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Bahakel tackles the doublecast

It takes only two to centralcast. Granted, it's not as exciting as centralcasting with four or six stations, but Bahakel Communications is looking to prove that it can be just as effective. The two stations, WCCB(TV) Charlotte, N.C., and WOLO-TV Columbia, S.C., will be operated out of one hub at WCCB this fall.

"We simply believe local television stations must adapt to the new economic realities that demand new ways of operating," says WCCB GM John Hutchinson. "We can either whine about how good the old days were or just get on with it and do something. We decided to stop waiting on the cavalry and accept the creative challenge of making this plan work at a practical cost the business can now afford."

WCCB Technical Operations Manager Bob Davis is heading up the technical effort at the station and will attempt to keep WCCB on-air while also constructing a new TV station in the same area.

Necessary capital improvements drove the decision to fold in operations. "WOLO-TV's facility is analog and a very tired plant," says Davis. "And it was difficult to do even a partial digital conversion, so that meant we would have to do a full digital conversion. And that was so expensive for what we needed to do, so we're going to use the DTV transmission system to feed the analog transmitter."

Hutchinson, along with Bahakel Chief Technology Officer Bill Napier and Davis, studied the potential of centralcasting in recent months. "Reliable servers, fiber and other infrastructure needed to pull it off are finally available," he says.

The cost savings available from Time Warner Telecom, which provides the fiber connectivity, sealed the deal. "We found out that, with the economics of fiber and the facility we had here," says Davis, "it was much more cost-effective to merge the two and provide everything out of here."

There will be cuts in head counts as well. Davis says that figure isn't known yet because some employees may move up to Charlotte and work out of WCCB (see Station Break, page 16).

Both the analog and digital signals for the two stations will originate from WCCB, with a 45-Mb/s two-way fiber connection sending signals the 90 miles that lies between the stations. WCCB has already used the fiber connection for Vyvx and CNN services, so there is already a comfort level with fiber delivery.

The tricky part will be handling the news operations. With two TV stations sharing the same studio, the newsroom will be a busy place. WCCB has a 10 p.m. local newscast; WOLO-TV has newscasts at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. Around 10:50 each night, operations will get interesting.

"We have some built-in packages and elements to give 5 to 7 minutes conversion time," says Davis.

There will be "substantial savings" that will allow WOLO-TV to maintain and improve local news service for Columbia viewers, Hutchinson says. "The pooled resources will also strengthen the Charlotte newsroom. For example, WCCB will expand its ten o'clock newscast to a full hour later this summer."

There will also be the issue of maintaining a local presence. Ninety miles is a long way for local news crews to travel, so a staff will be maintained in Columbia. WCCB uses a BCM newsroom system, and several terminals will be installed in Columbia and connected via T1 circuits.

"The hybrid news-operations structure under the new plan maintains editorial control where the local news happens," says Hutchinson. "But it adds the advanced production resources to package the broadcast in Charlotte, where we have the newer digital equipment at corporate headquarters."

WOLO-TV will maintain local, live capability at its newsroom, he points out, but the control room and studio for packaging that content will be in Charlotte. "The only real difference between this plan and having the control room on a different floor than a station's newsroom is that the 'wires' are a little longer."

Viewers won't notice a difference from an editorial standpoint, Davis says. "What they'll notice is a difference in the quality of the signal."

That's in part because of equipment like the Thomson Grass Valley 4000 production switcher that is used in master control at WCCB. When the facility was originally built in 1999, some room was left for an expansion similar to the one taking place. That gives room for a mirrored master-control operation. Says Davis, "It will provide for a much higher-grade, fast-paced newscast than we would have otherwise."