Remodeling Master Control

With broadcasters facing one of the worst economic environments in the industry's history, both large station groups and individual stations are analyzing how they can streamline operations and cut costs to survive now and be better positioned for what they hope is a brighter future.

After a wave of cuts in news departments in recent years through automating newscasts, pooling video coverage among multiple stations in a market and centralizing graphics across large groups—as well as laying off a lot of high-priced anchor talent—the next area ripe for overhaul is master control.

There is a renewed interest in “hubbing,” or consolidating master-control operations for a group in a handful of regionalized centers; large groups like Meredith and Gannett are undertaking significant hubbing projects. And station automation vendors say that customers are increasingly looking to fully exploit their software to automate as many functions at individual stations as possible, through better integration with traffic and content-ingest systems.

“There's a lot more interest in moving to a genuine maxed-out operation,” says Chris Simons, VP of automation and asset management for Harris. “Stations have a lot more confidence in running without operators, if not 24/7, then for extended periods of the day.”

Hubbing, also known as “centralcasting,” was pioneered eight or nine years ago by groups like Ackerley, LIN Television and Clear Channel. It has “come back with a vengeance,” Simons says, as the costs of fiber links have come down. Harris is currently involved in several major hub projects.

But not all hubbing models depend on playing out real-time video from a central location. Crispin Corp. completed a major hub-and-spoke centralization project for Gannett last year that left the playback gear in place at individual stations but centralized control of that equipment at hubs in Greensboro, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla., using a private network to send commands.

Crispin has optimized its software to allow remote control over slow, latency-prone wide-area networks (WANs). The Crispin control commands use fewer than 30 kilobits per second.

“We can effectively run a master-control operation from one city to another over a very lean and slow connection,” says Crispin COO Rodney Mood.

Florical Systems also thinks the hub-and-spoke model, with remote control and monitoring of stations, makes more economic sense for most groups than building the infrastructure required for true centralization. As such, it has developed the S.M.A.R.T. (System Managing and Reporting Tool) Central interface for its flagship AirBoss automation product, which uses Microsoft's .NET networking technology to display an overview of remote sites, and the RemoteAirBoss option, which allows remote control of an AirBoss channel from a Web-connected laptop or PC.

Like other automation vendors, Florical is also looking to take advantage of BXF (Broadcast eXchange Format), a new specification for how traffic systems can communicate with automation systems. BXF allows traffic software to more dynamically control on-air playlists and automation software to provide better reporting of what did run back to traffic.

A new tweak to the S.M.A.R.T. system is the BXF Live Log, which allows real-time, two-way communication between the systems. A “pre-air discrepancy report” notifies traffic when spots are not in the system before airtime, allowing traffic to rectify the problem and avoid make-goods. A “deviation report” lets traffic know if equipment issues occurred during air.

Sundance Digital, Avid's automation unit, was an early proponent of BXF and has now installed its BXF Gateway product in nine stations, according to product manager Rick Stora.

“It solves two problems,” Stora says. “One, it does the BXF work and communicates to traffic. But it's also a solution for network integration. A lot of the systems for BXF are on the house WAN, and this box controls that connection with the Internet-enabled WAN. After all, you don't want to get a virus on your on-air server.”

VCI, which makes both traffic and automation software, is another supporter of BXF in its autoXe automation system and Orion traffic product. But it is looking to take the integration between traffic and automation one step further with Verity, a software system it introduced at NAB. Verity, which consists of new software code that will run on existing hardware, is designed to work as a single back-office management system for television stations by integrating traffic and master-control automation as well as sales and billing software; it also provides real-time inventory management.

According to VCI, Verity allows spots to be changed or sold right up to airtime, with no extra reconciliation steps needed for late changes because all changes are made within one system. If a spot is missing, Verity will automatically schedule new content based on business rules.

“It's not rocket science,” says VCI President/CEO Sarah Foss. “It's what other industries have done. Our vision always was to automate from the business side, with decision-making driven from contracts. And we're not expecting a master-control operator to solve problems from 18 different workflows.”

Another company pitching a new model for master control is automation supplier OmniBus. The company entered the playout-server market in 2006 with iTX, a software-based system designed to act as a video server, master control, and graphics and logo inserter with automation, ingest, editing and content management built in. Since then, iTX, which starts at around $40,000, has been broadly adopted by satellite operator DirecTV and several large cable programmers. CBS also uses it to feed content to the MediaFLO mobile-TV service.

The iTX system's IT-based approach has so far found little traction with traditional call-letter stations in the U.S., except for launching some secondary digital channels, but that may be changing. According to OmniBus CTO Ian Fletcher, the company is talking to two station groups about adopting iTX for hubbing projects where it would handle playout
for multiple stations.

"It suits their business model very well," Fletcher says. "The bang for the buck with iTX is when you implement it on a wider scale."