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Facility Upgrades

It is one of the immutable rules of broadcasting that only wet babies welcome change. Broadcasters, on the other hand, view change as an unwelcome visitor, something that will interfere with the relentless demands of staying on the air and producing programming. When change entails a redesign and upgrade of the physical plant, it can quickly and easily exceed the capabilities of most broadcasters, particularly in this age of downsized engineering departments.

Nevertheless, change is inevitable in the technology-intensive world of television, particularly in view of the growing popularity of HDTV, new opportunities in the brave new world of webcasting, video on iPods and other emerging digital content distribution “channels,” and the government’s mandated switch to digital broadcasting in 2009. So what do you do when you can’t delay change any longer, when the time comes that top management dictates that your station prepare itself to fully participate in the age of DTV? Do you do it yourself and tackle the task of upgrading the facility with in-house resources, or do you seek outside help?

THE CHOICE
It can seem like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: to redesign and upgrade your TV station, satellite uplink center or post-production facility. “We can handle this in-house,” a capable chief engineer may reason. “We know what we’re doing, we have the skills necessary and we don’t need outside people telling us what to do.”

Although it’s true that nobody understands a facility better than the technical and operations professionals responsible for keeping it running day-to-day, burdening those same professionals with the task of redesigning and upgrading their facility can easily turn into a nightmare once they’re deep into the process.

Consider: the demands of their existing jobs won’t go away. Also, the maxim that “the devil’s in the details” is never truer than when an inherently technical project is involved. Add to this the fact that the facility must also be future-proofed with new and unfamiliar technologies the in-house staff may not be aware of. When your core business is to stay on the air and “sell eyeballs” or production services, the distraction of getting your hands (extremely) dirty with a do-it-yourself facility upgrade makes little business sense. What do you want your engineering department to be doing: keeping you on the air and making money or being diverted trying to design and build a new facility?

It’s also impractical to hire a staff for a facility upgrade, use them for a year, and then have to let them go when the job is done. As with any endeavor involving a move into unknown territory, it instead makes sense to seek out the expertise of those who have already been there or who do full-time what you’re looking to accomplish. Accountants, MIS consultants, auto mechanics, airplane pilots, architects and other specialists prove this is true on a daily basis. There’s no shame in acknowledging that you don’t know everything—nobody does; who has the time? Outside expertise is also a good way to shine when the job is done and you’re taking the credit.

COLLABORATION IS KEY
Bringing in an outside consulting firm that specializes in facility upgrades—and that stays abreast of all the new media and communications technologies—can help avoid major expense and headaches later on. The key is to find expert consulting firms that specialize in listening to what you have to say and who start your upgrade process by asking a lot of questions about what you want to accomplish.

As mentioned earlier, nobody understands a facility better than the professionals who run it. But how often do you stop and take stock? What are the technical limits at your station or facility that most need to be overcome? Has your station group mandated adoption of a particular HD format? Are you finding that your IT network is growing in importance, and that USB, Ethernet, or FireWire connections are supplementing traditional video routing? Has your news department chosen a tapeless camcorder format, and if so, how will it integrate into your news editing and archiving system? Does IPTV (Internet protocol television) figure into your future business plan? What are your physical space requirements and needs in terms of HVAC, cable management and electrical power? What kind of budget limits are you being faced with amid your facility re-design? And—most important—where do you see your business in five years?

Even if you can’t answer all of these questions now, getting started in thinking about them is crucial to long-term survival. Working with experts who know what questions to ask—and whose sole job is to design, build and future-proof television and other media-production facilities—enables you to benefit from the advantages of their hard-won experience and knowledge. Such an expert consultant becomes, in effect, a collaborator in your redesign/rebuild project. This collaborator does more than what can simply be called “facility design and integration.” In this age of digital television and new media they’re best described as strategic media technology consultants and they have a keen understanding of business processes as well.

As these consultants pursue discussion of your needs in order to fully understand the needs of your redesign, a give-and-take exchange occurs in which your requirements are reviewed, other similar facility experiences are compared and the consultant’s expertise in leading-edge technologies are integrated into your business plan. It’s an expertise constantly sharpened by the consultant’s practice of sending its people to new-technology conferences and workshops on a regular basis. Sharpest of all is the knowledge the strategic technology consultant has acquired after building their twentieth HDTV facility during the course of a two-year period; they have the experiential advantage of knowing how to get such jobs accomplished. And you can check their references and visit the facilities they’ve upgraded.

As an outside entity, a strategic technology consultant is in the best position to help its clients reach a consensus of their business needs and impartially moderate among competing in-house demands. The news department will have its own requirements, while the same will be true of engineering, the promo department, sales, etc. Like the wet-baby analogy at the beginning of this article, another immutable rule of broadcasting learned from years of strategic media-technology consulting is that the news or sports department will use all available resources, plus 10%. It’s a lesson learned from years in the strategic technology consulting business and it’s better to know it before the upgrade process begins, as opposed to after.

You should also make sure that the consultant/collaborator is an independent organization and not beholden to any particular equipment manufacturer or technology provider. The technology recommendations the consultant makes for you must be based on your needs, not on their need to promote a particular brand or proprietary system they may have a vested interest in.

STAYING ON SCHEDULE
Facility upgrade clients get the best results when a select team of their own people work closely with the strategic media technology consulting organization, as well as the architects, electrical and mechanical engineers—and, if necessary, acousticians, interior designers and technology solutions providers—that the consultants bring in. Real business needs are examined and then facility systems are designed based on those needs. Most importantly, this design takes into account the needs of keeping the day-to-day operation going.

As an external body, strategic media technology consultants have the experience, real-world contemporaneous knowledge and the ability to devote their uninterrupted attention to the task of managing the upgrade project. This knowledge can include everything from obtaining crucial information from specialized sources at the right times and devising specific solutions as they’re needed, to understanding how to manage the logistics when the time comes to actually put the project together. For example, how are you going to decommission one area while you build an entirely new one?

Such outside help can actually save the client millions of dollars. With proper planning, clients can save the strategic media technology consultants’ fee multiple times over simply by doing things correctly and on schedule.

Ed Hobson is the Vice President of National TeleConsultants (www.ntc.com) and the President of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers.