The Value of the Systems Integrator

With the influx of IT and other non-traditional broadcast technologies, the need for professional integration experience is at an all-time high. The digital transition is approached in various ways that range from gradual upgrades in small-to-medium markets to widespread conversions for larger stations. While some stations have the resources internally to complete these projects, most find the job is either too complex or time-consuming to tackle on their own. It's at this point that station management and engineering must seriously weigh the cost benefits of bringing in outside assistance against doing everything in-house--fully understanding the risk of toiling with potentially unfamiliar and intricate technology.
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With the influx of IT and other non-traditional broadcast technologies, the need for professional integration experience is at an all-time high. The digital transition is approached in various ways that range from gradual upgrades in small-to-medium markets to widespread conversions for larger stations. While some stations have the resources internally to complete these projects, most find the job is either too complex or time-consuming to tackle on their own. It's at this point that station management and engineering must seriously weigh the cost benefits of bringing in outside assistance against doing everything in-house--fully understanding the risk of toiling with potentially unfamiliar and intricate technology.

While systems integration firms continue to emerge around the country as digital television flourishes, there is a fine line between the truly specialized integrator and companies that are "diversifying" beyond their traditional businesses. These companies generally hire contract engineers on a per-project basis and brand themselves as integrators. The reality is that most lack the stability, resources, and real-world experience required to successfully integrate crucial system upgrades. The engineering skill is there, but the experience to deliver technically innovative systems in the most cost and workflow-efficient manner is typically absent.

A successful digital upgrade requires that the station's management and engineering departments work toward one common goal. When calling in a systems integration firm, this business/technical balance must be maintained. For the GM, an integrator must understand the overall business and attend to management and financial issues. Value, to the general manager, relies on a design and implementation plan that benefits workflow and operational cost-effectiveness.

For a chief engineer, a highly proficient and technically savvy systems integration firm is crucial. Both the chief engineer and his technical staff should be engaged in the process from beginning to end. From this they gain a comprehensive working knowledge of the new system and equipment. A disengaged staff at the onset often translates into an uninformed group that will not comprehend how the new, digital facility operates compared to the legacy environment. Engineers should get to know the integrator prior to the project, and feel confident they can call the integrator to ask questions after completion.

Planning The Upgrade

A station planning for digital upgrades should thoroughly evaluate the situation prior to moving forward. Management and engineering staff should fully understand how many resources the station can dedicate before committing to an integration project with only in-house staff. Typically, the larger the station, the more challenging it is to handle a complex transition. A smaller market station with a staff of two will have a limited budget, but in all likelihood can execute the less complex nature of a small-station conversion. Larger stations are faced with more complicated conversions, and with only a slightly larger staff must work around busier schedules.

Large-market stations historically favor wholesale digital upgrades that require relocation or a complete rebuild. Outside help is necessary due to the intense design and wiring requirements associated with aggressive transitions. Middle market stations usually conduct the most research before deciding whether to hire an outside firm. If a project goes beyond adding a server and small automation system, middle market stations often need outside support. Few if any stations have the time and resources to design and build a strong technical core to complement a new digital master control center.

Challenges

Today's engineering staff faces a host of new technical challenges. At the top of the list is the merger between traditional broadcast technology and the IT world. The broadcast engineer is learning a completely new design and workflow philosophy with the integration of servers, automation, and storage solutions. Seamless blending of this computer-based equipment with real-time video and synchronous signals is crucial to operating a successful digital television facility. To provide the best possible service, a quality systems integrator must learn and understand a multitude of new technologies faster and in a broader manner than the station broadcast engineer.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of hiring a well-rounded systems integrator is minimizing project expenses. While there are many ways to lower costs, at DST we generally achieve this through two avenues: off-site pre-build and value engineering.

DST's off-site pre-build technique is called "palletization," and has been extremely effective in saving money for our clients. Outside of using a local integration firm, off-site pre-build is critical to mitigating costs. Expenses are further driven down if the integrator is also permitted to manage the bill of materials and equipment procurement process. On paper this may appear to add minor costs, but the trade-off is the virtual elimination of delays that add time to the project. An effective systems integrator ensures on-time delivery by working closely with vendors. Too many digital integration projects have been adversely affected with rising expenses due to poor communication between vendors and stations on delivery deadlines.

Value engineering may be what truly sets aside an effective systems integrator from those less experienced. A system integrator involved in the design process from day one works with station engineering and management to develop a cost-effective digital system. But value engineering can also completely change the project's direction for the better when the integrator joins during or after the design phase.

One example is WDCQ, a PBS member station on the campus of Delta College in University City, Michigan. DST came on board following the departure of an integrator that did not have the resources to effectively complete the project. After evaluating the design plan, DST was able to substantially reduce costs by rearranging the design and eliminating unnecessary terminal gear. The result was a dollar amount savings in the tens of thousands for an automated, four-channel master control center with a new technical core.

Value engineering is about presenting a more effective design philosophy--removing unnecessary components from the design plan or replacing components with more effective technology; distribution amplifiers, which can drive up the bulk and costs in digital systems of more modest sizes, are excellent examples. We have removed up to 50 of these units from designs featuring sources with only one destination to create a shorter, less complex destination path. Take away the associated frames, patches, cables, and power supplies, and the downstream ripple of cost savings is remarkable.

Every systems integration project is highly customized. Each project increases the integrator's breadth of experience and the value it brings to subsequent systems. Projects of different proportions and philosophies expose the integrator to new methods and generate breakthrough solutions. With this level of experience, the integrator can build the best possible custom system for the next station.

Digital television presents more challenges today than ever before. In the current climate with complex integration issues butting heads with concerns over cost efficiency, stations are well advised to find an integrator who can put all the pieces of the puzzle together. This means finding outside talent that can deliver technically innovative systems that are both cost and workflow-efficient. The resulting operation will be dramatically smoother and reduce operating expenses--now and for the future.