The word “solution” implies the existence of a problem. In the case of broadcasting, the word “answer” might be more applicable because centralized operations are not a solution so much as an answer to the question, “How can the cost of local operations be reduced?”
Efficient centralcasting requires the ability to manage and coordinate content across a number of channels while minimizing the level of manual intervention. Shown here is master control operations at KGET-TV, the Ackerley Group’s NBC affiliate in Bakersfield, CA. Photo courtesy KGET.
In the context of group ownership, the answer takes on significant importance, as margins are eroding constantly. Advertisers place their commercials on not three or four national services, but literally hundreds, which vary from enormous audiences to narrowcasting streams. The result is that broadcasters' share of total media buy revenue is not increasing, though costs are. Labor costs, and indeed program acquisition costs, are harder to control. At the same time, network compensation revenue is down, and the threat exists to have broadcasters paying networks for programming in “reverse compensation.”
The net result is close scrutiny of cash flow from operations. Any method of reducing costs is appealing, and centralized operations holds promise to do just that. It is not, however, a panacea for other problems. Savings in centralized operations come largely from reduced head count at the local station. The trick is to automate the on-air stream and move much of the labor to a “hub,” where a small pool of labor can control several stations as effectively as they used to be controlled locally.
Balancing the central operations savings is an increase in interconnection cost. To the extent that the labor savings is significant and the interconnection costs are modest, the savings could accrue quickly in large amounts. But the cost of interconnection often does not fall low enough to make the savings attractive enough.
From a technical perspective, several recent developments can allow significant savings to be achieved. Reliable automation at modest cost has a major impact on the equation. An automation system that removes as much human intervention as possible is key. For instance, show timings for multiple stations, if done separately, are costly. If the automation system can share the timings and content in many playlists (in appropriate time slots, of course) then repeated manual ingest operations are saved. This might be as simple as standardizing the numbering scheme used in all affected traffic systems, but clearly multiple playlists must be able to draw on a common pool of content. In the future, service companies may well deliver the content with the timings in MXF format, ready to be moved seamlessly to the air servers inclusive of all metadata.
Servers have a major impact on centralized operations. If the content is stored not on videotapes, but rather in a server system that homogenously serves multiple output streams, the result is less redundancy and the ability to simultaneously play the same content to multiple stations, even if start times are staggered. This applies to interstitials as well as program-length content. Even more attractive is a server system that can be interconnected over arbitrarily long distances to “put, or get” via FTP content to or from remote servers. The logical result is what appears to be an arbitrarily large server system, one that can move content under automation or media asset management control as needed for on-air operations.
An outgrowth of sophisticated modern servers is a return to the roots of the first Tektronix (now Thomson Grass Valley) Profile server. Several manufacturers now offer “edge servers” — small and cost-effective servers whose functionality is chosen to be limited in the interests of cost, and whose scale and complexity look remarkably like early server products. These servers are deployed near the playout point without the need to have large amounts of storage, for their function is to play limited amounts of content, and to do so locally.
A word must be said about switching and monitoring of feeds, for the paradigm of a single station control room does not work for centralized operations. When many streams are to be controlled by fewer personnel, one must look at the presentation of visual, aural and control information critically. If the operator is overwhelmed by large monitor walls or computer displays that look like spreadsheets gone whacky, they cannot hope to assimilate all of the information in the order of its importance. Monitor matrices and integrated control systems can allow burrowing down to find problems before they take a station off the air. In addition, status and monitoring must be returned from the remote station to the hub so the operators can fully appreciate the effect of any actions or failures. Many manufacturers have developed products in this area that can work on low-bandwidth return circuits.
Today switching has become more a question of local branding because the number of live parallel sources needed in MCR is considerably lower with server playout of content. Many stations are moving to “branding boxes,” which offer squeeze back, internal character generators, background graphics and templates. In this case, the station's routing switcher can provide parallel access to all required sources.
Finally, a short word on low-hanging fruit. Centralizing air operations is risky and not very rewarding if the cost of interconnection is high. But centralized operations could easily work to reduce the cost of traffic, accounting, and promotion and graphics production.
In centralizing these departments, interconnection can be T-1 bandwidth and still be quite effective, and the potential for labor savings is every bit as high in many operations as with on-air control. Promotions can be centrally produced and sent via FTP as bandwidth is available at low risk. This can create a common look for all stations and may allow a small, highly creative department to produce superior results for many outlets in a cost-effective way.
John Luff is senior vice president of business development at AZCAR. To reach him, visit www.azcar.com.
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