Redefining Local News
There is a digital revolution in television, one that has very little to do with HDTV. This one has to do with newsflow, and the way Sinclair Broadcast Group is using an IT model to slash the cost of news production by about half.
For example, take the "non-rash" of shark attacks last summer. In traditional broadcast fashion, Sinclair might have had 30-some stations across the country-cutting pieces from the same two minutes of footage. In the brave new world, they would do the story once and beam it out to the stations. In keeping with the efficiency it represents, this operation is dubbed News Central. The concept itself is nothing new. News Central is to Sinclair stations what the Associated Press is to just about every newspaper in the nation that doesn't run family picnic news. It's just a way of eliminating repetition, made feasible by the simultaneous rise of video compression capabilities and Internet technologies.
"This is a national news bureau," said Joe DeFeo, Sinclair's corporate news director, gesturing toward a cube farm at company headquarters in Hunt Valley, MD. Only in the Net age could this facility be considered a national news bureau. Situated in a relatively new building in a relatively new industrial park, near a homey strip of businesses in a 'burb north of Baltimore, it's not exactly a stroll to any of the political or financial centers of the world.
The cube farm comprises 14 Avid NewsCutter-equipped, 2-GB Dell Pentium 4 computers, with six more ready to come on-line, plus about a dozen Avid iNews stations, all networked via an Avid Unity server. The occasional linear content is handled in a couple of nearby tape editing rooms. Three Pathfires comprise the engine of national news acquisition from various sources, including CNN News Source, AP, and a remote studio at The Washington Times for live interviews.
"We have access to almost everything out there, plus news content that we generate in the 39 markets we are active in, butted up against many more for regional event coverage," said Mark Aitken, director of advanced technology for Sinclair.
Just like any traditional newsroom, the daily cycle begins with an editorial meeting-only this one is a teleconference linking staff in Hunt Valley with Flint, MI, Rochester, NY, Raleigh, NC, Oklahoma City, OK, Pittsburgh, PA, Baltimore, MD, and other cities as they come on-line. (Those will include Greensboro, NC, Tampa, FL, Milwaukee, WI, Birmingham, AL, Las Vegas, NV, and Cincinnati, OH by the end of September.)
The editors discuss what's going on locally and how to coordinate it, if possible, with the national issues of the day. Then they go about the chore of gathering material and getting it to the mother ship in Hunt Valley, where it will be edited, packaged, and fed back to the News Central stations.
The Sum Of Its Parts
All News Central stations are linked on a WAN with a backbone of three OC3s (345-Mbps bundled T1s) and fiber-connected hubs in St. Louis, MO, and Columbus, OH for distribution of bit-heavy content such as syndies. (Austin, TX-based Broadwing is Sinclair's primary pipe provider.) A handful of the non-News Central stations have a minimum of two T1s.
The WAN connects about 40 Telestream ClipMail Pros, enabling Sinclair to distribute video clips, promos, and bumpers, and receive local footage from the field at a transfer rate of 8Mbps-about three minutes for every minute of video. A Telestream FlipFactory Traffic Manager is used at Hunt Valley to track and manage the content, store it locally on the Unity, or convert the format if necessary for delivery to various Pinnacle and Leitch servers at the stations.
Using AccuWeather Galileo systems, weather segments tailored for each News Central market are pre-recorded shortly before each live broadcast and sent to stations as an MPEG file via the Telestreams.
Back at the cube farm, material is edited for incorporation into the live newscast shot in Hunt Valley. The studio, roughly 40 x 40 feet, is equipped with three Thomson Grass Valley 16:9/4:3 switchable TK1707 cameras that are outfitted with Vinten, Radamec, and Telemetrics robotics and Fujinon lenses. The control room features a Thomson Grass Valley Zodiak switcher, a Wheatstone SP-8 audio board, a Pinnacle Deko CG, and disk recorders from Doremi Labs. The tech core includes the Pathfires and a Thomson Grass Valley 128 x 128 Concerto. A 600kW Caterpillar UPS generator provides back-up power for the operation. EASi dishes and Wegener receivers make up the bulk of the satellite system.
At the evening hours of 6, 9, 10, and 11 p.m., Hunt Valley and its dozen or so News Central stations launch identically timed one-hour news wheel newscasts. Of the 44 minutes of airtime, 18 minutes are produced locally, featuring the trademark News Central graphics and look so that material out of Hunt Valley doesn't seem to appear out of thin air-even though it does.
