Technology, Creativity, & The Bottom Line

We techies love new gear for its own sake. Meanwhile, our bosses have a business to run. A business fraught with tight margins and splintering audiences.

At November’s SMPTE Technical Conference in New York City, there was a networking session that showed how some of the gear we love might also appeal to our bosses. Representatives from Tribune Broadcasting, NBC, PBS, SignaSys, and Time Warner Cable’s Local News Group explained how they used IT to lower costs, create a more efficient workflow, and improve the product.

A core of commodity-priced IT equipment (computers, servers, storage, routing, and networking) surrounded by a thin layer of video/audio I/O gear was a common thread in all the presentations. Less reliance on VCRs lowered tape costs and reduced maintenance. But most importantly, networks enabled workflow changes.
Ira Goldstone, Tribune Broadcasting’s vice president of engineering, said they wanted to break down the barriers between islands such as news, editing, and graphics within a station and between stations. The vision was to move creation to the desktop with a centralized system for ingesting, converting, and managing files.

Sixty-five percent of Tribune’s news graphics are now created by producers with templates at the desktop. Eighty percent of news editing is done by journalists at the desktop. Craft editing is limited to complex pieces. Displaced editors have been redeployed to the field to shoot more footage. And content is readily shared between stations.

NBC wanted to improve graphics production for its 14 stations and Telemundo. They began by identifying operations that didn’t add value. Here, too, templates carry a majority of the load. The remainder—complex graphics, animations, and new templates—are ordered by producers from their desktops, prepared by a team of 30 artists at NBC’s new ArtHouse in Fort Worth, and uploaded back to the station.

Savings came from less expensive equipment, shared content, and fewer, more productive workers. But Richard Wescott, technology vice president for NBC Stations, cautions that while making these savings, “You don’t want to hurt your business. You want to improve quality...and give stations the facilities and technology they need to succeed.”

What are some creative advantages? WGN can now drag and drop forest-fire footage from KTLA’s database without bothering the KTLA staff already up to their necks in other projects. NBC stations are using an average of six times more graphics with animations and moving backgrounds they didn’t have before. Reporters can file from virtually anywhere with laptops and sat phones.

Reaping benefits requires careful planning. IT wasn’t designed for video. This isn’t just centralization and plugging into a business network and the Internet. Network design and security are major concerns. Each station is different. But, as Pinnacle Systems’ Al Kovalick says, “You have a lot of flexibility. You can sweet-talk IT into working really well in networked media systems if you obey the rules properly.” Much of SMPTE’s standards work these days is aimed at defining those rules.