Ohio Stations Complete Master Control Merger

As the CPB moves to encourage public stations to cut costs by merging their operations, the recently completed merger of the master control operations of public stations of WCET in Cincinnati and WPDT and WPTO in Dayton Ohio provides some lessons in the savings that can be achieved on the engineering and technical side of the operations.

The combined master control operation at the WPTD facility in Dayton features an NVersion channel automation system and a Miranda master control. Grass Valley supplied servers, file management systems and remote monitoring systems.
That operation allows a relatively small staff to playout 14 channels-three HD and 11 standard definition channels--from the three combined stations.

Between 1 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. the channels are played out automatically and the system uses only one operator from 5:30 a.m. to 1:30 PM., noted George Hopstetter, CPBE, director of technical services at WPTD. Two people staff the master control from 1:30 P.M. through prime time until about 10:30 p.m. and one operator stays late until 1 p.m. or so.

As a result of the merger one operator moved from WCET to WPTD to replace a WPTD operator who was leaving the station. "But they had two other operators that were let go because their services were unfortunately no longer needed," Hopstetter noted. "There are always some casualties in any merger in terms of employees and there was some of that with this merger as well."

Some savings were also seen in maintenance. The WCET maintenance staff now checks both the WCET broadcast tower in Cincinnati and the WPTO transmitter in Oxford, saving the WPTD staff a trip to Oxford.

To integrate the master control, engineering and production efforts, WPTD and WCET installed HD server, file management and remote monitoring products from Grass Valley. WCET installed a Grass Valley storage area network made up of a 10 channel of Grass Valley K2 Summit servers, a K2 BaseCamp Express system to link the equipment to WPTD in Dayton and NetCentral facility management software, which allows the stations to communicate with each other. The system also allows engineers to make adjustments to the servers remotely.

To complement the networked architecture, WPTD ordered a standalone four-channel K2 Summit HD server with NetCentral software and a BaseCamp Express system to view and share files with WCET.

That system makes it easy to transfer programs and promos from WCET, which continues to produce local series, via FTP, Hopstetter said. "It saves bicycling the tapes 50 miles down to Dayton," he explained.

Such cost savings are likely to produce more mergers. "You are seeing more and more of them," with different types of stations looking to combine operations, Hopstetter noted. "Before you'd seen a lot of mergers in the larger markets like New York and Los Angeles with the larger station taking over the smaller station and in some cases the smaller station going away. But Cincinnati and Dayton are fairly equal sized markets and in order to continue to serve those communities we kept entities in place in each city for production facilities and member services."

Still, such mergers are unlikely to provide a quick fix for public stations seeking to cut infrastructure costs and improve their long-term financial outlook. The boards of WPTD and WCET discussed the possibility of a merger for nearly two years before formally announcing the combination in October of 2008. But the real push to merge their master controls began in July of 2009, with the start of their fiscal year, and the upgrades to WPTD's Dayton facilities wasn't completed until July 12 of 2010, Hopstetter noted. The last of the 14 channels being played out from WPTD only went on the air in the 3rd week of September.

Merging operations can also produce some additional costs in equipment and distribution. Ohio already had a statewide fiber network that was used by the two stations. But public broadcasters in other parts of the country might have to build their own network or buy bandwidth from commercial providers, a potentially pricy proposition, if they want to operate a centrally located master control.

"Building the interconnect between some facilities can be tough because working with state and local governments to get agreements [to lay fiber and construct a network] can be difficult," Hopstetter cautioned. "Some stations that are looking at mergers don't have the infrastructure in place that we had and it can be costly to go through a commercial fiber service."
Another key issue is planning. "I'd say the most important thing is planning," he noted. This applied not only to the integration of equipment but also to simple things like the way files are named at the different stations. "It is very important to think this all through very carefully," he said.