In the spring of 1999, centralcasting was barely a blip on broadcasters' radar screens. Back then, the Ackerley Group, a nationwide media and entertainment company that was acquired by Clear Channel Communications in 2002, deployed a revolutionary and unique concept to streamline its regional operations and improve programming quality. It built a master control center capable of airing commercials and programming for all its individual stations in the surrounding communities.
The first implementation of this model, trademarked as Digital CentralCasting by the Ackerley Group, was installed in July 1999. The system was designed as a significant timesaver, a way to eliminate the modus operandi of duplicating the workload across station groups.
Using WSYR-TV (then known as WIXT) in Syracuse, NY, as the hub, the group harnessed the power of a central video server and automaton technology to service a cluster of television stations located miles from the ABC affiliate. Initially, three sites, — Utica, Rochester and Binghamton — defined the cluster with master control in Syracuse at WSYR, but through attrition and acquisitions, that number has grown to seven dispersed throughout upstate New York.
The first steps involved selecting the automation, traffic and video server, which are centralized in WSYR's facility. Sundance Digital's FastBreak Automation was chosen as the heart of the solution, controlling all the stations from the Syracuse hub. The FastBreak package also included SalesView, an option that permits the sales, traffic and promotions departments to view selected video server content at their desks. In addition, the station purchased VCI's STARS II+ traffic application and a SeaChange Broadcast MediaCluster video server.
In the beginning, fitting all the pieces together was somewhat difficult. It was imperative that the software and hardware partners bought into the concept and cooperated with one another. There was a great deal of software debugging and a significant learning curve for the operators. Weekly conversations helped all the vendors to work through the challenges and concerns and develop resolutions.
Checks-and-balance procedures were implemented to ensure accuracy. Discrepancy reports were reviewed on a daily basis, and solutions were developed, tested and evaluated until there was a satisfactory resolution. CentralCasting was a testing ground that allowed companies to progress individually through a joint effort.
All the equipment had to be delivered and installed at the same time for it to work. Once everything arrived, the room was set up, all the puzzle pieces tied together and the system launched in the background. Running the new system in parallel with the old system permitted operators to become familiar with the new technology and practices as bugs were eliminated. It was definitely a learning curve for the station's broadcast veterans.
All six cluster stations are interconnected to WSYR via dedicated fiber-optic networks that carry programming and commercials from Syracuse to each remote master control room. To handle the demands of local news and sports production, each remote station is capable of taking direct control of the FastBreak user interface.
Over the last seven years, stations were added to the cluster, and overall performance has increased as the operation matured. Operators are now more educated and familiar with how things work, and the systems themselves have improved.
The SeaChange server's capacity was increased to accommodate more commercials and long-form content. The Sundance Digital automation computers were upgraded to faster CPUs as processing speeds increased, and the company provided software upgrades as its own technology advanced.
These improvements have all contributed to the success of the Digital CentralCasting solution.
John King is regional director of engineering for NEG CCTV.