WWSB's Digital ROI

Four years ago, Manny Calvo, president and general manager of WWSB channel 40, the ABC affiliate in Sarasota, FL, was faced with the decision of which digital transmitter to buy. Instead of making that choice, he took a trip up to Levitown, PA, home of Calkin Media, a family-owned newspaper group whose only television station is WWSB.
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Four years ago, Manny Calvo, president and general manager of WWSB channel 40, the ABC affiliate in Sarasota, FL, was faced with the decision of which digital transmitter to buy. Instead of making that choice, he took a trip up to Levitown, PA, home of Calkin Media, a family-owned newspaper group whose only television station is WWSB. There, he convinced the owners not merely to invest in a digital transmitter, but to convert the entire station to full digital operation. Once Calkin said yes, Calvo, WWSB Chief Engineer Michael Burnham, and the management team at WWSB began a whirlwind course of action that would transform their station from a creaky 30-year old outfit into a 21,500-square foot state-of-the-art digital facility in a few short years.

"The first part of the process was finding property near the downtown area because our old building wouldn't work for what we had planned," recalled Calvo. So the team interviewed six different architectural firms and decided on Carlson Solutions of Atlanta. Understanding that the whole program would be a bust if it wasn't put together correctly from the beginning, Calvo immediately chose A.F. Associates as the integrator within weeks of deciding on the architect. "We all approached it as a partnership from the beginning rather than as a vendor/customer relationship," he said.

The concept must have worked, because in August of this year, after all the designing, reshaping of plans, and the building out of the new plant, the equipment arrived in Florida, and on November 7 the station aired its first show from its shiny new all-digital facility.

Tom Canavan, president of A.F. Associates, saw the WWSB project as emblematic of the larger issues facing broadcasters' conversion to digital. "This project presented a common challenge for today's broadcaster," he said, "such as how to upgrade to a completely digital facility and do so at the lowest possible cost. For some groups, things like centralcasting make sense, but for this mid-market station, it didn't. We therefore had to come up with a technology plan that would work for their budget and lower their operational cost. We want to make it as future proof as possible."

Dave Linick, A.F. Associates senior project manager, spearheaded the effort to bring all the technologies together. But, he emphasized, it always begins with the people. "We met with their staff to find out how they would operate in a totally new environment," he stated. "They had broad goals they wanted to meet but not a specific direction, since they were working in an older analog environment and didn't know exactly what to expect."

The next step was to look at the technical direction the team needed to go in and begin to establish contact with vendors who would provide the technology. "I found manufacturers who appeared to be good matches for the station," Linick said, "and then the station people went to the manufacturers to develop cooperation in building what they needed. This all culminated in a group of meetings between all partners resulting in an operational document. It described in detail how the workflow would proceed and, after WWSB approved, it became the operational bible on how the process would happen."

The core issue, both in terms of the station staff working in a new environment and working with new technology, was the station's desire to go tapeless. This dictated a server approach for the automation, and the station wanted the Omneon platform. Tim Slate, vice president of Marketing for Omneon, gave an overview of the system. "They have four Director servers and all share storage through fibre channel," he said. "They are used for connectivity into FAST Purple nonlinear edit systems, the communication for which is done over 1394. It looks to the FAST editors as if they are controlling a deck and can search for images and in and out points and can import it to the edit systems and then put finished work back on the server. There, Sundance software queries as to whether it's ready for playout. Using 1394, it's like moving video as opposed to moving files, which is soon to come."

Sundance Digital President Robert Johnson said the company has been in automation for seven years and has witnessed the transition to server-based operation away from tape and robotic cart technology. "We have done a lot of work with Omneon," he said. "One of the unique things in Sarasota is that they have fully nonlinear news editing and to fit this seamlessly into news playback, Sundance incorporated NewsBreak software in production control, which allows playout of the Omneon server during the newscast. It is a two-channel server and can pingpong between the two channels. Also unusual here is that we have agreed to make this station one of the first to have our new news automation product, which will be installed before NAB. It will oversee ENPS (scripting and putting shows together), stillstore and other peripherals, as well as production control going beyond playout only, which is now in place."

Eventually, the goal is not only for the news to be entirely tapeless, but the whole station as well. The company's FastBreak automation controls Omneon's servers, ingest and playout, and even the very few tape machines still in use. Automation software can also swing the satellite dishes as well as record those feeds and manage that process using Intelli-Sat, which is controlled by Schedule Manager which sits in master control on a desktop. Sales View allows MPEG-1 proxy to go out to people to browse clips to see what they need.

These new digital capabilities sound very exciting, but the real litmus test comes when the company evaluates its investment to see if it's all worth it.

Manny Calvo feels that it is. "We have a forward-thinking company," he maintained, "which knew that if we did this we were going to do it once and do it right. So they approved the budget with complete support and were overwhelmed when they saw the difference in the new facility. The upside, we think, will come as the audience samples our programming. We expect our viewership will increase and we are convinced the revenue base will be there for digital broadcasting in the future. We are poised to take advantage of whatever that direction is."

A.F. Associates' Linick echoed this position when discussing not only the ownership, but the station management and staff as well. "To the credit of station personnel and management," he said, "most of the people there welcomed the opportunity to change and move to a new situation. They were willing to communicate and were very positive. In something this complex, there are always birthing pains, especially with software issues, but the partners all worked together and got things resolved." Up to this point, the key to Sarasota's success has been a unified philosophy and shared vision by station management, the integrator, and all the vendors. The next step in the equation, as Calvo pointed out, comes when the future of digital broadcasting arrives. Canavan addressed that issue. "What is unknown is the advertising situation and the unsettled economy," he noted, "which will determine how quickly a large number of stations make this kind of conversion. If ads come back, the single biggest factor is the operational savings and quality enhancements that can be leveraged out of digital. This is what will drive the transition even more than other issues, including the regulatory front. Operational efficiencies reap benefits that they must consider."

In the end, Calvo and the station management are satisfied with the results. "I'm very comfortable that the relationships we built with the vendors over the last two years will continue to bear fruit," he commented. "This is a showcase not only for us, but for them, as they can bring people by to show them how beautifully this is all working."