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Centralized but local, too

NBC's new $10 million centralcasting operation—with hubs in New York, Los Angeles and Miami—is up and running. The operation model has a simple goal: Centralize but also make it easy to localize.

"We want to ensure that the stations could continue to operate as they had in terms of being able to do local and breaking news from their facilities any time they wanted," says Vice President and Chief Information Officer John Wallace. "So we gave them a system that gave them that capability at the local side, without the master control, and we built them the centralcasting operation at the hub."

With each hub capable of handling eight stations, and 13 owned-and-operated NBC stations due to be on by year-end—with KNTV(TV) San Jose, Calif., possibly joining the list—there's room for growth.

Currently, there are four stations on the Miami hub, eight on the New York hub and two on the Los Angeles hub (see box for details).

The technologies behind the system include Grass Valley Group's Media Area Network (MAN), Florical Systems automation, and 45-MB/s connectivity between the stations and the hub provided by Marconi.

Miami's hub, with 12 operators, is built within WTVJ(TV) Miami's facility but operates independently of the station. The New York hub and its 17 operators are located at 30 Rock. The Los Angeles facility, with nine operators, is in the same building as KNBC(TV) but on a separate floor.

Each hub has two MAN systems, which will ingest video onto Profile XP systems and shared RAID storage. Fibre Channel networking provides 1-Gb/s connectivity. The Florical system will handle traffic and automation flow; the Marconi gear will connect the stations and hub.

"We have one operator for four streams," says Wallace, "and their responsibility is to monitor the stream for audio and video quality and to make sure the commercials scheduled are the ones that are running."

Allowing the operators to focus on quality control is an important aspect of the system. Historically, in automated plants, a master-control operator edits lists and does a lot of work on the playlist, but Wallace says that isn't the case with the centralcasting approach.

"We have a management team that does all the manipulation of the playlist to cut down on the number of errors we could potentially have," he says. "That allows the operators to be focused on the four streams they're responsible for."

Commercial and program material is placed on the MAN system, the challenge then becoming tracking material through the system. Wallace says a team was put together to create a standard list that all the stations could use.

"Every station uses the exact same numbering scheme, so, if we take in a General Motors commercial, the system knows when to purge it," he explains. "That way, if it has run its course in New York and still has to run in Columbus, the system won't purge it."

The system treats a commercial, for example, as a single file, eliminating the need to store it eight times.

"It was a very difficult process when we had to go through every single contract we have and migrate the data to the standards," says Wallace. "It's about a one-month process per station. Now we have consistent data across all the operations."

Florical's system comprises modules that handle different tasks. The AirBoss terminal, which sits at each station in the control room, allows the station to work around any overrides the news department may want to do for breaking news.

"If the commercials are affected, the AirBoss terminal allows the producer to slide breaks around," he says. "That allows them to protect the revenue and produce the local-news segment."

The Marconi ASX 1000 and ASX 200BX broadband ATM network switches are designed to carry real-time broadcast-grade video traffic as well as IP traffic for the operation of the systems and monitoring, according to Spike Jones, who is responsible for solutions integration, media and entertainment, at Marconi.

Plans call for corporate telephony and LAN data traffic to be carried as well.

"Marconi allows us to create the Ethernet between the hub and the spoke operation without affecting our audio and video output," notes Wallace. "So we're using the same fiber line to run the Ethernet and push out the audio and video to the station."

With redundancy always a core issue in a centralcasting facility, two identical Florical and MAN systems are in use, both fully redundant, Wallace says. They are completely independent.

The fiber is redundant as well and is also self-healing so that, if there is a cut in the fiber, it will fix itself in 35 milliseconds. And if there is a failure on the X side, an emergency button enables the operator to switch over to the Y side.

The ultimate failure would be a power failure at the hub. In that event, each station still has an IRD and can receive the network's satellite signal.

Even though centralizing may shift the master control out of the station, the key to successful implementation, Wallace says, is to remember that local presence is often what drives revenue.

"When you centralize," he says, "you have to be very careful that you don't affect the operating model. You need to determine what is important to your station group and make sure that you work through all the issues, like the traffic issues we dealt with."

Breaking news isn't the only thing that may pop up. Late-breaking promotions, for example, may need to be put on-air in five minutes. Local file servers permit them to be loaded and played out.

"On the traffic side, we're very reliant on the quality of the traffic logs," Wallace adds. "With seven inputs coming into the New York facility on any given day, we put a lot of accountability back on the station."

With a $10 million investment, NBC is only beginning to realize the cost savings because it is still in phase one of the rollout.

Phase two? Centralizing graphics and promotion, Wallace says, adding, "There are a lot of benefits that will come from this platform that we built."