Straight Out of Centralcasting

Thanks to a combination of the pressure to keep costs down and a more widespread fiber-optic network, cable-system operators such as Time Warner Cable (TWC) are centralizing news operations through a single hub. Known as centralcasting, this allows sister news organizations to share graphics and video content over long distances via fiber connections.

TWC is following the lead set by station groups such as Sinclair, Tribune and Emmis, which all centralize news operations to a degree.

The cable company has installed a fiber-optic network, solving last-mile connectivity problems. Its regional 24/7 news networks across New York state—New York City (NY1 News), Albany (Capital News 9), Rochester (R News Now) and Syracuse (News 10 Now)—are using it to send content back and forth.

“The fundamental foundation is the pipeline,” says Steven Paulus, NY1 News senior VP/general manager. “With that in place, the idea of having the newsroom in one place and the production area in another isn't out of the equation.”

The first step

The news networks took a first step in July by consolidating weather operations in Rochester, trimming the combined meteorological staff from 15 to five. This week, News 10 Now's Syracuse operations folded into the Capital News 9 facility in Albany. “What we've retained in Syracuse are the journalists,” says Paulus. “The reporters, producers and writers will be out gathering news in Syracuse, then working with the people in Albany to get the content produced and sent out to viewers in Syracuse.”

Technology is easing the transition. Reporters and producers will continue to edit their story packages in Syracuse and place them on a local Pinnacle video server that can hold up to 100 hours of content. But instead of a local production team handling on-air playback, the stories will be sent to a centralized playout facility in Albany over an OC48 fiber line with 2.5 GHz of bandwidth, with help from Tandberg encoding and decoding gear.

Once the stories are in Albany, two master-control operators use OmniBus software to put together the programming wheel and deliver it to their respective viewers. The workflow saves millions, company executives say—and lays the groundwork for more regional networks.

“The statewide fiber ring puts us in a very good position,” says Joe Truncale, VP of technical operations. “We can put an editor anywhere and connect them through the fiber to the newsroom system, and feed material back and forth.”

With the connection in place, TWC is eyeing expansion. Binghamton and Jamestown are two potential markets for connected networks in New York state, say TWC execs, and cities like Buffalo will also be in play when TWC finalizes some acquisitions.

“As we bring in divisions from Adelphia that don't have a news-channel presence, we can build one without having to build it from scratch,” says News 10 Now News Director/General Manager Ron Lombard.

The news networks are doing more than just sharing master-control facilities; they're sharing content as well. “We found we were doing gardening segments in Rochester, Syracuse and Albany, and it's silly to be producing what is fundamentally the same content in all three markets,” says Paulus. Now the gardening segment is produced in Syracuse, the cooking segment in Rochester, a fitness segment in Albany and business news in New York City—with each regional network inserting localized stock-market information to give it a local feel.

“It's a much more efficient use of personnel,” Paulus says.

Dealing with layoffs

While the benefits of centralcasting are numerous, the concept does have its downsides. Foremost is the inevitable loss of jobs, which can have a negative effect on morale. “It's sad whenever you talk about job reductions, but we announced this about four months ago, so people had plenty of notice and understand why we did this,” says Lombard. He adds that many who lost their jobs were offered packages.

And, although viewers may not like having local news centralized (as was reported in B&C's “TV Brouhaha in Iowa” [Sept. 26, page 16]), that has not been an issue for Time Warner, its execs say. It's the production staff, not the local reporters, who have been let go, they point out, so the local reports remain intact.

As it expands the network, TWC is looking ahead again, this time toward next-generation technologies. The company has deployed Navic interactive-TV software on its New York state systems, making it possible for viewers of the regional networks to vote in polls and request advertising information.

Paulus says video-on-demand is also on the agenda. “We can do hyper-local things like local board or town meetings, or we could air a story on education and then point the viewer to 10 more related stories that are available over VOD,” he says. “We can take our news one step further and give [viewers] the in-depth reports they want.”