Solving the TV station hardware dilemma

Positioned midway between NAB Shows, the HD World show in New York gives some indication of which way the broadcast economy is headed. A few days after exhibiting at the show, Shawn Maynard, vice president and general manager of Florical, shared some thoughts about master control. He sees two themes running through the current thinking about broadcast automation systems: the station-in-a-box and central casting. Neither of these ideas is new, but the pressure to constrain both capital and operational spending is leading broadcast groups to revisit them.

“Single stations are not making the buying decisions; decisions are now made at the corporate level. Even for groups that used to allow stations to be autonomous, that is no longer the case. The single-channel sale is a thing of the past; it’s group sales now,” Maynard said. “Centralization is coming back as a conversation because of the station-in-a-box technology … The capital investment is much lower than five years ago. Not only are fiber costs dropping, but improved compression lower bandwidth demands. These things change the economics of centralization.”

The pressure is on to complete the process of HD conversion for stations that currently only air HD content from the network. A recent change is that broadcasters now trust the station-in-a-box. “The lower cost of stations-in-a-box means that a group can do HD conversion along with centralization. They can get benefit from the HD conversion, reduce head count and get some savings,” Maynard said.

There are two models for centralization. One is for all playback to happen at the station level, but to have remote operation of the station-in-a-box from the central location. The other route is to broadcast live over fiber from the central location to all the group stations.

Local commercials can be inserted at the station, just like the cable station model. The alternate model is to ingest at the station and fiber them up to the central operation with reverse bandwidth on the fiber used for file transfer. “More stations are using central ingest. QC once to check the timings and metadata,” Maynard said.

“Stations are looking to get a channel on-air at prices around $150,000, whereas it used to cost $1 million. If the station-in-a-box offers the same quality as a $1 million system but only costs $150,000, then we are going to go there … My prediction is that if an automation company does not have a station-in-a-box solution in 2011, their chances of survival are pretty low,” Maynard said.

According to Maynard, 95 percent of Florical’s deals now are with Acuitas, its single-box solution. “Only 5 percent want their own server,” he said.

One of the spin-offs from improved MPEG-2 compression techniques was the possibility to carry subchannels muxed with the primary channel. “I have seen the interest in subchannels die down; stations are not seeing the return,” Maynard said. “They need to get a subchannel up for less than $50,000, including adding the branding.” Florical’s Acuitas has two channels of playout in one box, so the equipment cost of adding the subchannel is small.

Looking forward to the 2011 NAB Show, Maynard said, “We will be making announcements around the Acuitas station-in-a-box product.”

Florical stepped up to the station-in-a-box concept back in 2006 with Acuitas. This two-channel playout appliance runs the AirBoss software and uses off-the-shelf IT components. It can be partnered with a similar chassis for ingest application, running ShowTimer, MediaFiler and MediaTimer. The Acuitas ships with the HP G7 platform.