Q&A: Sterling Davis, Cox Television

After launching HD local newscasts at seven stations over the last two and half years, Cox Television only has a handful of smaller market stations that have not yet made the leap. Vice president of engineering at Cox Television and Cox Radio Sterling Davis talked to HD Update about their plans for the remaining stations, the equipment they’re looking to buy this year and their grassroots purchasing process. An edited transcript follows:

Q: Which of your stations are currently doing local newscasts in high-definition?

A: We have 15 TV station in 11 markets, which means we have two stations in four markets. In one market, [Reno’s KRXI] we carry news but do not originate it. It is retransmitted from another station [Cox’s KTVU].

We are doing HD news in Orlando [WFTV], Atlanta [WSB], and Charlotte [WSOC] where we have ABC affiliates and our NBC affiliate in Pittsburgh [WPXI] is doing HD. Our CBs affiliates in Dayton [WHIO] and Seattle [KIRO] and the Fox affiliate [KTVU] in San Francisco is also doing it.

Only the small market stations in El Paso [KFOX], Steubenville, Ohio [WTOV], and Johnstown, Pa. [WJAC] are doing SD news casts. But all these newscasts are wide screen so they look very good up-converted.

Q: Do you have plans to move the smaller markets to HD?

A: As I mentioned the smaller markets are all doing wide screen news now, so they have high enough definition for those markets. As time goes by we will gradually we will move in that direction but we’ll do it in a more cost effective way.

Q: Are you looking to do more HD from the field?

A: Yes, we will. All the cameras we’ve been buying for the last 3 years are HD cameras. They are not being operated generally in a HD mode just because of the infrastructure that it would take.

There are two pieces to the infrastructure that need to be done. One is digital microwave equipment is not in place at this point in time. The second thing is the editing infrastructure for news would have to be dramatically expanded to handle that much volume. We are working on this as part of an ongoing incremental upgrade.

Q: Cox moved pretty quickly and fairly early to launch local HD newscasts. Why was that?

A: It was actually a confluence of two things. One, we like to be perceived as market leaders in our newscasts. Most all of our newscasts are the leading newscasts, the number one rated newscasts, in our markets. So competitive marketing was one factor.

The other thing had to do with our decision to convert all of our newscasts to automated playout. For automated playout, we are using the Thomson Ignite system. When we put in Ignite, we put an HD Ignite system, which avoids the cost of building a new HD control room.

So those two things drove us into HD a little quicker than we might have done otherwise.

We also had the benefit of the fact that two of our smaller market stations, Steubenville and Johnstown had been using the ParkerVision automation system, which was purchased by Grass Valley and morphed into their Ignite system.

Those two stations had very good luck in terms of the automation of newscast playout and that led us to look further into it and to fully automate other stations in terms of their playout.

Q: When you are making major purchasing decisions, how do you work at Cox? Are those decisions made at corporate or do the stations make them?

A: For major technology shifts like HD, we will do corporate deals that cover all the stations. However we make choices on what to buy a little differently than most broadcasting groups, I think. We have more of a grassroots process.

We set up a group of willing volunteers of chief engineers of various stations to research the various options and manufacturers and to come up with a recommendation for the whole engineering group. Then we come to a consensus for a plan moving forward and I make the business deals.

That is how we go about making decision on all types of products—antenna, cameras, encoders, monitors, whatever it happens to be.

Of course, some of these things are not just engineering decisions. They involve trafficking or news and then we get those departments involved. But it is still a joint decision made by consensus. It takes a little long and takes more work but in the end we come up with decisions that we feel much better about. This process gives us input from everyone. These guys know what they are doing. They know what works at their stations.

And it means there is a lot of buy-in from the stations. Then, if it doesn’t work, they feel responsible for fixing it. It is not like they are dealing with something that was imposed on them by corporate.

Q: What are some of the major vendors you’ve used?

A: We made a decision maybe three or four years ago to go with Panasonic P2 cameras for the field. We started buying SD versions and then when the HD versions came out, we began buying those to replace all the field cameras as people need to replace them.

We made that decision through the same process, with a group of volunteers studying it and making recommendations.

For studio cameras we are using Sony.

For all the stations except our station in San Francisco, we are using the Avid Unity system for editing news.

Q: What kind of products are you looking for at the NAB and the rest of the year?

A: One of our hot buttons at the moment is to try to come up with a replacement to Proximity’s Art Box, [a video asset management system]. Apple bought that company a couple of year ago and now folding it into other products and they are not going to be supporting it.

So we are scrambling to get a devise to replace that because it is a central piece t o graphics workflow inside stations for news. We are very disappointed with the fact that we’re not going to continue to use that product in the future.

But there aren’t a lot of big things left for us to do from a high def or really any other perspective. At NAB, we’ll be filling in little gaps here and there. But we won’t have teams of people looking at various things.

That isn’t to say we aren’t going to be buying equipment next year. But a lot of what we buy will be filling in and updating what we have.

The biggest switch in the future for us is converting our analogue plant to being exclusively digital and not all stations are at the point. You can put in HD news casts and do a lot of things and still some deep pockets of analog that need to be addressed.

We do have some all digital stations now but it is a matter of getting the rest of station money and time to make the conversation. We’re not going to throw out stuff that works.

Q: What stations are all-digital?

A: The Orlando, Atlanta and Pittsburg stations are all digital. Our hope would be to expand that to the rest of the stations over the next several years.