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Gray Model tech strategy delivers efficiency, consistency, quality, says Ocon

As one of the nation's largest owner of stations in mid-size markets, Gray Television Group identified the benefit of deploying a common cost-effective, automated workflow across all of its stations.

To meet this challenge, Gray VP of technology Jim Ocon established a new technology strategy he calls the Gray Model. Already deployed in 19 of its 36 stations spread throughout college towns and state capitols, the approach fully integrates with existing workflows and automation processes.

The Gray Model, which is being rolled out at additional stations each quarter, allows the station group to implement a centralized hub of resources and technology quickly with a single graphics system across its entire network.

"When we're relaunching our stations, we don't have the luxury of a six- or nine-month launch period," said Ocon. "We're looking to get it down to 12 weeks or less. So having a powerful but simplified graphics package we can rely upon is key. "

As the cornerstone of Gray's new technology, Ocon chose a MOS system based on the Viz Engine, Vizrt's graphics renderer. Gray's automated production control and master control rooms also incorporate Viz Artist animation and design software, automation-driven Viz Trio for character generation, Viz Content Pilot for content management, Viz Ticker for news ticker creation and Viz Multichannel for channel branding automated graphics playout.

Traditionally, station graphics production has used separate artists to render and operators to manage the graphics, with each station having its own dedicated staff. Employing Vizrt's products within the Gray Model enables the broadcaster to create a more efficient central hub, while also giving individual stations autonomy and control over their work. Ocon has used Gray's Omaha station WOWT as his pilot site for much of the system testing and development that the station group then deploys at other stations throughout the network.

"We have three artists who work on Vizrt packages, creating graphic templates for all of the stations," said Vic Richards, director of Promotion and Media Production at WOWT. "Each template has a similar functionality and look. Our stations use these templates on a daily basis simply by filling them in. Because the basic design is already approved, the graphics just need to be checked locally for content, to make sure everything is spelled correctly."

Not only is it easier for the stations to achieve consistency within each broadcast, but the graphics are also consistent with the other affiliates in the network to better reinforce the Gray brand.

This hub strategy has made dramatic changes in the newsroom, studio production and automation — not just in workflows, but in staff assignments as well, said Richards. "In a traditional system, an artist takes requests from the newsroom and physically builds the graphics. During the newscast, the CG operator advances them. Now, control of graphics production is actually in the hands of the newsroom staff, which builds its own graphics using the templates.

"Then the Ross OverDrive automation system triggers the graphics during the newscast, essentially taking the place of the CG operator. Everything's rendered in the graphics card, on the fly, the moment it hits the air. Vizrt allows one person to do everything," Richards said.

One of Ocon's major concerns is ensuring that Gray's stations are properly trained on the new system. When a station upgrades to the Vizrt system, Gray designates a technician at that station for three days of Vizrt training as a "super user."

During two additional days of training for members of the production and news team, users are taught how to fill in the graphics templates. "We've found that the five-day program is really all each station requires," Richards said. "And now that we're about three years into bringing the stations online, we're having more people at the stations with super-user skills. So we're using those people as additional support for other stations."

The hub strategy has greatly reduced the redundancy of effort at Gray Television Group.

"We can focus our best talents in the network at creating the template packages, customized for any station in any market," Ocon said. "Stations don't need to have someone on site to create those daily graphics, just someone who can populate the template and then get them to air. So, that really helps their workflow. Once they're comfortable using the technology, the templates have the flexibility to let them stretch their wings a little bit creatively."

This means that even the smallest stations in the Gray network can employ graphics that are as sophisticated as those at the larger stations. "That's one of the biggest things we get feedback on. A Grand Junction can look like a Knoxville. And our viewers are very impressed," he said.