Last year, Sinclair Broadcast Group decided to adopt Avid Technology’s MediaCentral Platform for news production and distribution at all of its 64 news-producing stations. Del Parks, Sinclair’s CTO, explains how standardizing on the technology will bring an end to the many workarounds and tricks needed to make disparate systems work together today; the influence of the changing content distribution landscape on TV news production and distribution; Sinclair’s desire to attract and keep talented TV journalists; and its goal of continually improving.
Parks Is Avid For News Tech Standardization
Imagine being responsible for painting the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge connecting New York City’s Staten Island and Brooklyn.
Not only would it be time to start the project all over when you reached the end of the nearly 14,000-foot structure, but there would be no way to stop in the middle of the project to update the portion you had just painted as a new, improved covering was released onto the market.
That’s exactly how Del Parks, SVP and chief technology officer of Sinclair Broadcast Group, describes the challenge of wrestling with all of different technology platforms and software versions in use at the station group’s 64 news-producing television stations.
Something had to change — not only to make “painting the bridge” doable, but also to position Sinclair to more easily share news resources across the group and to create more news content for an ATSC 3.0 and over-the-top future.
In December 2015, Avid Technology announced Sinclair would standardize on its MediaCentral Platform, the technology at the center of its Avid Everywhere vision for content production and playout.
In this interview TVNewsCheck’s tech editor Phil Kurz, Parks discusses that decision, how standardizing on the technology will bring an end to the many workarounds and tricks needed to make disparate systems work together today; the influence of the changing content distribution landscape on TV news production and distribution; Sinclair’s desire to attract and keep talented TV journalists; and its goal of continually improving.
An edited transcript:
Why did Sinclair standardize on Avid’s MediaCentral Platform for its news production and distribution workflows at all of the group’s 64 news-producing stations?
The deal that we made with Avid allows us to get on a single platform.
As we look at what our requirements and our means for content are going to be in an ATSC 3.0 multichannel, multiscreen environment, it is really plain to us that we need the ability to share content easily and move content around our enterprise, which includes TV stations’ news, sports entities, such as Sports Network, and anything else that we get into.
Having that network enterprise is important to us. As you know, we currently share content prolifically, and we do that with some degree of effort.
How much news does Sinclair produce at its 64 station?
We produce 2,100 hours of news per week. In many cases, we do our own internal news network [to share news stories].
This deal with Avid will solve several technical problems.
First and foremost, is the fact we currently operate on disparate platforms.
Avid represents more than half of our newsroom editing systems and this year will be all of our newsroom computer systems.
But even in that world, we have different versions of software, different versions of hardware. Disparate hardware platforms within Avid.
We really didn’t have a theme and standard throughout the company, and that doesn’t even mention a lot of other systems we inherited when we bought a lot of other TV groups in the last couple of years.
I would imagine it’s been a challenge to find common technical ground when a station group is in a major acquisition mode.
It is huge. When you buy whole groups or even large portions of groups it is a challenge.
We have made steady progress over the past two years. Some were forklift-upgrades where we went in and built all new facilities — new sets, new cameras, new editing, new switchers, everything — because they were in such bad shape.
We did that to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, which is a huge investment in local communities and the news operations in those communities.
Our commitment is there; it’s there in black and white and in dollars and cents.
This is really about how do we get to the future. What are we going to be doing five years from now?
What are the biggest problems having “disparate” systems, as you call them?
We have a couple of issues. One is what I call the Tower of Babel where we have different platforms, different languages, different file formats — a lot of different things.
We make them all work today together by patching and transcoding and file folders. There are all kinds of tricks to make them work together.
We need to move past the trick part of it. That was a strategic goal.
You said a couple of issues.
The other significant part of this is what I call the paint-the-bridge mentality.
You start at one end of the bridge, and you paint to the other end of the bridge. Well, because the bridge is so big — Sinclair is so big — by time we get to the other end of the bridge, guess what? It’s time to start painting the bridge again.
So really the operational goal of this was to say: “We want to get all of our stations up on the same platform, the same software rev.”
That allows us to take advantage of all the new features Avid releases.
How long do you expect this to take?
In a couple of years, as we go through this initial process with Avid, all of our newsrooms will be operating off the same platforms and the same software versions, and the same features and with the same reliability.
What other benefits do you foresee?
The other key piece of that is people. Now we can conduct training and have ongoing training that is relevant to everyone in the newsroom [at all the Sinclair news-producing stations].
It’s really what Microsoft, Adobe and others have done. That is, to move to a concept where updates hit everybody’s desktop at the same time.
So as we develop a training program for a couple of thousand news employees for 64 news-producing stations, we can provide them with the tools and the training they need to be the best in the business.
That’s what we want. We want the best editing, the best features; we want the best employees. And we want to be able to attract people into our company that feel good about the tools they use.
What they learn enhances them personally and their careers and makes them a better journalist, makes them a better photographer, makes them a better editor, makes them a better producer.
And by the way, it makes Sinclair a better news organization, and that’s the goal.
You mentioned preparing for a future broadcast world with multiple screens and multiple platforms made possible by ATSC 3.0. Can you elaborate on how this decision will help you achieve that goal?
There is today — solving today’s issues — which is getting everybody on the same platform. Then there is working toward a multi-platform environment where we can take content and move it across our network into our mobile applications, into our digital applications and any over-the-top applications we may have in the future.
The journalists and the people who are facilitating that need to be able to do that without thinking about it.
Today, it is a rub-your-tummy-pat-your-head exercise. So what we are going to work toward is a multi-platform content system that supports this concept of multiple streams.
Today, it’s not an easy thing to do, even with the latest software — much less having 64 separate news operations.
As we launched this and work with Avid, we expect Avid will be a partner in our development of these capabilities. And I think they realize Sinclair is much more than a collection of 64 news-producing television stations.
Two years ago at TVNewsCheck’s NewsTech Forum, you said there needs to be a major rethink in how news is produced. You suggested the content management system needs to be moved front and center in the news production workflow. You cited the growing requirement being given journalists to produce news for these various platforms as the reason. Does this Avid deal move you that direction?
We are a big user of Avid’s iNews, their newsroom computer system. We also have developed our own content management system with our crew out in Seattle. It’s called StoryTeller.
So, I would hope that we can communicate and collaborate, and as the iNews platform evolves that Avid will help us integrate our content management processes as part of the newsroom computer system.
I meant every word I said two years ago, and you can count on the fact that we are part of the Avid Customer Advisory Board, and as member of that we have input into the product development cycle.
We hope to collaborate and work with Avid to create the environment that makes that statement more of a reality.