Duane Smith /
02.05.2014 05:00 AM
Streamlining Production at Public TV
Downsizing master control
JACKSONVILLE, FLA.—I’m an engineer by profession, but I want to put on an editorial hat and write about an important matter that is, in many ways only tangentially about technology.

I’m talking about master control… literally (to a degree) and figuratively to make my point.

As public broadcasters, our mandate is to deliver high-quality programming with a local flavor that would not otherwise be available to the communities we serve. However, a large portion of our funding to do that comes from federal grants, small portions of state and local tax revenue, plus corporate and individual support, all of which are subject to the ongoing pressures that budget builders face.

While financial support for capital purchasing diminishes, we are expected to deliver more content to multiple, ever-diverse platforms to keep faith with those who have not only funded us, but rely on PTV-distributed content for specialized entertainment, news and information.

That content emanates from a master control room, which is the heart of any broadcast operation. The difficulty is that there are now too many individual MCR’s, which is why I believe it would be more efficient to centralize those functions among station groups.

As much fun as they were to specify, install and operate, the majority of master control rooms installed in the early 2000s are now approaching end of life. From my point of view, I see no financially sound way to continue to support—or rebuild— each of them to meet modern demands.

Many PTV stations are struggling to stay financially viable and, as a result, on air. We can waste time wringing our hands over the best way to provide real-time linear feeds to transmitters, but that ignores the elephant in the room, which is the fact that our future hinges on our willingness to play nice with each other, not accumulate toys we can no longer afford.

Each local PTV broadcaster likes to think it is unique. The truth is that we are much the same. We distribute much of the same content and make many of the same decisions with similar schedules. We also face the same challenges.

What we do is not who we are. What I mean by that is, rather than being identified as “people who make television,” we are better defined as an indispensable community asset. I recognize that for many, that’s not necessarily an easy distinction to make. Visitors to our facilities, be they politicians, local dignitaries or members of the public, want to evaluate their asset, but for many that means getting their picture taken in the MCR. That’s great for the PR department but does little to illustrate the hard technical scrabble to deliver the tangible assets (i.e., the programming) taking place just beyond the control room door. Very few visitors care about the technical route the content takes to arrive in their homes as long as it gets there.

An understanding of how the MCR works and what it costs to drive it is lost on most. Therefore why, I submit, does every station need one? Why not combine MCRs into a single hub among a station group and save lots of money? Seems an easily won argument to me.

Duane Smith
PTV stations can leverage advantages they have over commercial stations by pooling and exploiting their assets. For example, the majority of PTV stations do not produce live news, which is typically a cash-hungry endeavor; and our programming schedules are not overly dynamic. Those similarities are advantages that can be streamlined to the benefit of our type of broadcast operations and, ultimately, our respective audiences.

Many commercial broadcasters have already taken steps to control more and more video streams from centralized hubs. PTV station groups can do the same. The playout workload alone across a station group can be dramatically reduced. Moreover, aggregating content enables an operations center to be much more agile with that content once delivery processes to new distribution models are perfected. It also conserves substantial capital and operating expenditures by not having to capture, manipulate and store identical content in multiple locations.

Fortunately, there has been a recent groundswell among local PTV station management and engineering teams to discuss and, in some cases, start implementing centralization plans. It’s not a “top down” initiative as is more typical in larger commercial groups, but a grassroots “uprising” by broadcast professionals with feet on the ground in their local communities.

This realization is perhaps best manifested by describing where things stand where I am privileged to work, JCT Services LLC, a subsidiary of WJCT Public Broadcasting in Jacksonville, Fla.

WJCT is a charter member of a partnership that includes 11 public television stations that are currently centralizing their master control and network operations centers in Jacksonville as part of an initiative by the not-for-profit Digital Convergence Alliance. The new facility will initially serve WTTW in Chicago; MPTV, Milwaukee; KERA, Dallas; WPBT, Miami; WUCF, Orlando; WJCT, Jacksonville; WFSU, Tallahassee; WILL, Urbana Ill.; WBCC, Cocoa; WEDU, Tampa; and WPBA, Atlanta. The DCA is actively campaigning for more stations to join the alliance. The more that join, the more cost savings can be achieved by all of them. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which provided the initial funding for the project, has already stated that it foresees savings of $15-$20 million over 10 years.

The DCA has a wider aim than just being an operational hub where content is aggregated and disseminated. It is a community “white board” where ideas and opportunities are shared and built upon, utilizing the DCA’s network operations center as the infrastructure where such initiatives are developed and implemented to the benefit of the alliance’s constituents.

I liken the collaborative nature of this approach to a “statistical multiplexer.” The more inputs (users) it has, the more efficient it becomes. It is critically important to understand that highly productive partnerships can be built by forming meaningful relationships within the public broadcasting system. A centralized operations center can leverage the respective skill sets of users to expand its services—and bargaining power—therefore becoming a more powerful coalition.

For example, if one user has a satellite uplink, it can offer that service to the group. If another user is blessed with a top-flight graphics department, it can offer those services at a competitive rate. It doesn’t take much imagination to see all sorts of advantages.

When considering joining a combined master operation, keep in mind that the decision making should not be focused solely on master control. It has to be about evaluating the strategic and tactical advantages offered by being a part of a group of likeminded folks working toward common goals.

