WGBH Wants To Be Your Master Control

The noncommercial Boston station is developing a new business as a centralcasting hub. Today, it’s announcing it will provide master control operations for New Hampshire Public Television. WGBH CTO Joe Igoe says his new facility has the capacity to handle 40 or more stations anywhere in the country that would like to save money by outsourcing.

Following the loss of state funding and change of control (from the state university system to a community board), New Hampshire Public Television in Durham is announcing today the outsourcing of certain membership services and back-office functions and master control operations to noncommercial WGBH in nearby Boston.

The arrangement should save the New Hampshire broadcaster money, but the real beneficiary may be WGBH. The deal establishes the station as a centralcasting hub for hire.

Like a lot of other broadcasters in the digital age, WGBH has become adept at running multiple channels from a single master control.

Right now, it handles seven: WGBH; sister station WGBX; multicast channels The World (national feed), The World (local feed), Create and ‘GBH Kids; and Boston Kids and Family Television, a cable public access channel run by the city. It also plans on adding an eighth signal by taking over master control of WGBY, another WGBH-operated station serving Springfield, Mass.

WGBH would now like to take its multichannel expertise and its state-of-the-art facility in the Brighton section of Boston, and put them to work for other broadcasters around the country that are balking at the trouble and expense of rebuilding and continuing to operate their own master control.

In this interview with TVNewsCheck, WGBH Chief Technology Officer Joe Igoe talks about the New Hampshire deal and his centralcasting ambitions.


An edited transcript:

What does the New Hampshire deal involve?

We will record feeds from PBS. We will also take down any studio feeds from New Hampshire’s locally originated shows, record those into our server or cut them live into their stream. We will do all the playout and multiplexing and we will provide back the stream for New Hampshire to broadcast.

Do they have multiple transmitter locations up there?

They do. They have quite a number. If I am not mistaken, they have at least nine. They are scattered all around the state. They have got really good coverage.

But it will be up to them to distribute the signal to all those transmitters, right?

Right. The interconnect is still their forte. They’re going to maintain their transmitters and their interconnect network, which I believe is in partnership with the state.

Have you explored providing these kinds of services to other public broadcasters in the Northeast?

We have had a few preliminary conversations, but there’s nothing solid at this point. There are a few people looking at options. At this point, we’re kind of booked for the next six months as far as the construction team and our own internal crew, but we’re ready and willing. We have got an amazing building. We have got lots of capacity to build out additional services. We have got fiber from multiple carriers so we have got the capacity to take on more stations.

As time goes on, fiber costs are getting more affordable and all stations are under financial pressure. So I expect the ones we’re not talking to are probably thinking about whether or not they need to be in the master control business.

Well, how far can you go with this, reasonably and economically? Is there a limit?

There really isn’t. That’s the great thing about this. If you look at some of the larger facilities around, you can do hundreds of feeds out of one facility and our facility could scale to do that if needed. We have got multiple fiber carriers, we have got an on-site generator, we have on-site UPS [uninterruptable power supply] and we can expand any of the systems. We have got good HVAC and lots of data center space. So we would have no problem expanding out to handle 40 or more stations.

Is there a geographic limit? Could you provide master control for a public broadcaster in Iowa?

There really isn’t a geographic limitation. The interesting thing about fiber is when you are getting a circuit between any two points, it’s the first and last mile that really costs you all the money. The inter-city fiber is a well-developed market. There’s plenty of competition and prices are actually quite low. So, in Boston, say, once you get to an interconnect point for fiber — one of the points of presence, the POPs — you can get to any other major-metro POP for very little money. So really, geography isn’t a factor.

Commercial broadcasters have complained to me that the cost of the fiber is a limiting factor.

It’s changed dramatically. Look at all the other customers that need fiber interconnectivity. You have got major Internet carriers and the major telcos. DirectTV is a big user of fiber, back hauling stations. There are so many people out there using fiber that a lot of people have gone and made the investments to build up fiber networks. So at this point, there is a more competitive market and prices have gone down quite a bit, particularly even in the past few years.

Do you have to have a dedicated fiber link?

No, not really. You wouldn’t have your own physical fiber. What ends up happening is you get multiplexed on large fibers with lots of other traffic. There are lots of ways to do it and how they provision out the circuit is hugely complicated and way beyond my understanding.

Are you comfortable with the reliability?

We have had some pretty good luck with some services. Like any other piece of technology, it will fail. There were some recent outages on one of the carriers we use when some power interruptions hit. You get what they call a backhoe fade when someone digs a hole and cuts through a bundle of fibers. Those things do happen and good engineering practices is to always have two paths. So where possible, you do that. It does, obviously, double the cost.

Can you tell me in percentage terms what kind of savings New Hampshire can expect from turning over the master control services to you?

We can’t give dollars on that because we’re doing a lot of things with them. It’s a pretty tight-knit partnership.

For another broadcaster, I see two different ways to look at that problem. If you were a station and you built your master control five to seven years ago, you’re coming up on end of life. So you need to do something with that. You can either go in for a large capital investment or you can outsource and end up with an operating expense.

So the other way to look at it is, if you are a typical public station, you have been under financial pressure for years. Instead of running 24/7 master control coverage, you may be down to two shifts a day or even one shift a day. By going to a centralized facility, by joining with other stations, you can get 24/7 coverage at the same cost. So in that sense, you’re looking at far better service for equal cost.

Can you describe this facility of yours in a little bit more detail?

It’s a new building. We were scattered across a number of buildings in our old location. We were able to consolidate down to this building. We moved in late 2007. So of course it’s current code; it’s modern construction. It is a very environmentally friendly, energy-efficient building. As I mentioned before, we have a 1.5 megawatt generator. We have 500 KVA [kilovolt-amperes] of UPS, modern cooling systems and a fairly large data center. I don’t know the rack count, but it’s probably a hundreds racks.

And what kind of automation do you use in the master control?

We have got the current system for GBH and GBX, and New Hampshire and GBY will be based on that system.

We now have got Harris automation and Grass Valley K2 video servers. We are using Harris Icon for branding. But it has now been in place since 2007, so it’s time for us to revisit the technology again.

So, the technology is up for review?

It’s always up for review. Every time we do a major project we go in and review the technology. You tend to want to stick with what you have got just for compatibility, and you don’t want to have to learn a new product. At this point, we’re certainly keeping current on most of the market.

Comments (4)

Leave a Reply

Robert Weiss says:

August 9, 2012 at 1:36 pm

Q: Is there a limit to thte number f broadcasters around the country you could put out of work?
A: Absolutely not. You bring us the fiber, we’ll put your entire MCR staff into the unemployment line. We’re happy to do it.

    Andrea Rader says:

    August 10, 2012 at 8:16 pm

    What is the inherent value in having 24/7 in-house MCR in this day and age? Are there more sensible ways for broadcasters to allocate their resources?

Angie McClimon says:

August 9, 2012 at 4:40 pm

I don’t think they’ll have many takers. Maybe some smaller markets, but no major ones and certainly none by major ownership groups.

    Andrea Rader says:

    August 10, 2012 at 8:14 pm

    I could see some other pubcasters signing up if GBH successfully integrates NHPTV and WGBY, but I don’t see it happening overnight.