PBS' Automation Effort Stalls

PBS' ambitious effort to transform master-control operations at its member stations may have run out of steam.

Only a handful of public-television stations have adopted the modular, multi-component broadcast system, called ACE, which was developed in 2003 by PBS and a consortium of vendors as a way to automate master-control functions and allow PBS to remotely monitor stations. The stations largely rejected the new automated system, which they said was too expensive and didn't live up to its billing.

The two top PBS engineers who championed the system, Senior VP of Technology and Operations Ed Caleca and Chief Technology Integration Officer Andre Mendes, left the noncommercial network in the past month. Mendes is taking a new job as chief information officer of the Special Olympics, while Caleca is continuing to consult with PBS on several projects as he seeks a new position in the television industry. In the interim, outside consultant Eric Wolf is overseeing PBS' technology operations.

The departure of Caleca and Mendes comes just months after the pair led the successful completion of a new PBS Network Operations Center (NOC) in Springfield, Va., that uses ACE to run its master control. Although PBS says both left PBS voluntarily, industry sources say their departure is tied to stations' reluctance to adopt ACE.

The software-intensive system, which costs stations at least $1.2 million, could play out content for multiple analog and digital channels and automatically incorporate traffic and scheduling data. ACE could also provide remote “exception monitoring” of stations from PBS headquarters, which, for example, might keep some thinly staffed stations from going dark overnight. PBS negotiated discounts from participating ACE vendors and then marketed the system to member stations as a powerful option they could pursue.

The system brought together technology and services from server manufacturer Ommeon; automation firm OmniBus; branding, routing and IP-based–­monitoring vendor Miranda; traffic- and scheduling-software supplier Broadview; archiving supplier Masstech; satellite operator SES Americom; software giant Microsoft; chip colossus Intel; and consulting firm Accenture, with Ascent Media Systems providing system integration.

But only six stations have purchased ACE, and PBS admits that early installations experienced significant technical problems. Some station engineers say ACE wasn't practical, as it duplicated functionality provided by existing servers and automation and traffic software. Vendors say the way ACE was marketed, with PBS executives instead of trained salespeople pitching the system, was unusual. And sources suggest that the aversion to ACE had much to do with Mendes, who rubbed some veteran engineers the wrong way with his strong pitch for IT-based workflows.

“Engineers don't like having the boat rocked,” says one source close to the ACE project, “and I think Andre pissed people off.”

For his part, Mendes says he got along well with station engineers but imagines that there are “a wide range of opinions” about him through the PBS community. “Inherently,” he notes, “change is controversial.”

PBS Chief Operating Officer Wayne Godwin concedes that early ACE installations at WMHT Troy, N.Y., Iowa Public Television and New Hampshire Public Television had significant technical problems.

“We were tremendously concerned with what happened,” he says, adding that most problems have been corrected and that new ACE installations at Alabama Public Television and WHYY Philadelphia are going well.

Godwin says the long-term plan for ACE is unclear. “We will make a determination on how much farther we'll go with ACE. Our commitment right now is to the first stations that have signed up.”

ACE vendors say they haven't gotten any firm guidance from PBS in the wake of Caleca's and Mendes' exit.

“We have had no official communication on the status of ACE,” says OmniBus CEO Mike Oldham. “I think it's fair to say that our plan will be to continue on a direct-sales basis with PBS stations for all products, whether it's similar to ACE or something different. We will be using our direct-sales force to sell to PBS stations.”

OmniBus was also identified by PBS last April as the likely supplier of “edge servers” for its Next Generation Interconnection System (NGIS) project, which will use non–real-time, file-based distribution for PBS programming in the future. But beta-testing of the Omni­Bus iTX system scheduled for the third quarter was postponed, after expected federal funding didn't come through from Congress. No contract has been signed, and Caleca says a new request for proposal (RFP) for NGIS is in the works.

PBS has received $85 million of the $120 million needed for NGIS and is completing the installation of new satellite receivers at 176 stations. If Congress agrees to deliver the remaining $35 million in 2007, says Caleca, PBS could begin deploying edge servers next spring.

Meanwhile, PBS has hired executive-search firm Heidrick & Struggles to find a new chief technology officer. Godwin says one requirement for the job will be direct broadcast management experience, something both Caleca and Mendes lacked.

Says Godwin, “As [IT and broadcast] merge, you have got to recognize the differences, and you have got to have someone at the helm that recognizes the strengths of both.”