While station group owner and newspaper publisher Media General has been under pressure from activist shareholder Harbinger Capital Partners to streamline its operations and improve its financial performance, the company has been quietly overhauling its TV operations for several years. It has been increasing the use of centralized systems and automation, and reducing head count in the process.
Media General has centralized master-control functions like traffic in regional hubs in Spartanburg, S.C., and Columbus, Ohio. It has also rolled out Thomson Grass Valley's Ignite system, which automates various functions in a newscast, across half of its 20 stations.
Its latest initiative, MGFX, is a centralized facility at its Richmond, Va., headquarters that pumps out news graphics using server-based systems from Miranda Technology. Since being launched in September, MGFX is now supplying graphics to nine stations, with another seven scheduled to come online by the end of June.
The premise behind MGFX is to invest in high-end graphics tools and skilled artists in one location, then use a networked client-server system to share those resources with other stations. That saves investing in new HD graphics creation systems at other stations and allows Media General to eliminate local graphics positions, while improving the look of the on-air product.
The concept isn't new. Media General admits it copied NBC's “Art House” model. The network created a centralized graphics facility in Fort Worth, Texas, that serves all the NBC stations. In fact, after deciding last summer to jump into centralized graphics, Media General hired Jim Doyle, one of the original Art House executives, to serve as general manager of MGFX.
Doyle, who started his broadcast career as a graphics artist, got trained in GE's Six Sigma management processes while at NBC and earned an M.B.A. last spring, appears to be a good fit for the marriage of creative talent and standards-based IT management that MGFX represents. Since arriving at Media General's Richmond headquarters last September, he has been setting up a graphics hub and buying new graphics playout devices to be rolled out to stations.
Media General has already selected Miranda's Xmedia Suite system, a template-based system that allows producers and reporters to create simple graphics, such as lower-thirds and over-the-shoulders, through the same desktop PCs they use to access their stations' newsroom computer system. Media General's implementation includes a centralized, low-resolution graphics database in Richmond that can be browsed by any station, networked servers that store 1080-line-interlace (1080i) high-definition graphics, and sophisticated workflow management software that connects Xmedia with stations' newsroom computer systems.
“Essentially, it's a hub-and-spoke operation,” Doyle says. “Here at the hub, everything revolves around our XMS [Xmedia Suite] server. The XMS server is our order management system; it is our repository for all of the templates and graphics that we make for every one of our stations. And the XMS server has a shared image folder within it that any station can search to look for a piece of content.”
Xmedia provides MOS [Media Object Server]-compliant software plug-ins that integrate with AP's ENPS and Avid's iNews newsroom computer systems, allowing journalists to access news images and graphics elements, quickly create graphics using templates, and then drag and drop them into the news rundown. The templates and high-resolution images are stored on local servers as part of a distributed archiving and database system, and played out off Miranda's Vertigo XG HD/SD graphics processors.
Each station gets two Vertigo XG devices, each with two HD output channels, and an Xmedia server with about half a terabyte of storage. This server communicates via an IP network with the larger Xmedia server in Richmond, which has about 1.2 terabytes of storage. That is where the 17 graphics artists in Richmond store the templates they create using Miranda and third-party graphics software. They also have access to a 7-terabyte Ciprico server, separate from the Miranda system, which is used to store stock footage, station logos and the like.
The graphics artists in Richmond create a set of templates with a customized look for each station that launches on the MGFX platform, and also fulfill daily requests for more complicated graphics. The two most requested items, Doyle says, are head shots and maps. Producers at local stations might call in a request for a particular map, or e-mail a low-res JPEG of a criminal or politician.
“When the artist opens the work order here they can download that attachment to their desktop, they open it in [Adobe] Photoshop, they do the cut-out, they save it as a 1080i target, and then they actually ingest it into our server and mark the work order as 'submitted,'” Doyle explains.
After being approved by senior staff at MGFX or at the local station, the graphic is automatically inserted into the template on the local station's server and is ready for playback. Producers instantly receive a notification in their newsroom computer interface that the graphic is ready to go as part of the newscast's rundown.
Ironically, Doyle's first priority with MGFX was to get four stations that Media General bought from NBC in 2006 off the Art House platform and converted to the Miranda technology. That move at WNCN Raleigh, N.C.; WCMH Columbus, Ohio; WVTM Birmingham, Ala.; and WJAR Providence, R.I., will save Media General about $500,000 this year, Doyle says, which is what the stations would have paid to NBC to continue the Art House service.
Since then, WSLS Roanoke, Va.; WBTV Myrtle Beach, S.C.; WJBF Augusta, Ga.; WCBD Charleston, S.C.; and WJTV/WHLT Jackson, Miss., have all been converted to the MGFX platform; 16 stations in total should be converted to the Miranda technology by the end of June.
While Media General had hoped that downsized local graphics personnel would move to the Richmond facility, only three artists have. That's mainly because graphics specialists generally don't have problems finding work, says Ardell Hill, Media General senior VP of operations. Most graphics operators preemptively left for other posts, with WFLA Tampa being the only station to have significant layoffs.
“Attrition has helped us a lot,” Hill says. “A person who has these skill sets is not going to look a long time for a job.”
WSLS, which installed a Thomson Ignite automation system to launch high-definition news last November, replaced standard-definition Chyron Max and Duet graphics systems with the new Miranda gear. The move to centralized graphics has required a shift to telephone communications from face-to-face conversations, says news director Melissa Preas, but the end product is an improvement for viewers.
“Our look is much more big-market now, if you will,” Preas says. “It's a very sharp, clean look.”
While Media General won't detail how much the total investment in MGFX represents, Doyle says the project will pay for itself in three years through cost savings.
“This is a business decision,” he says. “There are two things you hope to gain out of it—you hope to get some cost savings, but you also hope to improve quality; that's one of our primary concerns. One of the nice things about this operation is we're rolling out a top-level, top-notch graphics package that, in and of itself, is going to take most of our markets far beyond where they are now in terms of their look and their reception in the market.”
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