Craig Porter, Young Broadcasting’s engineering VP, has spent $25 million modernizing the group’s 10 stations. First he took care of news production, moving to all-HD. Now master control is being transformed into a file-based workflow for commercials and programming.
Young: Out With Old, In With New–Gear
After Young Broadcasting came out of bankruptcy in 2010, the new owners agreed that the 10-station group needed some serious renovation. They OK’d a major overhaul of news production that put all the stations in full-HD mode last year. Master control is getting the attention and dollars this year.
In charge of the managing the $25 million investment is Craig Porter, vice president of engineering. In this interview with TVNewsCheck, he talks about the new master control that is centralcasting-ready, explains how five HD studio cameras instead of three actually saves money and touches on other technology issues.
An edited transcript:
What’s the thinking behind the master control and asset management upgrade?
The file-based workflow is really the major component. At this point, most commercial distribution is done electronically, but as an industry we have really been pretty slow in terms of moving to take advantage of it. It’s kind of funny. We receive commercials as files and we play them back as files and we just seem to have a problem with the part in the middle.
So, what we were working on with Crispin and others is optimizing some of the components that allow you to basically take in file-based content and process it through the station all electronically without going through tapedecks or running switchers or any other equipment into the playback servers. What Crispin is doing is providing the pieces that really glue everything together.
What are those pieces?
They came out with a new piece that they call DTA, Digital Transfer Agent. It’s the brains of the operation. It’s basically interrogating all the different sources — all the stuff coming in — and providing the interface. Then, in our case, it’s actually running the transcoders. So, it’s taking whatever the file format is that the syndicator is delivering to us and transcoding that into the correct format for our playback systems.
A piece of media comes into the station through Pitch Blue, DG or one of the other delivery services. Then, basically, Crispin recognizes that it’s there and makes that available to traffic — Harris, in our case. They can access it on a Web-based browser and see if the content is there. They can look at it, preview it, mark the beginning frame, mark the end frame, give it a house ID number and say, “OK, I am done, send it to the server.”
We are not just talking about commercial, right?
Right. It could be long-form, too. It could be ET or Dr. Phil or even network content if the network provides stuff to you in that delivery mode.
Because it’s a Web browser, you can access it from anywhere you want. So you can access it from the master control department; you can access it from the traffic department; you can access it from across the country if you want to do that.
So it provides a lot of efficiency in our workflow, but it also adds a lot of flexibility in terms of how companies decide to run their various operations. You know, LIN doesn’t operate the same way as Sinclair and it doesn’t operate the same way as Gannett. It’s a system that really provides a tremendous amount of flexibility.
What’s your server platform?
They’re Omneon servers, but they could be whatever flavor you want. We just happen to use Omneons.
What’s the time frame for getting all this thing up and running?
The first of the nine stations starts at the end of February and the last station is done in June.
You have 10 stations. Which is left out?
KRON in San Francisco.
Once this system is in place, will you be able to centralcast?
It enables hub and spoke if they want to do that.
So, that’s just a choice of management.
That’s a management choice. The system is built to do that. For example, our station in Nashville [WKRN] can prep their material there or it can decide to do it at another station. This system permits that.
We have already set up our station in Sioux Falls, KELO, to do group monitoring. It can monitor all the stations during off hours or whenever the stations wants. The station can also do centralized control at any level the stations want. So you could do none or you could do it on the weekends if you want to do it. You could do it on the overnights. It really gives station management, both locally and at a the corporate level, a lot of flexibility in the way they operate their stations.
All 10 of your stations are news producing stations. How many are HD?
They all are.
We did KWQC in Davenport, Iowa, in 2010 and then we did the rest of them last year.
Now, when you say HD, does that mean from the studio and the field?
Yes, from the field from a camera standpoint. The ENG truck links have not been upgraded. The trucks are capable of doing it. We just haven’t upgraded all the links yet. In other words, the trucks shoot in HD. If they bring it back to the studio, they produce it in HD. The only time they’re not in HD is basically when they’re doing a live shot.
