Sterling Davis of the Cox Media Group talks about what's on this year's tech to-do list at his 15 stations. In addition to upgrades and replacements, the big push will be consolidating the back-office business operations and the IT facilities as part of a multi-year project. Other priorities include rolling out the BXF interface between traffic and master control and extending mobile DTV capability to a few more stations.
Back Office Is Front Of Mind At Cox Stations
Between now and the NAB Show (April 9-14 in Las Vegas), TVNewsCheck will be visiting with some of TV broadcasting’s top technologists to see what they’re planning for 2011, how they will be spending their capital dollars and what they will be shopping for at the convention.
The series starts today with Sterling Davis of the Cox Media Group, which comprises 15 TV stations, 86 radio stations, four daily newspapers and more than a dozen non-dailies.
Davis officially retired as VP of technical operations at the end of 2010, but he is remaining on the job as a consultant until a successor is named. Even after that successor comes on board, he will continue to represent Cox on industry committees like the Association for Maximum Service Television and the Open Mobile Video Coalition.
In this interview, Davis says he will be working with the same capex budget as he has had the previous few years, but that’s OK because the big projects are behind him. This year will be devoted mostly to upgrades and replacements. However, he says, Cox will be pushing ahead by consolidating back-office and IT operations, rolling out the BXF interface between traffic and master control and extending mobile DTV capability to a few more stations.
An edited transcript:
What’s the capital budget look like for this year?
About the same as last year, which is about the same as it’s been for the last few years.
Why has it been flat for so long?
I guess we don’t have any huge projects going on. It’s pretty adequate. I don’t feel any pinch.
Did you have any big projects last year?
Well, we did the Dayton project this year. That just went on the air on the 12th of December. We moved four radio stations and the TV station [WHIO] into the newspaper [Daily News] building.
They have a shared newsroom with three different types of media —four, if you count the Internet. They have a big assignment desk that everybody uses. The newspaper editorial system is tied into the [Avid] iNews system for TV editorial. And radio also shares a piece of that. So they’re all working on an interconnected platform for writing and exchanging stories.
Are we going to see more of this kind of thing?
No. The only other place we have that situation is here in Atlanta, but we won’t go so far as to consolidate all the facilities into one. It is just not very feasible or practical economically to do that.
So, where are you going to put your money in 2011?
Mostly in replacements. We’re not doing anything huge and major, which is why capex is pretty flat. We’ll do miscellaneous power replacements here and there. We’re building a small facility in Birmingham where we’re consolidating two radio studio locations into one. That’s not a huge amount of money. I think its $3.5 million. So I think most of our money is going into consolidating the back-office operations of CMG. That’s the biggest, single piece.
When you say the back office, you mean traffic and billing?
Yes, all that stuff — accounts payable, all the business functions. IT facilities are getting consolidated. We’re spending a pretty good share of our capital dollars in that area right now. It’s a multi-year project.
Are you all set in terms of mobile DTV?
We’re going to do two or three more stations this year. We’ve already got five on. We have a total of 15 stations in 11 markets. So the only markets that are not going to have mobile are the very small markets, like El Paso [Texas], Steubenville [Ohio], Johnstown [Pa.] and Reno [Nev.]. Those four markets aren’t going to have mobile next year.
With mobile, do you just assume that you’re going to have to have a lot of repeater stations or translators to cover your markets properly? Is that a given?
The answer is we think we’re going to have to set up some. I wouldn’t know about the “lot” part until we see where we’re going to be deficient. So we’re going to try to crawl before we run here. I don’t have a grand plan laid out in saying every market needs so many. We kind of know where our DTV coverage is already and mobile coverage is pretty similar.
What would you say about your DTV coverage?
DTV coverage is fairly decent right now. We’re UHF in all but one market and so we’re doing pretty well with DTV coverage. Now in some markets, let’s say Pittsburgh, there are going to be some pockets behind hills that aren’t covered as well and therefore could possibly be a target for a translator or channel booster.
Where is your VHF station? What channel is it?
It’s ch. 9 in Steubenville, Ohio [WTOV]. It’s doing well. We have a reasonable amount of power and it’s a small market. We made that choice for economic reasons only, not because we wanted to be on V, but we had just purchased a new VHF transmitter and that market can’t afford much.
Have you asked for a power upgrade?
Yes and we got it. We asked for the power upgrade before the transition, actually.
Where do you stand on the HD front?
We’ve got HD news everywhere.
In the field?
No, not in the field. We do have plans, but they’re not immediate. We don’t intend to go out and replace perfectly good cameras with HD cameras so we will do it on a spot basis as needed for replacements and upgrades rather than just wholesale go into a market and replace 27 news cameras.
What’s your acquisition format?
And you’re committed to that going forward?
Yep. It works for us. I don’t want to change formats or mix formats in a market or anything like that.
What about centralcasting, trying to operate some of these 15 stations from a common location?
Well, that’s not high on our priority list. The reason is that even in if you had a hub of some sort, you would wind up having one person at the station anyhow and that’s basically what we have got now so there’s no real economic advantage to doing it and there’s some operational disadvantages to doing it.
What would the disadvantages be?
Well, I mean you lose control — as tight a control — of the station locally, if somebody’s running it from outside of your market. I am not saying you couldn’t take control [remotely], but then you don’t have somebody locally and then you’re operating slightly differently. It takes more advanced planning and all kinds of things for every piece of content that goes out.
You’re deep into Grass Valley Ignite for news production automation. Are you satisfied with that technology?
Yes, we’re very happy with it. We have been using it for three years now. We were early on the curve in that one. We had it in Dayton in the old facility so we put in a new upgraded system in the new one.
We did a story with one of your guys [Chip Reif at WFTV Orlando] earlier this year about the BXF interface. After testing it at KTVU San Francisco, he said Cox will be rolling it out in several stations early this year. Is that a pretty big deal?
Yes, it is. I mean we’re not pinning the operation on that, but it’s one of those little things where you tweak the assembly line and do better. It should allow us to more tightly integrate traffic and automation systems so that we can make more last-minute changes. The way traffic works is they close the log late in the day and then that’s frozen, essentially. Then, that log is transmitted to the automation system in master control for the next day. With BXF, you can have a two-way communication going on between traffic and automation. It’s kind of like there is no closing. It’s just constant upgrading, flowing back and forth.
If all goes well, that will be implemented at all the other stations in pretty short order?
Yes, it will, in the first half of the year. All the stations have it in their budget. It’s a part of their basic fabric of what we’re going to be doing in the future.