Sharing digital content

Looking to streamline content handling and also save dubbing charges and overnight-delivery costs, Sinclair Broadcast Group will distribute all types of content to its stations as digital files.

Pathfire's Digital Media Gateway platform will enable the Baltimore-based station group to provide content (commercials, promo spots, stock footage and even entire syndicated programs) to all its stations as easily as it exchanges e-mail. Station personnel will be able to request a piece of content and have it automatically downloaded to dedicated PC servers that Pathfire will install at every Sinclair location. Content will be accessible via a satellite-based Internet Protocol (IP) delivery system that Pathfire will also manage.

The system, scheduled to be installed this fall, features a packet-based, store-and-forward architecture, which allows files to be sent to a server and retrieved—like standard e-mail—when needed. Sinclair Vice President of Operations Del Parks says this will make content available more quickly for all of his stations using the network.

The system was developed for NBC's News Channel service and enables 215 NBC stations to share news feeds. Parks was able to experiment with it firsthand because Sinclair owns a number of NBC stations. Announced at NAB in 1999, NBC's was the first broadcast-distribution deal for Atlanta-based Pathfire (then called Video Networks Inc.).

"When you're talking about multiple station locations, like we have, and wanting to be able to manage where and when content is handled at the station level, then it's pretty important to have a system like what Pathfire has put together," Parks points out. "A lot of the station groups are looking at centralization models, but the problem there is the cost of that last mile and the distribution system. When you apply that back to the business model, it often doesn't save you that much."

From a desktop PC, content is available via Pathfire's NewsTracker "on-demand" software to all affiliates within the group (stations can have multiple workstations). Different graphical user interfaces can be customized for different types of content coming into the station.

In a station's newsroom, NewsTracker allows producers to handle the content as data files, which can be played to air or sent to other digital (or analog) equipment, such as an edit system or a VTR.

To ensure that content is successfully delivered, Pathfire's Networks Operations Center in Atlanta monitors every transmission sent through the network and automatically resends the information if necessary. Sinclair pays Pathfire a fee for use of the network and for each time a file is sent. Comprehensive licensing deals are also available. Pathfire's revenue depends on the number of stations and content providers that use the delivery service.

John Wilson, general manager of Pathfire's Broadcast Business unit, says data-packet delivery has gained a lot of attention because of the industry's move to networked digital operation. "We're working with a lot of different types of content providers and distributing different kinds of content to the broadcast station. That's what broadcasters want to do. The major syndication companies and ad agencies all want a broad and wide distribution base that allows them to get their content deployed cost-effectively."

Counting Sinclair's 62 stations, NBC's NewsChannel affiliates, more than 200 ABC NewsOne stations and Quorum Broadcasting's 14 stations, more than 500 stations are now using Pathfire's digital delivery platform. With this reach, Pathfire hopes to attract syndicators and other content providers.

This is where Sinclair's Parks believes the Pathfire system holds the most value for his operation. "The real payoff is if Pathfire can get a deal done with syndicators," he says. "When you think about it, the current satellite system for sending syndicated programs relies on individual employees recording that feed to tape. In our case, if we run Frasier in 20 markets, that's 20 people recording 20 videotapes. It's very inefficient.

"If we can deliver that to a server at the station," he continues, "and then pull that out of the cache- or end-server when we need it, that becomes a pretty compelling reason to have a system like Pathfire."

Parks believes syndicators will benefit from this type of delivery because it will allow them to distribute many more episodes per hour in digital quality than they currently do.