the simple things we try to do is limit the number of different systems that a journalist has to use to do their work. If you just focus on that, I’ve found that you can help people enormously.
With 48 markets and 71 stations covered post-merger, it seems like there would be quite an opportunity to leverage news sharing among stations in different markets. Is that happening now, and what, if any, steps are you taking to maximize the opportunity?
We’re doing more and more in the news sharing area. We’ve got a specific task force within news that’s focused on curating content from across our group and sharing it with our entire footprint. We use tools like the TVU Grid to allow us to access live content across our stations. We have more work to do to harmonize MAM systems across the group and make it easier from a technical standpoint, but we’re not letting lack of common systems stop us.
We’ve also recently launched a news bureau in Washington, D.C. with a very specific focus of producing and distributing more in-depth coverage and analysis of federal policies and issues that impact our local communities.
Helping our local markets access more news that better serves our viewers is something that you can absolutely do when you’ve got great size and scale, like Media General.
You are on the board of ATSC, which is pushing full-speed ahead with ATSC 3.0, and you are also a VP and CTO of a major broadcast group. What are your feelings about the future viability of over-the-air TV?
Simply put, I am very bullish on over-the-air TV. I think we’re starting to see some viewers return to OTA as a primary way to receive live linear TV, and I expect that trend will continue. That said, I’m not delusional or nostalgic about it. I don’t think you’ll ever see OTA return to dominant distribution, but it will remain very important as the most economically efficient way to distribute content to a mass audience. And I think our industry has a great opportunity to exploit that capability to do more than just linear TV in the future.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I’m really excited about the future of our business. There is now almost no area in media that technology doesn’t touch, from content rights to regulatory issues. Content is paramount, so for me, it’s all about creating a culture of innovation at our company and leveraging the very best technology to produce content of the highest quality.