Raycom: Plenty of HD Work to Do

Like many station groups, Raycom Media isn't going to be doing a lot of shopping at NAB. According to CTO Dave Folsom, the company will concentrate on “selective buying” to support stations Raycom has acquired in recent years and is still upgrading technically.

Looking down the road, Raycom still has a lot of high-definition upgrades to perform. Of 30 Raycom stations that produce news, only 12 have upgraded their studios to support HD newscasts. And of the 44 Raycom owned-or-operated stations, roughly 30 still need to upgrade their standard-definition master control operations to support the HD playout of commercials and syndicated content.

“It sounds easy, but in reality it requires a complete new master control from soup to nuts, including monitoring, playout and ingest,” Folsom says. “It will cost $20 million-plus to make the [overall] conversion, so it's a big deal.”

So the focus of Folsom's trip to NAB this year will be going through “all the parts and pieces that make up master control” including infrastructure gear, and searching for ways to centralize and/or consolidate tasks wherever possible. Folsom notes that local stations have an “almost unbelievable amount of downstream equipment” to support functions such as network IDs, weather alerts, local branding and emergency alert system (EAS) messages.

Like other broadcast groups, Raycom is looking for syndicated programming distribution firms like Pathfire to finish up integration work that will allow high-definition syndicated content to be delivered in file format on a non-real-time basis, just as standard-definition content has been for years.

“The linear delivery of it eats up so much bandwidth, it's hard to believe that will continue much longer,” Folsom points out. “Oprah, Entertainment Tonight and other day-of-air shows might remain on satellite. But ultimately, the cost of all of this is going to push everyone to the delivery of content on a non-real-time file basis.”

For syndicated shows, a big benefit of non-real-time HD delivery is that barter advertising can be sold up to the last minute and dynamically delivered to the cache server at the local station to be inserted into the program, Folsom says. Raycom is also seeing pressure from advertisers to deliver commercials on a non-real-time basis through the Internet via file-transfer protocol sites, instead of using proprietary satellite-based services like DG FastChannel (which owns Pathfire) as a way to cut their costs.

“Where they used to be delivered by DG, the agencies are now walking around the DGs of this world and delivering on the Internet, through a download via a Website,” Folsom says. “It's creating a huge problem for us, because it's so labor-intensive.”

While Raycom has upgraded its broadband connectivity at most stations from 3 to 10 megabits per second to handle all the traffic that is streaming in and out, both for commercial delivery and for news production, Folsom is still looking for new delivery tools that can help optimize that capacity. Raycom has already experimented with BitCentral's wireless AirNow! EVDO-based wireless streaming system, as well as Streambox's laptop-based IP encoder, for inexpensive news backhauls.