Gray Aims For A Hole In One In Augusta
Sometimes a TV station is more than a TV station and that seems to be the case for the high-tech facility Gray Television is erecting in Augusta, Ga., for its WRDW-WAGT, a CBS-NBC duopoly.
When the contemporary 30,000 square foot building opens in the first quarter of 2020, it will produce sparkling newscasts with state-of-the-art technology and comfortably house the administrative staff and sales team.
But, according to GM Mike Oates, it will also serve as a “billboard” to remind the locals to tune in, as well as a classy venue for schmoozing Gray advertisers and investors, especially during one particular week in April.
“Augusta has the eyes of the world on it during Masters week,” says Oates. “We do a lot of entertaining. A lot of businesses come in from all over the world and host their biggest clients during the week, and they are going to know all about Gray Television.”
The Masters is, some would say, the most prestigious golf match in the world and it attracts more than 100,000 people to the Augusta National Golf Club for the four-day tournament itself and the practice rounds and other activities that precede it.
As the market’s CBS affiliate, WRDW has broadcast the tournament since 1956. The new station, on a rise at the intersection of Interstate 20 and Riverwatch Parkway, is less than two miles from Augusta National.
To make the link with the links complete, the station will have something that probably no other station in the country has — a putting green right outside.
The “high-profile” site is also ideal for attracting the attention of the locals during the year’s other 51 weeks, Oates says. “It’s such a good-looking building — a well designed building — people can’t help but see us up there. It’s really cutting edge.”
It’s a lot of building for a station in DMA 112. Oates won’t comment on the size of the budget, but says that “nothing is cheap these days and if you want it to look the way we want it to look, of course there are dollars involved.”
He said the Gray CEO Hilton Howell, a prominent Atlanta businessman, is taking a personal interest in the project.
(On a conference call with securities analysts on Tuesday following release of Gray’s second-quarter results, Howell cited the July 12 groundbreaking for the Augusta station as one of the group’s achievements in the quarter. “We will bring the best in 21st century television and practice to this growing and important area in our company.”)
It’s not all for show — far from it, Oates says. A new facility is badly needed. WRDW has been operating out of the same building since it first signed on in 1954. It is a cramped “hodge-podge” of offices, studios and news space that struggles to accommodate the station’s expanding broadcast and digital news ambitions.
“We are scrambling all over the place. You don’t want to get in the hallways during news time because of the traffic. You can get run over in there.
“The new building is extremely streamlined in terms of workflow. The proximity of the newsroom to the control room to the studio — it’s all right there.
“The stations is what TV stations will look like — or should look like — going into the future.”
The building has two floors. The first has reception, green room, dressing rooms, exercise room, open newsroom, a breakroom that flows out onto a veranda and two 2,400-square-foot studios flanking the newsroom.
According to Kris Swearingen, Gray’s director of engineering, only one of the studios is being built out. The second studio will be equipped when expansion of news or other production needs demand it, he said.
The second floor is actually half a floor, providing balcony views of the newsroom and reception area below for the administrative staff and account execs who will work there.
Mike Fass, Gray’s VP of broadcast technology, says the station is being “built for today’s broadcast and distribution formats, but will be ready for the next.”
The facility will be fully automated in news production and on-air operation, including camera robotics in the studio. It will represent the next generation in the evolution of Gray’s workflow strategy, which combines news production and master control.
Like many of his peers, Fass recognizes that IP is the future, but says that SDI is still more cost-effective in many applications so the stations will have a hybrid infrastructure. “We are not looking to go IP just to say that we did.”
IP will be used where it makes sense from cost and efficiency standpoint, Fass says. “The studio is a good example. Running all video and audio feeds to a network switch in the studio is much simpler and more cost effective then running individual video and audio feeds from the studio to the server room. Plus, this eliminates the need for some terminal gear such as distribution amplifiers.”
The Gray Innovation Lab in Omaha is evaluating some hardware and software for the project, he said. The most immediate decision will be settling on a master clock/sync generator.
Fass says that it is too early to name the vendors that will supply the technology. Those decisions will not come until later this year.
Partners by Design of Chicago designed the 30,000-square-foot building and CT Darnell Construction of Alpharetta, Ga., is the general contractor.
Burst Communications Inc., based in Denver, is handling the integration and has a track record with Gray, having equipped their stations in Madison, Wis.; Sioux Falls, S.D.; Rapid City, S.D.; and Bismarck, N.D.
Don Rooney, VP of engineering at Burst, says that he has been involved in the project from the beginning, which is important to insure everything comes together at the end. “The more planning you put in a project this size, the more smoothly it goes.”
While primarily interested in the audio and video, Burst also takes a role in the HVAC and lighting so “we can be assured that there will be a good, solid infrastructure to the support the equipment and keep it cool.”
So, billboard, party venue and state-of-the-art multimedia TV production and distribution facility. Anything else?
As a matter of fact, yes. “I think it is going to be a great recruiting tool for talent in every phase of our business,” says Oates. “Young men and women coming into the business are looking for the latest and greatest in technology and we are going to have it.”