The Centralization Of CHUM

From its earliest days, Toronto’s Citytv has watched its pennies. For instance, when Citytv-79 launched on September 28, 1972, its original 30kW ERP UHF signal was too weak for most Torontonians to receive off-air. But they could get it on cable TV, because Citytv had cleverly located its tower within reach of the local cable company’s TVRO site.

Citytv lived on a shoestring until 1978, when it was acquired by CHUM Limited, owner of a number of Canadian radio stations. Since then, the company’s CHUM Television division has grown to 31 broadcast and cable/satellite specialty TV stations. However, the same thriftiness that helped get Citytv into Toronto living rooms lives on at CHUM Television, albeit in a much more sophisticated and technologically advanced manner.

Centralization is King at CHUM Thanks to a number of station acquisitions in Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia, CHUM Television is now a national presence in Canada. Yet, despite the fact, the company manages to keep everything running with just four master control operations in Toronto, Calgary, Portage La Prairie and Victoria.

That said, the bulk of CHUM Television’s operations remain in The Big Smoke, as Torontonians call their home. Located inside CHUM’s multi-story Temple of Television in the chic Queen Street West neighborhood—a building whose work areas are fully wired for camera and microphone plug-ins, a cost-saving move that has eliminates the need for separate studios—CHUM’s Toronto facility is actually home “to four master control rooms, clustered together in a star pattern,” says Bruce Cowan, CHUM Television’s director of broadcast technology.

Equipped with Harris automation systems, Sony Beta SP and SX VTRs, Sony Flexi-Cart playout and a range of video servers made by Pinnacle, Leitch and Grass Valley (including HD units), each of the four master controls is essentially identical to the others, “so that our operators don’t have any problems moving from one to another,” Cowan tells TVB.

One of the master controls handles Citytv—“still our flagship,” he says—Citytv HD and the 24/7 news channel CP24. The second master control is responsible for CHUM Television’s six specialty music channels, including MuchMusic. The third master control handles CHUM’s other seven specialty channels, including Bravo!, FashionTelevisionChannel and Court TV Canada. Finally, the fourth master control handles CHUM Television’s A-Channel Ontario stations.

The A-Channel stations are a particularly interesting centralcasting case, since none of the stations are actually located in Toronto. Instead, they reside across Ontario in Pembroke (near Ottawa), London, Barrie, Windsor and Wingham. Before being purchased by CHUM Television, all of these stations operated as locally-branded broadcasters. Now, although they all wear the A-Channel moniker and carry the same programming, all five stations still maintain their own independent newscasts and advertising sales/production departments.

This is where it gets interesting, because although the A-Channel stations still do local production, all of their transmissions are packaged in Toronto. “What happens is that their locally-produced commercials are shipped down to us by FTP site, and their live newscasts come to us over fiber optic lines,” says Cowan. “Our A-Channel master control in Toronto is responsible for packaging their feeds together, then sending them by fiber optic links to each station’s transmission site for broadcast in realtime.”

In Calgary (Alberta), a single master control is responsible for packaging and transmitting seven CHUM Television channels. Meanwhile, the Portage la Prairie (Manitoba) master control packages two channels, and the Victoria (British Columbia) master control handles two. In all instances, each site is home to one or more local CHUM Television broadcaster, which is why the company maintains these operational centers in western Canada. Still, with the exception of certain equipment differences—“that happens when you acquire other broadcasters,” Cowan says—they all run along the same lines as CHUM Television’s Toronto operations.

In an effort to further centralize its operations, CHUM Television has consolidated all of its 31 traffic departments onto VCI’s STARS II+ sales, traffic and accounting platform. Operated in Toronto, STARS II+ ensures that everyone in CHUM Television’s operation has access to a common sales, traffic and accounting database, and that everyone is playing by the same rules.

Before CHUM Television implemented STARS II+, this wasn’t the case. “Instead, we were running the BIAS traffic system, which meant each channel was set up independently,” says CHUM Television controller Peter Hestick. Not only did this result in a lack of common practices, but even trying to generate something as simple as a corporation-wide report “could take days,” says Amy Lorenzen, CHUM Television’s director of traffic systems.

Now that STARS II+ is up and running, all this has changed. “Not only have we standardized and streamlined our traffic operations, but we have improved our flexibility and response time, which means we can offer great customer services,” Lorenzen tells TVB. “So everybody wins, while we’ve been able to reduce costs and reassign people to other more useful functions.”

Despite its current success in implementing centralization, Bruce Cowan admits that there is much more that CHUM Television can do.

Take video acquisition, editing, playout and storage: to date, CHUM Television remains a primarily tape-based environment.

“There’s a lot to like about videotape, including its low cost of storage and its robustness,” Cowan says. “But there’s no doubt that tape is a problem when it comes to speed of video access, playback and physical storage.”

This is why the company has recently swapped out its camcorders in Toronto and Vancouver with 46 Ikegami Editcam 3s. “These are disc-based camcorders that can plug directly into the Avid NewsCutter nonlinear editors we’re deploying, to provide fast video access and editing,” he notes. “This will vastly speed up our editing and playout process, and free up space currently used to store videotapes.”

Meanwhile, CHUM Television has acquired a Front Porch Digital DIVArchive to store video in digital, nonlinear form. “By storing our content digitally, we’ll be able to move them between stations by dragging-and-dropping them on a computer screen,” Cowan says.

CHUM Television’s success in centralizing its operations has not affected its on-air quality one iota. In fact, it’s fair to say that this company’s channels are among the best looking and best-produced in Canada, perhaps the best overall, period.

A look at CHUM Television’s product explains why: its presentation celebrates the advantages that technology offers. In plain English, automation and centralization make slick, polished presentation possible, even for the smallest channels. So all of CHUM Television’s 31 channels are slick and polished-looking, right down to swooping camera moves and digital visual effects that say, ‘Hey, we’re high-tech!’

“We have always pushed the boundaries of technology while staying within a budget,” says Cowan. He’s right: this is how—and why—CHUM Television has grown from a low power UHF indy to Canada’s fourth largest national broadcaster in 34 years.

James Careless covers the television industry. He can be reached at