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The Ties That Bind

As U.S. channels look to capitalize on rapidly growing international markets, global programmers are increasingly looking for ways to bring their international operations and domestic facilities closer together.

One illustration of that trend can be found at Discovery Communications, which has been working to digitize its operations and link them closer together so that it can quickly and efficiently move programming around the world, a strategy that played a key role last week in coverage of the royal wedding on TLC.

Discovery planned live productions in London and in Times Square, and to distribute those feeds to 10 different channels (in 17 languages) around the world, including the U.S., Glenn Oakley, executive VP, media technology, production and operations at Discovery Communications, said shortly before the event. “It is unprecedented for our company, and it is all possible because of what we have been doing in terms of our global infrastructure,” Oakley said.

While TLC’s wedding coverage got a major boost from the upgrades, the push to better tie all of Discovery’s operations together is being driven by the company’s large and rapidly growing global operations.

International accounted for 33% of Discovery’s total revenue in 2010, and those operations are an increasingly important part of the company’s bottom line. Discovery’s operating income before depreciation and amortization grew by 22% internationally last year, double the 11% growth rate of the media giant’s domestic networks.

Last year alone, Discovery launched 23 channels, including three in the U.S., and the company now distributes 138 networks and 169 feeds in 43 languages around the world.

To reduce the cost of that expansion while trying to localize its channels as much as possible, Discovery has been looking for operational efficiencies. “We could build a local operation in all the countries where we have channels, but then you would be reinventing the wheel over and over again,” notes Oakley.

Closer to home, Discovery’s West Coast operations have also expanded dramatically in the last two years. That has made it increasingly important to find a way to move digital files and programming between the company’s three facilities in Los Angeles, its global headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., and its broadcast center in Sterling, Va.

Following the eruption last year of a volcano in Iceland that shut down air traffic across Europe and made it difficult to deliver tapes there, Discovery began beefing up its file-based delivery to London. Since then, it has also been expanding connectivity between its Sterling broadcast center and Los Angeles and Miami, which is the company’s regional hub for Latin America.

More work remains to be done in Discovery’s plan to closely link its regional hubs with its operations in Sterling and Silver Spring. But some shortform promos are already being pushed from two of its facilities in Los Angeles to Sterling, and “we just had a record week of pushing fi les to Miami,” notes Don Johnson, Discovery senior VP of U.S. media operations.

Discovery is also finishing up a teleport at its Sterling facility for satellite uplinks that had previously been handled by outside companies. “It will give us much better command and control over our signal and operations,” Johnson notes.

To speed up the delivery of programming, most of Discovery’s European production centers are now connected digitally to London. The company is following a similar path in Asia, where its regional hub is located in Singapore.

“We had been really suffering getting tapes into India,” where tapes might be delayed for as much as three weeks getting through customs, said Oakley.

To overcome that problem, the company’s Indian office is now equipped with multiple digital distribution paths. “We just launched our sixth channel, which is more than any other cablecaster in the market,” Oakley said.

Besides increasing satellite and fiber connectivity for file-based delivery, a process that will continue this year, Discovery has centralized planning for its satellite capacity under John Miller, senior VP of technology and distribution, and has worked to acquire global rights to content whenever appropriate.

“It really comes down to creating the infrastructure and mindset so that the company can deliver on its global growth plans,” Oakley said.

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