Have you experimented with IP uplinks?
Yeah, all the stations do that now. They’re using TVUs. They seem to work really well. The stations are very happy with them. Some of them have additional systems proposed for this year.
Are they replacing trucks?
No. They’re really more of an augmenting technology. Actually, it’s kind of a mistake to think you can buy a bunch of these and throw away all your trucks.
What do you use for news acquisition?
They’re all Panasonic P2. We love that format. So, we have been using it in San Francisco for 12 years probably? We use laptops with [Grass Valley] Edius editing.
You have a lot of VJs, I know. Aren’t those P2s a little bit too much camera for a VJ to handle?
No. We use the little 170s [AG-HPX170]. They probably weigh about 2.5 or 3 pounds. We also mix in some larger format 370 cameras [AG-HPX370], physically larger cameras that have removable lenses.
We outfitted the cameras with pretty much all new microphones, small lights and all the other little miscellaneous pieces that go with that.
When did you upgrade the studios for HD?
Last year. That was done at every station. Every station got new cameras, new editing, new character generators, new graphics packages, new sets. A lot of them got new lights, new production switchers, file-based playback. The news production is new from beginning to end.
KWQC in Davenport was the pilot station, but it was actually based on some of the stuff we had been doing over the years in San Francisco.
Basically, all that stuff from the field gets sent to a redundant Grass Valley K2 Summit playout system. So it’s a very tight integration between Edius and the K2 product. We also added a Grass Valley archive system.
The next big piece is robotic cameras for the studio. What we did is we worked out a configuration with Autoscript. They had been working on a product with Panasonic and we sort of helped them finish it up.
We used some really small Panasonic cameras [AW-HE870] with Panasonic robotic pan-and-tilt camera heads [AW-PH405] and really lightweight teleprompters, which is where Autoscript came in. The whole thing with teleprompter weighs something like 8 pounds.
We ended up with a very integrated package for the stations. They didn’t have to deal with interoperability between different vendors. They didn’t have to worry about the robotics not working with the cameras or the cameras not working with the lenses. It was a nice clean way of doing it and it was relatively inexpensive. Not including the pedestals, five cameras with robotics was roughly $140,000.
You have five cameras in your studios? Why so many?
The reason is that these are not XY cameras. In other words, the cameras don’t move. So the logic was to use more cameras. They’re very inexpensive and they give you a lot more flexibility and you’re eliminating basically all of the camera people. My whole camera package is less than I paid 10 years ago for a good SD camera from Sony.
What about news production automation?
We went with Ross [Video Overdrive].
That’s a little surprising since you have Grass Valley on the front end of your news work flow. Why Ross instead of Grass Valley Ignite?
We had a lot of experience here in San Francisco with the Ross system. We did a lot of investigation when we did the original system in San Francisco. We went to sites that had Ross and went to sites that had Ignite and we just felt that the Ross system had a very flexible architecture in terms of the way you entered stuff from the newsroom and its ability to handle breaking news.
What about the newsroom system? What are you using there?
All the stations use AP ENPS.
Are you broadcasting mobile DTV anywhere?
No, we’re not.
Is that in the cards?
It’s something, certainly, we have talked about. You know, we continue to put a line item in our capital budgets for implementing it. The big problem is just actually having a handset that you can broadcast to.
Well, we saw one or two out at the CES this year.
Yeah, and we saw one or two out at NAB four years ago. It’s up to the wireless carriers or somebody convincing the carriers that there’s value in adding that cost [the mobile DTV receiver] to the handset.
The FCC just adopted loudness rules that require you to keep your programming and commercial volume at the same level. Are you ready to comply?
We have had Linear Acoustic loudness control on our stations for almost three years. We’re already compliant.
What about the monitoring in case you get complaints?
We’re doing two things. We’re adding Volicon systems next year to all our stations and they have that capability built into them. We’re also talking to Linear Acoustics about providing some on-site, real-time monitoring next year.