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Prather Calls for Unity on Mobile DTV

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Gray Television President/COO Robert Prather, who presides over the group’s 36 stations, including WKYT Lexington and WOWT Omaha, thinks broadcasters’ splinter efforts on mobile DTV are “a blow to the industry.” Ahead of his appearance as a keynote speaker at B&C’s and TV Technology’s News Technology Summit in Nashville Sept. 22-23, he shares his insights on mobile DTV and other top news tech issues with B&C Deputy Editor Michael Malone. He also says that broadcasters will be looking to figure out a way to get rid of their live trucks in the next two years. An edited transcript of the interview follows.

What are some recent technological advances that have helped the Gray stations gather or share news content?
We’re looking at a lot of different things. We’re going to Ross overdrive switchers, which are helping out with automation. One thing we just ordered is Streambox technology, which allows you to do live shots using Internet Protocol as opposed to having a live truck in the field. I think this can be huge for us; I’m convinced that live trucks are obsolete and it’s just a matter of time before they’ll all be replaced. They’re too expensive to operate and too cumbersome to set up, and it looks like there’s technology out there that can virtually replace them. In the next year or two, everybody will be looking to figure out a way to get rid of their live trucks.

We continue to look at every technological advance we can. We’re spending a lot of time finding ways to gather news more efficiently, ways to automate where we can and where it makes sense. But we can’t hurt our news coverage, because news is our most valuable product and we want to make sure we keep the emphasis on being the best provider of local news in our markets.

How far along is Gray on its local high-definition plans?

We have 6-7 stations in progress right now. We’ll have half of [the group] done this year, then hopefully have the rest done next year.

How big a deal is mobile DTV, and what is Gray doing to get ready for it?
I was real high on it a year ago. We’re testing in two markets–Omaha, and then Lincoln. I think the technology is clearly there, but when [a number of] station groups broke off and formed their own group, the Pearl [Project], I think it really hurt us as an industry. I think this could put us in danger of not being able to hold onto live mobile, and it could wind up going to the phone companies. Their model is totally different than the model that the OMVC has been working on. I believe it’s a real blow to the TV industry, frankly.

Are the Pearl Project groups not receptive to the concerns of the station groups outside the circle?

They’ve got a totally different model than what we were working toward; they formed a separate group and are pretty much going their own way. I think it could be real damaging for the industry.

Five hundred stations are looking to do their own deal [the Mobile500 Alliance, which includes Gray]. I think having two different organizations doing their own thing is not good for us as an industry. I hope there would be a way for the two groups to get together, but right now nothing seems to be happening.

Is the multimedia-journalist concept a growing part of Gray’s newsgathering strategy?
Yes, definitely. We’re trying to do more and more of it all the time. I think virtually everybody in our industry will be doing this in the near future.

Is Gray in the market to buy or sell stations?
I doubt it. I think the market is still pretty shut down for acquisitions. We’re trying to pay down debt—that’s our focus right now.

How about working out shared-services agreements? Is that something you’re looking to do in your markets?

We’re definitely looking at that—that has potential to it, very much so.

Is the Gray deal to manage seven Young stations finally underway?
We’re working on it. We’re having our regional vice presidents visit the Young stations now, so we’re actively involved in advising them.

Gray Interactive Media handles the Gray station Websites. Do you partner with the likes of WorldNow or IB or Broadcast Interactive Media for the sites as well?
WorldNow supplies our video, and Clickability supplies our infrastructure and backbone. But we do all the content. They're pretty self-contained sites.

There are some major political races going on. In terms of technology, is there anything you folks will use to cover the elections that maybe you didn't a few years ago?
I don't think so, no. But I think it's going to be a huge political year.