Cowles Consolidates Operations

Seeking to lower capital and operating costs and improve on-air product, Cowles California Media Group has consolidated control of six of its TV stations, implemented the latest in traffic and automation, and shifted from tape to a file-based workflow throughout its broadcast operations, including news.

To tackle this massive undertaking, Cowles enlisted Advanced Broadcast Solutions (ABS), a Seattle-based systems integrator to design and build the new centralized master control infrastructure alongside existing operations, then seamlessly switched them over without jeopardizing on-air signals. The entire project was completed within 15 weeks, finishing up in January.


Today, traffic and master control for CBS affiliate KION-DT, KCBA-DT (Fox 35) and KMUV-LP (Telemundo Channel 23), serving the Salinas/Monterrey market, are handled at Cowles' "hub" facility in Salinas. KION-DT also offers The CW as a "dot two" (Channel 46.2) service.

Traffic and master control for Cowles California Media Group channels in Salinas and Santa Maria are handled through a hub facility in Salinas. The Salinas facility also handles traffic and master control for KCOY-DT (CBS 12), and KKFX (Fox 11), which is carried on KCOY's dot two channel—both of which are broadcast from Cowles' satellite facility hundreds of miles away in Santa Maria, Calif.

In mid-2008, Cowles acquired KION, KCBA, and KMUV in Salinas, and KCOY/KKVX, in Santa Maria, from Clear Channel Communications. At the time of the acquisition, Clear Channel's KBAK-DT in Bakersfield remotely controlled the Santa Maria operation, but since KBAK was not part of the deal, Cowles needed to decide how best to handle master control of Santa Maria.

"Based upon a feasibility study by ABS, we determined that the cost of building and staffing standalone master control rooms at each station could not be justified," said Paul Dughi, president of Cowles California Media Group. "However, by centralizing and automating control of all six stations in Salinas, we greatly reduced our capital and operating costs, advanced our on-air look with widescreen SDTV and HDTV, and eliminated the inefficiencies and technical errors that hurt the bottom line."

Rather than take a push-only approach, with content moving one-way from Salinas to Santa Maria, ABS built in "disaster recovery" so that Santa Maria could survive independently if the lifeline between the two sites was ever severed. Santa Maria can also assume control of Salinas if a disaster knocked that master control room off the air.

"On the first day that this new centralized master control went into operation, we had a power failure at the Salinas facility that lasted 30 minutes," said Dughi. "Since Santa Maria's content resided on its local servers, which continued to be fired by automation, the programming continued and viewers were unaware that there was a failure of any kind." Whenever the connection is broken, Santa Maria can continue to operate on its own for up to eight hours.

Salinas and Santa Maria are connected via a dedicated, 45 Mbps DS3 circuit. All programming, commercials, and other content are prepped and ingested in Salinas for all of the stations, and then put onto an Omneon ProCast server which then automatically transfers the files—for shows that two or more stations share in common—via the IP-based DS3 circuit directly to the other Omneon ProCast server in Santa Maria for play-out.

The renovation allowed Cowles to negotiate a better rate on its dedicated DS3 circuit, reducing the company's monthly payments from $9,000 to $5,000. "At the start of the project, we did an ROI analysis of their operating overhead, and determined that the ROI would likely be tremendous," said Mark Siegel, president of ABS. "Much of the savings would stem from implementing automation tools and training the staff to use them properly. Further savings would result from discontinuing use of their bank of 28 videotape machines and one small SeaChange server for commercials, and adopting a fully server-based, file-based workflow."

Since the Salinas facility already had a satellite farm, syndicated programming is received there on a Pathfire server, which automatically flips the shows to the Omneon server, which in turn sends the files to Santa Maria. Since there is a CBS and Fox station in both markets, the facility was able to save time and labor by doing the prep work once in an automated fashion with the Avid Sundance Titan automation system handling play-out to air.

"Operators in Salinas handle the traffic, master control, automation, signal monitoring, and content management on behalf of Santa Maria," said Mark Warner, vice president of business operations for ABS. "But when it comes to live sports, we do need to have an operator sitting in Santa Maria because the only way to know when a game is going to a commercial is to watch it and then manually trigger commercial play-out in realtime. This is because Salinas and Santa Maria are two different sports markets, and the stations often carry different games even though they're affiliates of the same network."

Prior to this facility overhaul, the traffic and master control departments operated as independent fiefdoms. Traffic would send out the log as a text file but it wasn't in a format that the automation system could read.

"Every day, master control needed to take that text file and convert it for use by their automation system," said Adam Perez, chief engineer for the Salinas stations. "As a result, it would often be missing triggers and macro events. The operators would then have to spend more time massaging the log to find problems and correct them. Now the responsibility for creating operations logs for the entire group has moved upstream to traffic. The logs—created using VCI Traffic—are now being issued in a format Titan automation can read and execute automatically."

The company also cut costs in multiviewer monitoring because it didn't have to tie up I/Os on the router to feed the monitor wall displays. The Evertz VIPX multi-image display system resides on daughter boards inside the Evertz 3-Gigabit Xenon multiformat router. Both facilities have multiviewer displays for signal monitoring. These routing systems are controlled by a Grass Valley Jupiter CM-4000 router and facility control system, which controls next-gen equipment as well as legacy SD and analog gear. The routing infrastructure includes Evertz VistaLINK Pro processing cards for signal monitoring.


Concurrent with the master control renovation, an upgrade of the news plant for both facilities required transitioning to 12 new Panasonic P2 HD cameras, divvied up between the two facilities. The newsroom package also included a file-based Bitcentral Precis news production system, with Grass Valley Edius nonlinear online editors—all MOS-connected to the AP ENPS newsroom computer system.

Now the stations offer live local news in 16:9 SD, with some HD production elements, but all is upconverted to HD for broadcast. In the future, local newscasts will be fully HD.

ABS designed the newsrooms so that they could use the DS3 circuit to go live between Salinas and Santa Maria; share news stories and weather reports with each other; and even produce each other's newscasts if desired.

Claudia Kienzle