The group’s top engineer tells how he is managing the simultaneous rollout of several new technologies and systems in his drive for cheaper, faster and better.
Cox Television has jumped out ahead of most TV station groups in local HD production, putting HD newscasts on the air at three of its 15 stations—WFTV Orlando, Fla., in June; WSB Atlanta in September; and KTVU San Francisco in October.
Overseeing the group’s transition to local HD production, as well as to news automation, a tapeless ENG format, file-based workflow, digital ENG microwave and digital broadcasting is Sterling Davis, VP of engineering.
In this edited interview with TVNewsCheck, Davis reveals his roll out plan for the new technologies with the clear goal of doing things cheaper, faster and better.
You’ve got three stations on the air with HD news from the studio. When do these stations step up and go full HD with HD from the field?
Right now we don’t have any specific plans for field acquisition in HD, although the new [Panasonic P2] cameras that we’re starting to get are switchable to HD so we could make that move when we choose to. The first of the HD cameras will be going into Atlanta [WSB] and Charlotte [WSOC].
One of the things that’s keeping us from thinking too seriously about it at the moment is the Sprint deal for digital microwaves. Until we get past that, it’s sort of hard to imagine how we’re going to do HD news from the field.
As part of a spectrum deal with the FCC, Sprint is supposed to be paying for you to convert your ENG microwave gear from analog to digital. What’s the problem?
Sprint, from my point of view, seems to be going very slowly. It’s sort of hard to push on Sprint and get answers back and keep things moving in each market. Nextel was all gung ho, but I think it’s changed since Sprint bought it. They’ve slowed down the process considerably. I don’t know if that’s intentional or they’re just trying to integrate a new company or a different philosophy or what, but they’ve lost a lot of people that were working on the program.
That all adds another layer of uncertainty.
Right. We will get to digital from the field somehow, somewhere, someday, but until we get that sorted out, we’re not really considering widespread HD in the field.
You have 10 stations that produce news and three are doing local HD news. What about the other seven?
They will be coming in due course. We are building a new TV station in Pittsburgh [WPXI] from scratch and plan on having cameras as well as a whole studio that will be HD-capable when we move in around Labor Day.
So you’ll be HD in Pittsburgh by Labor Day.
I think so. It could be earlier. I suppose it could be later, but we’ll see how that goes. The other markets will be looking at it from a competitive point of view and a replacement cycle point of view. We have some money set aside to do it and to move it around if necessary, but we don’t have any other specific plans for HD in other markets today.
I know you have introduced the standard-definition Panasonic P2 format at most of your news producing stations over the last couple years. What’s been your experience with that?
We’re very happy with the P2 cameras. They make good pictures and we like the workflow that they’ve caused us to change to.
I assume that you considered the Sony XDCAM optical-disc format before settling on P2?
Well, we think that the [P2] cards are better just because it facilitates faster edit workflow from the field. We do a lot of editing in our trucks and having cards available to dump material directly into the laptop computers for editing with Avid is very useful to our workflow.
The Sony optical disc emulates the tape-based workflow and many stations choose it for that reason in my opinion. Certainly the networks have.
So you edit in the trucks and send it back to the studios packaged and ready to go?
Essentially packaged. All the field editing is done. They may do additional things to it in the studio, but most the field stuff has been cut and pasted.
What are the other components of your workflow initiative?
I think the only other component at the station is ingesting material coming over the microwave and today it’s analog microwave so it’s video coming in. In the future, when we go to digital microwave, we hope to go to a file-based transfer over microwave as well.
What kind of automation would I find in the Cox stations?
Going back many years, we’re doing station automation to play out the station itself 24/7. We’re now installing automated ingest so we can ingest programs from satellite Pathfire in a way that eliminates these repetitive processes. We’re also in the process of installing automated newscast play out using the Ignite system from Grass Valley.
That seems to be a technology that started in the smaller markets and is now creeping up the ladder into the larger markets. Do you see a day when you’ll have Ignite everywhere?
Yes. We’ve got a couple of stations—Johnstown, Pa. [WJAC] and Steubenville, Ohio [WTOV]—that have been on the air for maybe three years with a forerunner to that, the Parkervision system. It works great. Now that Grass Valley has bought Parkervision and created Ignite from it, we are starting to roll it out at most of our stations.
We don’t have it operating in the automatic mode at this point in any market yet. We’re using it in a manual mode as they’re in the process of installing it.
Tell me how that changes the newsroom, the control room during a newscast?
It eliminates a lot of miscommunications in newscasts where we have several different people sometimes shouting at each other and changing directions and commands and so on. It reduces the number in the control room to one or two people, a director and maybe somebody to help the director. It takes the script itself from the newsroom editorial system and adds all the automation features. So, when you move the script around, all the technical equipment follows along with it so it makes it a lot easier to deal with.
What are the challenges you’re facing in getting ready for the big analog-to-digital broadcast transition in 2009?
Most of our stations will be in pretty good shape. The one that’s a question mark right now is KTVU in San Francisco, which is going to be broadcasting digital on someone else’s analog channel. The details haven’t been worked out yet as to how that can get all shuffled around in zero time.
What’s the other station?
CBS’s station on channel 44. KBHK are the old call letters. I don’t remember what the new ones are.
So come midnight on Feb. 17, 2009, CBS has to get off channel 44 and you have to get on it.
Right, but they’re not going to shut it off a minute early, I don’t think, just to help us.
But other than that, you’re in pretty good shape?
Other than that, I think we’re in good shape. I mean we’ll have work to do after the transition, to move antennas around and such, but it won’t be a significant problem.
What about transmission redundancy?
Redundancy we’ve been working on. There’s sort of a four-year plan to get our digital facilities redundant by 2009. Some may be a little bit after in some cases, but we should be in reasonably good shape in early 2009.
What’s the new Pittsburgh facility going to look like?
It’s designed and built from the ground up as a TV station on a new site. It will have two studios with a combination newsroom/studio open to each other. It will be just as state of the art as we can afford. It won’t have all new technical equipment. We will reuse a bunch of what we have currently, but you can’t really afford to buy all brand new stuff.
Who’s doing the integration for you? Who’s putting it together for you?
Do you have any plans for centralcasting or centralizing the operations of your stations?
We keep that sort of in the background and we look at it periodically. We are controlling our two Reno stations [KRXI] and KAME] from Oakland [KTVU] most of the time during recorded events, but not during sports and other live events. We also have some centralized traffic operations. We’re dealing with four markets traffic-wise out of our Pittsburgh operation.
Which markets are they?
Dayton [WHIO], Steubenville, Johnstown and Pittsburgh are all being trafficked out of Pittsburgh.
Which is probably your tightest geographic cluster. It’s all Western Pennsylvania and Ohio.
I guess there’s no absolute reason for that from a traffic point of view. It just happens to be convenient.
But you are not a champion of operating multiple stations from a hub station?
I spent a lot of money on a study several years ago and the study came back and showed that it wouldn’t pay for us to do that. I’m talking about moving video here.
Now, you could do a remote control scenario and we keep looking at that. The problem with that is, if you are already doing master control automation and if you only have one person in the station overseeing the automation, you’re not going to cut that person out. There’s not much savings there. I mean there is no savings. There is just added cost. So, if we had a whole lot of people working at a station as we did 10 years ago, it might be different. But we’ve been slimming down our stations and automating our stations sufficiently so that this remote control or even moving video doesn’t seem to pay for us.