A Digital Day in the Life

As the resident gadget master at WTVJ NBC 6 Miami, photojournalist Abel Aluart says he loves what the conversion to digital technologies and broadband transmission of video has done for the way he works.

“It has made me far more productive,” says Aluart, who edits video on the go using Grass Valley Edius software loaded on his laptop, then sets it to transmit over a Verizon broadband wireless connection while he heads home or to his next assignment. “I can start sending, start driving, and in 10 minutes it has uploaded, while I'm on my way to another story.”
The NBC owned-and-operated station is benefitting from years of investment the station group has made in cutting-edge digital technology. WTVJ operates out of facilities in Miramar, about equidistant from Miami and Fort Lauderdale, which it shares with the Spanish-language station Telemundo 51.

Still, while it boasts a technological edge over its competitors in the market, WTVJ hasn’t been able to translate that into a ratings advantage. Recently, the station just missed being sold to the Washington Post Co., which likely would have combined its newsgathering and broadcasting facilities with those of WPLG, the local ABC affiliate. The deal was cancelled in December, but part of the rationale for it was that WTVJ was lagging so far in the ratings that combining the two operations wouldn’t be anti-competitive.

On the other hand, WTVJ’s technological edge is helping it cut costs in a cut-throat economy. For example, the station is rapidly moving away from the use of satellite transmission for all but the most critical live shots and cutting back on the number of satellite trucks it maintains. When reporters went to Washington for the Presidential Inauguration, they were able to file most of their stories using broadband connections, either with a wireless modem or by plugging into a hotel Internet jack, says Ed Garcia, manager of editing operations at WTVJ.

“In the old days, in addition to the cost of booking that satellite time, you would have to go to the place where that satellite connection was available,” Garcia says. “Now, instead of driving it in, you can send from wherever you are.”
Garcia made contingency plans in case of problems with the inauguration coverage, given many predictions that the cellular networks would be overloaded by the large crowds in D.C. But when the day came, everything worked “just like they were in Hialeah,” he said, naming a Miami suburb.

The station also has been experimenting with doing live interviews using Skype, the Internet phone and videoconferencing software. Although Garcia says the quality didn’t seem to be good enough in initial tests, Aluart is still tinkering with the software. Aluart says the quality problems were partly a result of Skype’s default use of cameras that connect using the Universal Serial Bus (USB) interface to a PC or laptop, whereas higher quality is possible using an alternative technology called FireWire.

The NBC station group has gone through a similar learning process figuring out how to use the wireless transmission capability efficiently, and learning to strike the right balance between using compression to speed transmission and maintaining video quality, Aluart says. Journalists in the field send video by logging into an NBC web portal to start the upload. The process has become significantly faster since NBC adopted software from Sigiant of Burlington, Mass., which specializes in improving file transfer efficiency for large media files, Aluart says.

When one of these files arrives, it is deposited in a folder on a server at WTVJ, and Garcia gets an email notification on his Blackberry.

Also key to WTVJ’s digital environment are two products from Bitcentral [www.bitcentral.com], Precis and Oasis, along with Avid’s iNews. As the time for the 6 p.m. newscast approaches, Garcia uses the Precis software to keep track of what video was already in and what was missing, following a rundown for the newscast generated from iNews. The Precis software includes a video playback server, in combination with a system that allows an editor or producer to preview the video content and make last-minute edits. The Oasis system is used to archive video and also to share stories and footage between NBC stations via a web portal that includes a fast search engine. Bitcentral provides Oasis as a subscription Internet service to many station groups, but NBC runs it off its own servers, mirrored on the East and West coasts.

With all this digital content in play, Garcia says managing the station’s network storage has become one of the most difficult parts of his job. Even with 14 terabytes of storage for the purpose, the station is constantly struggling to avoid running out of server space, largely because station personnel give in to the temptation to stash their favorite clips in personal directories. That’s something Garcia is trying to do a better job of policing.

“We try to be good about it. If somebody wants a resume tape, we’ll make them a DVD,” Garcia says.