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Keeping it SIMPLE

Centralcasting, in one form or another, was a common topic at NAB 2001, but the likelihood of its working for smaller-market (DMAs 50 to 100) stations is slim. Not even counting the cost of building out a central facility, the monthly cost of leasing a long-distance fiber connection to get material from one facility to another can be daunting. Toronto-based Azcar has devised an approach to centralized digital operation that it believes will help.

Azcar's Small Individual Market Playout Enterprise, or SIMPLE, concept would also serve stations distributing multiple channels on their 6 MHz of spectrum.

Like centralcasting, SIMPLE is intended to satisfy management's desire to reduce costs by combining master-control activities from several remote facilities into one location that feeds a series of stations, either within the same market or across state lines. Azcar's strategy would combine several stations within a given market into one shared facility operated by Azcar. Stations would lease space and personnel from the company, avoiding large equipment and labor costs.

SIMPLE is the brainchild of Azcar's John A. Luff, vice president of business development; Phil Livingston, vice president of technology; and Karl Paulsen, vice president of engineering. It's just a concept at this point, but Paulsen says that, based on the reaction at NAB, several broadcast owners are seriously considering the model, and one has already committed to the SIMPLE approach; he wouldn't reveal who.

"If you think of centralcasting, we're usually dealing with a station group that's trying to connect remote stations together," he explains. "What if we took a different perspective? What if an independent third party came into a market and put up a facility, effectively a network operations center, that supplied services to more than one broadcaster?"

These stations do not necessarily have to belong to the same group or the same network, Paulsen points out. The optimum number of stations that this facility would control would be three or four, according to Azcar studies, although it could accommodate more. Given the company's expertise in systems integration and facility design, Paulsen says, it can build a serial digital plant in six to nine months, depending on market conditions and station participation.

"The ideal small-market candidate would be one station operating an LMA, so all we'd need is to find one more station to participate," he says. "It takes the factory part of television, which is master control, and puts it into our hands so that the station owner is paying only for the creation and distribution of programs. They still have control over everything we do, but we actually do it for them."

Virtually every station records the same satellite feeds. In most cases, they all record the same national spots. And they all operate their program segments out of a master-control room. So the strategy could drastically reduce the costs of building and operating a serial digital facility and maintaining people to run it.

"This idea allows stations to maintain their 'storefront,' their production studio and their news operation in their existing building," Paulsen says. "But when you put distribution in a separate location that's secure, with power, redundancy and servers sufficient to handle all of their needs and do all of the recording off a reduced number of satellites, you start to see the savings add up."

And, given that most small markets include roughly four or five stations, this could help the DTV transition move along faster than it might if each station attempted to build out of its facilities. The Azcar-operated facility would take a signal from a station, add commercials or other content and send it directly to the station's transmitter. Or it could accept content into the common master-control plant to combine segments and then send it back out to the station's studio, where local news would be added by the station. The station would then send its feed via microwave to the transmitter.

"We're saying to stations, continue doing your news and local programming; we'll take over the rest of it," Livingston adds. "They send us a traffic log of their programming times; we'll have an automation system that can handle all of their traffic files. We distribute that material from our central location, not as a central broadcaster but as a service bureau that feeds the various transmitters. In a lot of cases, there are common transmitter sites, so connectivity to that is a one-time fee, divided by the number of stations involved."

Because Azcar would be operating among stations in the same local market, the savings from this local connection—as opposed to a long-distance connection—might be thousands of dollars per month, Paulsen notes.

"The cost of the infrastructure necessary to take advantage of DTV, in regards to multiple streams and datacasting, doesn't have to be in each of the individual broadcasters' facilities," he explains. "What we're doing is spreading the cost out among three or four stations instead of one. Getting involved in an independently owned facility makes sense for a lot of smaller broadcasters because it becomes an operating expense rather than a capital investment and a long-term labor cost."

Paulsen also stressed that stations operating under one roof can still maintain their individual on-air look and operating independence. After the first station is on air, Azcar's cost of adding other stations to the central facility is incremental by about 20% per station, according to Paulsen. Also, a station can continue to operate its analog channel, while letting the SIMPLE facility operate the digital channel.