Duane Smith is vice president for the Network Operations Center at JCT Services.

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Posted by: Tim Stoffel
Thu, 02-06-2014 06:03 PM Report Comment
First of all, the title of this article is misleading, as the real subject of this article is master control, not production. As an engineer and career broadcaster in the PBS system, I respectfully disagree with this idea. Centralization may be great for a commercial network group, but it is a disaster for public TV. We have been hearing this particular story from CPB for a number of years now, and I even know of cases where they have tried to force small PTV stations to centralize. First of all, what is wrong with local operation? Isn't broadcasting about localism? Although the internet might make the world smaller, TV stations tend to be spread out over a large area geographically, because they cover specific pieces of geography. And this is where the centralization argument begins to break down. A local broadcaster, equipped with their own master control system (Which does not have to be manned 24/7, or in some cases, manned much at all) has the greatest flexibility to met the needs of the local community. They are in a much better position to respond to a local situation or emergency, and they are much more immune to 'backhoe fade'. A local master control can operate at much higher bandwidths to ensure the final product looks as good as it can (and this really does make a difference). A modern master control can even be constructed economically with the now-popular 'channel in a box' solutions. And these box solutions keep getting better. In talking to other PBS engineers, there is only significant savings if you have high priced labor, like what exists in big cities. Small market stations can often run a master control operation for far less per signal than a big market. If you eliminate your local origination infrastructure, you can fire those expensive engineers (who plague you by telling you why some idea won't work, and they are usually right in the end), right? But what happens when you really need an engineer? You have to hire someone at a very high price to come in and make something right, and possibly experience considerable downtime in the process. And once you do away with competent engineers, it may be hard to find one when you need one. And what do you do during network outages? You still need some infrastructure for local origination, unless you like black. PBS stations can best meet the needs of their market by being local. There is nothing wrong with 300+ copies of 'Masterpiece Theater', if they are available when and where they are needed. And of course, you still need production. Production is the heart and soul of public TV. The PBS system, unlike networks, is the sum total of its local stations. You are not saving all that much in CAPEX (buzzword!!) if you need to also support production. Sometimes, saving money does not create the best value for viewers. The best value for viewers is when a station can meet the needs of its market, and has the autonomy to do so. Centralization kills autonomy. Centralization leaves you totally at the mercy of the centralcaster. And since you have to spend that money anyway, why not spend it in keeping your operation local, where it belongs?
Posted by: Kenneth A
Sat, 02-08-2014 09:45 AM Report Comment
Won't the TV Stations that make this move also need to re-allocate some of the "savings" to transmission costs, redundancy and risk mitigation? When the central MCR goes down, from causes ranging from labor strife to natural disaster to terrorism to human error, when distribution for 10 stations representing 20 million viewers is disrupted, or when resources at the central location are reduced even in part or unavailable for ANY reason, what then? And, who prioritizes rescue operations? Does Chicago get first response, or Detroit or Miami? Regardless of the plan and contract details, what do you think will be the reality? Pity the smallest station in the group. As noted in the article, MCR is the heart of the TV station. Deciding to outsource your heart is a "grave" decision. I hope that most PBS stations will not follow the lead of these that seem to have put all their eggs in a [far-away] basket.
Posted by: Anonymous
Fri, 02-07-2014 12:05 PM Report Comment
Duane's article is interesting, while a bit vague about the specific details of the Florida project, the expected technology outcome, and effect on labor. In the end, contrary to what Tim replied, centralization can be an enabler for public stations to commit resources to core mission requirements and away from the 'broadcast factory'. Since public stations have great overlap in programming combining operations can lead to great efficiencies in handling media, both at the time of prep and in bulk storage requirements. One thing Tim's comment misses is that the goal of centralization is not to eliminate 'engineers', but rather to put technology to best use, freeing staff and budgets to create compelling content. Tim is obviously concerned about eliminating all local facilities. That is absolutely not the goal of centralization of air operations. Local infrastructure is still needed for production, including pledge programming that airs live. In fact some local disaster recovery capability is a core requirement of any good centralization plan. He also fears the loss of autonomy. No successful centralization plan in public broadcasting would reduce autonomy. Indeed, local traffic creates the playlist in both local and centralized operations. With modern automation and traffic tightly integrated with NRT the job of master control becomes less operational anyway. Traffic should be fixing errors in the log BEFORE it is sent to automation, nbot relying on MCR to fix it in the middle of the night. He is spot on about the role of CIAB (channel in a box) systems. But what he fails to take note of is that in a centralized operation it is possible to have entire spare air chains (CIABs) which can quickly replace any failed channel, and also allow for orderly system maintenance. CIAB systems operating in a local "cloud" infrastructure become highly flexible. Centralizing bulk storage is considerably more efficient use of capital, and lends itself to archive management that is similarly more efficient and able to scale more easily. In short a well thought out centralization plan offers public broadcasters the best of all worlds. More efficient use of capital, higher degree of redundancy, freedom to use staff labor to create more compelling content instead of long hours watching the automation log, and a natural path to sharing regionally created content in collaboration with other stations. As with any change, the fear of technological change is often worse than embracing it and making change work on your behalf. John Luff, Consultant to PBS stations, and SMPTE Fellow

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