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Broadcasting clusters

Conventional wisdom suggests that what has worked for cable operators should also work for clusters of small stations looking to approach the digital era by taking advantage of economies in master-control operations.

That was the logic when The Ackerley Group opted for SeaChange MediaCluster servers as the mainstay of its Digital CentralCasting program. The group has 17 owned or managed stations. When the setup is complete-sometime soon, according to Ackerley-seven stations will share master-control operations. The control-operation sites are in Syracuse, N.Y., four in Bakersfield, Calif., and six in Salinas, Calif., which controls three in Oregon.

Transmitting signals through a single program-delivery system is not that different from what cable operators do, notes Kelly Alford, Ackerley's vice president of engineering. After considering such vendors as Hewlett-Packard-which subsequently sold its server business to Pinnacle-as well as Grass Valley, Leitch and Philips, Ackerley chose SeaChange because of its track record in a multichannel environment.

"People in the cable industry couldn't provide a lot of intervention and maintenance, so a system has to run very independently" Alford explains. "The system even calls people's pagers if something goes wrong."

Ackerley found as much economy in server costs as in labor. Alford notes that a video server with 50 hours of storage could cost some $250,000 to serve one station. But a group of five stations can be handled with a single server costing about $400,000 and providing 130 hours of storage. The group is spending $1 million to $1.25 million per cluster.

"MediaCluster has been very reliable," he continues. "And when five stations are running on a server, it's got to be reliable. If we want to grow our regional groups, we can do this by adding more nodes and larger drives or by adding more servers."

The station group uses Sundance Digital automation, and the systems integrate fully with MediaCluster, he notes. In the shift from analog to digital in the Digital CentralCasting environment, the server system operates as a core.

"Everything is ingested into the system as 601 serial digital information with embedded audio," he explains. "It's played out of the server and goes to the individual station via fiber optics. It's then encoded to a digital or analog stream for playback. There's no master-control environment at the other stations. It goes pretty much directly to the transmitter."

Digital CentralCasting also allows each regional group to consolidate back-office functions-such as traffic, programming, accounting and technical operations-at the central station in the group. Each station in the group still creates its own local news, programmed through the group's single server.