Canadian-TV uses a Leitch centralized broadcast system in its control room.
Broadcasting margins have become razor thin. Cash flow is king, and the management at many group broadcasters struggles to find ways to lower costs.
Lowering labor costs likely means eliminating or combining jobs. The obvious model of how to increase cash flow is consolidation, which has happened in radio. Hundreds of radio stations that used to operate independently, with staff working around the clock, now operate as part of a centralized operations model, often unattended with local commercial insertion by automation.
Television suffers from different parameters, which govern the practicality of centralized operations. Bandwidth costs money. Radio interconnection can be done with only 5 percent of the bandwidth that broadcast-quality video takes. The struggle is to balance the increased interconnection cost against the reduction in labor, which should accrue by moving many jobs in many sites to a centralized operations center. The concept is to use a reduced number of people to monitor and control multiple stations.
Early approaches to centralized operations had interconnection to a master site using DS-3 circuits. A facility in LA provided central assembly of the output streams for more than a dozen stations located as far away as the East Coast. They planned to provide diversely routed redundant interconnection. The math is not easy. Multiple DS-3s cost a small fortune every month, especially the ones that run coast to coast. A master control operator might cost about the same as the local connection on one end of a DS-3 per month. Add the long line cost and the second local loop cost, and you must save several people to make it worthwhile to install the lines. Add to that the cost of building the centralized facility, which replaces local hardware, and it is clear there is a large hurdle to overcome — unless creative engineering is applied.
Modern technology has facilitated the possibility in many potential models, varying from simple remote control to sophisticated approaches, such as distributed broadcasting.
The NY Times stations started using the remote control approach several years ago. Simply put, the stations retain all of their infrastructure. The hub site simply takes control of the automation and returns a monitoring feed to the hub. At low bit rates and modest quality, the hub can see nearly live return video. It can switch to backup paths, control the transmitter and complete many other necessary tasks.
A T-1, or even fractional T-1, is all that is needed, which cuts the data interconnection cost dramatically, by perhaps 90 percent. Bought on a national contract for multiple circuits, T-1 can easily be reduced to less than $500 per month for each circuit. Distance costs may increase the total.
The technical systems amount to something as simple as remote control of the automation PC from the hub and a simple monitoring station. One group broadcaster has operated several stations from a room less than 400sq ft, with a hardware implementation that cost less than $1 million for all systems combined.
Take the case of a group operation for five stations. Let's assume for sake of argument that it takes 10 people to run five stations full-time. If a master control operator costs about $40,000 annually, it is easy to see that if you can reduce the staff by five people, the net labor savings can be substantial. (See Table 1.)
Table 1. Potential cost savings of remote control broadcast. Click here to see an enlarged diagram.
The net savings are enough to make a clear business case over the life of the depreciation; the net savings makes the ROI a scrape more than 100 percent. However, there are risks. For instance, you may not be able to produce as clean and crisp on-air look and might lose some viewers. There may be more make-goods, reducing the net savings. But to reverse the decision, the risks would have to cost a lot of money.
This has been an effective operations model for McGraw-Hill, NY Times and others. But it is not likely to work well in Manhattan or LA, where the risk of loss of spots is high. In those cases, distributed broadcasting might work better.
Distributed broadcasting is intended to scale up to large size and produce a more reliable technical infrastructure. The concept is simple: Leave the existing station largely in tact if it is digital and can be remote-controlled. If it's not, put in the minimum amount of new hardware that is possible, but keep the network feeds that are locally received exactly as they are.
Commonly syndicated programming is received and ingested into a server at the hub and is timed and prepped for air. That content is then pushed to servers at all of the stations. The station operates with local automation, remotely monitored as with the remote-control model. Because there is no need to locally ingest syndicated programming, the only local content that must be acquired are local spots. These could be sent directly from the stations to the hub over low-speed data links using video e-mail appliances, which are readily available and could be operated from the traffic department at the station.
This model is capable of further reducing the local station staffing. The capital cost is higher for servers and other interconnection hardware. The bandwidth requirements are potentially higher depending on the amount of programming to be transferred over the data infrastructure from the hub to the stations. But still, the programming runs from local servers, not from a remote site. By eliminating the need for any local recording, there is better control over ingest of material, likely resulting in fewer make goods.
Centralizing business operations
Although not a commercial station, PBS has championed a version of this approach called ACE. It allows affiliates to be unmanned, even outsourcing the monitoring and control to PBS in Alexandria, VA. Several stations have agreed to implement exactly this approach, which uses nearly identical systems at all stations to allow monitoring and remote troubleshooting to be done in the most efficient manner. A simplification of the same approach, which also uses store-and-forward techniques, is under consideration by PBS for replacement of their real-time network with non-real-time delivery to all affiliates. The technology is much the same, though high-speed data would be transferred in an IP multicast from Alexandria to all stations.
Other group broadcasters are considering a hybrid model using nearly the same hardware that this would require. At least one case consideration is being given to IP delivery over satellite, using the same DVB S2 modulation. By encapsulating the IP as MPEG and delivering this by using standardized MPEG delivery platforms, the complex design is simplified.
In addition to the more sexy master control centralization often considered, it is important to look at the opportunities to centralize traffic, promotions and other portions of the operation that are not bandwidth hogs like video. More than one group has moved all traffic to corporate headquarters, with station traffic and sales personnel accessing the applications over thin clients. Marginal labor savings accumulate as fewer people are needed to manage a large multi-station traffic operation than one at each site. Similarly, moving promotions production to a central location and delivering it with either traditional freight or file transfer technology can be attractive. The look and feel of promotions is standardized, and donuts produced from one station can be re-purposed for many more efficiently.
We may not like the dynamics of the economy we work in, but there is little on the horizon that will materially improve the problems with cash flow. As the regulatory environment and competition put more pressure on broadcasters, we will see an inexorable move to centralization, like it or not.
John Luff is the senior vice president of business development for AZCAR.
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