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Sony Electronics

Steve Jacobs, senior vice president of networked systems business for Sony, takes a Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart-style view of centralcasting: He can't define it, but he knows it when he sees it.

"Any broadcaster in 2001 is trying to do more with less and take advantage of advancements in technology to reduce current operating expenditures," he says. "And when you look at server technology and declining prices in connectivity for ATMs or IP-based networks, the next thought is 'Gee, can't one person in a master-control center operate more than one television station?' And the answer is 'Yes.'"

Jacobs says the centralcasting obstacles are technical, financial and operational but it is the financial challenge that is the most daunting. That's because the cost of the line needed to connect the station or facility to the central location, whether IP or ATM, is still rather high.

"Most of [the providers] are no longer distance-sensitive, but they've discovered that providing a quality of service for broadcasters, associated with every frame of video every hour every day, is tougher than they first believed," he explains. "And it requires a video network-operations center with a level of staffing, redundancy and attention to detail that is far greater than that for a network-operations center that delivers poor data."

The challenge for companies like Williams Communications, Qwest, AT&T and Enron is to make sure they can match the type of back-up capabilities offered by satellite.

"Imagine calling Mel Karmazin and explaining that the reason they lost the commercials at WCBS New York and WBZ Boston was that the network-operations center went down because someone cut the fiber-optic line with a backhoe," Jacobs says.

On the flip side, the challenge for broadcasters is how much risk to take with the on-air product.

"Most broadcasters answer 'not that much,' especially with commercials," he adds. "It's not accidental that TV stations during prime time at the network level have a primary and back-up device to play commercials. And it's not accidental that, if you're a local station, local commercials have a primary and a back-up."

For Sony, this is primarily an integration play. The technology is the easy part. It's the integration with one or more providers of ATM and IP networks and deciding which of the various models of centralcasting you want. The WB 100 stores commercials on a store-and-forward basis, providing distribution from a central site. Programming could be distributed in the same way.

Jacobs says Sony's centralcasting opportunity is primarily in the integration market, although the company's Petasite could sit at the central location, storing hundreds of hours of programming and commercial material. The Petasite could feed a Sony MAV-70 XGI playout server, which can be configured with multiple play-out channels. Sony's BDX encoder and the Multiple Streaming Bridge 2000 would convert the video to IP packets for delivery.

Jacobs says the grand vision of many stations' being under the control of one facility might be a bit too grand given that human operators do eventually enter the equation.

"If you are the guy running master control for two television stations and, for some reason, one goes off the air, you're going to give 100% of your time to solving that problem," he says. "What happens if there's a problem at the other station?"

Because of that potential scenario, Jacobs believes regional operations in which an operator comfortably controls two operations (with three feasible) is more realistic today.

"You want to keep the ratio around one guy for three signals," he says. "Technology can monitor the fact that there is a signal, but you need human beings to be able to react when the alarm bells go off."