The Cost Of Local News
News Central is a growing operation. Since launching the endeavor last October with Fox affiliate WSMH in Flint, MI, Sinclair had just five News Central stations by July. Within two months, six more would be added. Currently, out of the company's 62 stations in 31 markets, 31 carry news in 26 markets. Sinclair has indicated its intention to launch News Central in a majority, if not all, of its stations. The journey isn't cheap. Sinclair spent $6 million alone on the IT heart of News Central. Company officials declined to fess up their average investment for a local News Central facility, but published reports price the start-up operation in Flint at around $2.5 million.
Sinclair also won't talk specifics about how much stations spend on news, only to say that a News Central overhaul cuts the amount in half. So if a station with a traditional operation has a news budget of $1.4 million a year, and Sinclair upgrades it for that amount, the whole thing is paid for in two years.
Station groups love the idea. Sinclair has politely turned away spies from high-profile media companies, some of which are spanking Sinclair publicly in their print outlets, because, well, spanking Sinclair is popular.
First of all, there's president and CEO David Smith, who wouldn't know how to mince words with a meat grinder. Who mapped out a business plan based on COFDM and multicasting. Who started building a WAN for just that business plan, and found a use for it in the interim by doing centralized news. That darned David Smith.
Additionally, Sinclair is ramping up News Central smack dab in the midst of class warfare over media consolidation. The News Central model has come under fire for diminishing "localism" at a time when localism is the new political war cry against deregulation. Ten minutes ago, when deregulation was hip, legislators happily bestowed it upon the radio industry-paving the way for Clear Channel to eat the world-or at least 1,100 radio stations. Now deregulation is passZ, and anything associated with it (and not paid for by Rupert Murdoch) is known as "Clear Channelization."
In July, Sinclair had to offer up its vice president and general counsel, Barry Faber, to Senator John McCain's (R-AZ) Commerce Committee to defend Sinclair against further Clear Channelization of the media world. The Washington Post ran a piece referring to News Central as "somewhat Orwellian." In general, coverage of News Central has inferred that it compromises journalistic integrity in the name of profit.
DeFeo is not sure how. News Central economics are such that Sinclair can do newscasts at stations that never had newscasts before. Centralcasting also frees up stations to devote more time to local stories.
"The idea is that local news comes from here, and that's not true," he said, adding, "In a traditional news hour, you would get 30 minutes of local news and 30 minutes from New York. We're just doing that here."
Sinclair is also getting negative local press for the very crux of its efficiencies-layoffs. A mid-market station with a traditional news operation requires a staff of around 40. With News Central, it's 20. A TV station that cuts 20 jobs in a mid-sized market generates newspaper coverage sprinkled with the verb "ax." Newspaper editors love the word "ax" because it has only two letters, which can be made very big in headlines. Less frequently does the word "hiring" appear in 48-point type. But in the long run, Sinclair will indeed hire far more people than are laid off in the News Central transition.
At Hunt Valley alone, 55 jobs have been added. Across all stations, a net total of 200 jobs will be added by the end of 2003, many requiring a hybrid skill set that includes serious computer network savvy.
"You can't just hire a video engineer," said Aitken. "Video engineering by its very nature has turned into IT. If an engineer doesn't have that IT skill set, he's totally lost in this environment." Memo to editors and readers of TV engineering magazines...
Deborah D. McAdams is a contributing editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can't have a conversation with a broadcast vendor these days without hearing the phrase "creating efficiencies." Every station, large and small, is caught between digital capital spending and unrealized ROI, so creating efficiencies is now de rigueur. IT-based systems that consolidate work functions are gaining ground.
Since ParkerVision installed its first PVTV system in 1998, about 50 more have been delivered. The PVTV system essentially networks all control-room functions to a single-user interface, which can be a combination of a keyboard and mouse and possibly a foot pedal. Customized single-key functions are built in, e.g., 160 "late-breaking-news" keys. The Windows NT-based PVTV system is compatible with components from nearly 30 vendors, and runs anywhere from $150,000 to $800,000, depending on the scale of the installation, which requires around six months from order to on-air, according to Tom McGowan, vice president of sales and marketing for ParkerVision.
A more recent entry into control-room IT is Broadcast Pix, with a Windows 2000-based, single-operator system. Introduced this year at NAB, the first Broadcast Pix install came in late July. Broadcast Pix chairman Ken Swanton believes his company's system has several advantages over other IT control-room systems, including the fact that the interface is a traditional control panel. "When you're doing live production, you don't have a lot of time to futz around with a mouse," he said. The Broadcast Pix system is more of a control room in a box, with a DD, CG, Pinnacle DVS, stillstore, logo store, and several other functions built in, all for $19,850. So IT-centric is the Broadcast Pix that a network jack on the box allows for remote function, meaning that someone could control cameras for a cable-access channel from home.