In this first in a series of interviews with suppliers and users of cutting-edge broadcast technology, Grass Valley’s Alex Holtz tells how the Ignite system can not only save broadcasters money in the control room, but also position them to better tackle multicasting and webcasting.
In the brief history of TVNewsCheck’s Tech One on One interviews with leading TV broadcast engineers, two of the three subjects—Meredith’s Joe Snelson and Cox’s Sterling Davis—said that they were introducing the Grass Valley’s Ignite news automation system into stations to improve efficiency.
In development for 12 years, Ignite takes the various elements of a newscast—the graphics, camera shots and transitions between segments—and turns them into events that are pre-recorded and stored so they can be called up instantly and managed by a single operator, instead of an entire crew.
Alex Holtz, IPS product manager at Grass Valley, developed the original business plan, specifications and proof of concept for Ignite and has shepherded its development ever since.
In this edited interview with TVNewsCheck—the first in a new series with suppliers and users of cutting edge technology for broadcasters—Holtz talks about the impact the system can have, not only on the bottom line, but on advancing the progress of stations as they reinvent themselves into what he calls video newspapers of the future.
Ignite seems to be finding a market. Why do you think that is?
We’re now in the most opportune time because of several things happening in the industry.
You have the local broadcaster with the challenge of transitioning to digital and HD at the same time that he or she needs to overcome the advertising erosion that is taking place as a result of the Internet and mobile devices. So what’s the best way to address these cost issues while also meeting the financial needs of shareholders and positioning for the future of Internet distribution and mobile devices without adding staff? It’s hard to hire overhead and extend yourself while developing a new market.
Of the stations that have committed to Ignite, what percentage are top 50 markets and what percentage are below 50?
Right now we’re running at about one-third large markets, two-thirds small to mid-size markets. Some station groups prefer to start with small market stations and build up gradually. Some start with larger market stations and then drive the technology down to the smaller market stations. And when I say large markets, I mean top 20. The lion’s share is between markets 20 and 100. And there’s a small amount beyond 100, but we think that will grow.
How much does an Ignite system cost?
It varies depending on the system configuration, but it’s about $1.2 million.
What kind of return on investment can a station expect with Ignite?
The model differs from market segment to market segment. Ignite can be run by a single operator, so in a top market that runs a newscast with eight to 10 individuals, the payback is positive after the first year.
That is because in the top 10 markets, newsrooms are primarily union. They have union salaries with benefits that run about $100,000 in a top station. So you can see how the payback is significant. Now take that staffing and multiply it by two and a half, because you have a morning shift, an evening shift and a weekend shift. You can see how it quickly pays for itself.
How long does it take to pay for itself in a medium-size market?
In medium-size markets you are looking at price-per-person running from $40,000 to $65,000. Instead of a staff of eight to 10, you’re probably looking at six to seven.They usually don’t have floor directors or technical directors. So their payback is in three years or less.
And in the small markets?
In the smallest of markets, the payback is about four to five years, but the benefit to the smallest markets is that the quality of the content they are producing is significantly better than their competitors, and they can also add more dayparts. That’s how they add more revenue into the model, and they can take that four-to- five years and turn it into three years.
How does an Ignite system work?
Today, the communication between the newsroom and the control room is through the producer who architects the show on a newsroom computer system, and creates the producer’s rundown. The director takes that, marks it up and then calls the show through an IP system to the team.
What we did with Ignite is create a seamless integration with not just the newsroom computer system, but also graphics automation and digital news production. Those, in essence, are the three workflows. Our goal was to unify those three workflows into a single seamless workflow.
What that means is, as data is entered directly into the newsroom computer system—not on an ActiveX, but directly into the newsroom computer system—we read all of those elements and we associate and distinguish between what’s video, what’s graphics for the lower third or over-the-shoulder boxes and what are the necessary camera shots.
All the pieces and parts that create an element are turned into an event, so to speak, so that it’s more intuitive. The director can concentrate on the over-the-air, what they are currently producing and executing in real time, and not worry about all the pieces and parts being in sync.
So Ignite automates those events?
Think about it this way: All the verbal commands that go into creating an on-air event have to be communicated serially. Even though in reality we wish it could be communicated in parallel. The director is very dependent on the staff really being up to speed and knowledgeable about the sequence of events that has to occur when he or she is calling the show. Ignite becomes this powerful tool that responds to the director at his beck and call.
It takes all the memorization, the heartache and establishing the sequence, so to speak, out of it. So now they can trigger these events and focus on the transitions and the timing between the transitions.
What is the biggest challenge to stations transitioning from traditional control rooms to Ignite?
The biggest challenge is setting expectations. It’s critical for the management team at the station to explain to their staffs that this is the technology we’re adopting. This is a whole new workflow, and it’s how we’re going to compete effectively with other media. It’s all in positioning and making people comfortable with change. Human nature is to avoid change.
Especially when your job is on the line.
Exactly. People worry about whether they can run the system. In a lot of cases, people fight, scream, complain or do whatever to make sure it doesn’t work. Our best successes have always been with a strong management team.
What sets Ignite apart from its competition?
We consider every other methodology of how to produce content a competitor. The traditional approach is a competitor. Partial automation is too. There are a lot of companies out there, like Sundance, for instance, that focus on playout automation, so it’s partial automaton of the control room. Then there are companies like Ross that have taken an approach from a centralized point of view so that the switcher is the main theme. We’re the only ones that have the full integration of all three workflows and everything that happens in the control room we have complete control over. We’re the only one that really unifies everything.
Are stations using Ignite to create multicast channels?
Right now everybody is buying our system for the primary channel. The opportunity with Ignite goes way beyond that. The local broadcaster is no longer competing only against the other stations in town. They’re competing against newspapers, new startups that are producing content online. You have to worry about the Yahoos, the Googles the MSNs and the AOLs of the world.
We enable them to leverage their strength in video. Eventually the Internet will gravitate more and more to video. You’re already seeing this. We see the broadcaster as being in the primary position to leverage their most valuable asset, which is video.
They have the ability first and foremost to be the video-based newspaper. They can take their sideband channels and create these granular channels that get into the community like a newspaper but transform it into video. So it becomes not just linear or non-linear, as in the case of newspapers, but they can deliver all this content in multiple channels and they can create on-demand elements. So it’s a video newspaper for lack of a better term.
What is the most interesting thing you’ve seen a station do with the Ignite system?
There are so many great examples: News 12 in Long Island is up to 20 newscasts a day. They’ve already replicated the video newspaper. They’re constantly creating newscasts and on the back half-hour they replay the first half-hour and then insert dynamic changes like what happens in weather and traffic updates. It’s a very cool model that they’ve created in all the boroughs except Manhattan. They’ve just got an interesting model for 24-hour news with our system.
Another group, Media General, did 36 hours of hurricane coverage manually on our systems. In the past, people would say it’s got to be formatted. You can’t handle non-scripted events. Well, 36 hours of non-scripted hurricane coverage is what I consider non-scripted.
So they did it by planning in advance? They knew the kinds of transitions they would need?
Yes. And we have the Late Breaking News keys. These act as show-builder keys. These keys are multiple events. You click and tape, click and tape. It’s faster than calling a show manually. So when you have to disengage from the newsroom computer system to do manual programming like hurricane or election coverage or cooking shows, which by the way they do with our system as well, it lends itself to that. Even when you run the system manually, it’s still more efficient than a fully-staffed traditional production method.