IP-based centralcasting

As the media landscape expands with entertainment options, broadcasters are competing for a smaller slice of the advertising pie. This has motivated some station groups to look within to see if there are operating costs that can be streamlined or eliminated.

By reducing operating costs, many stations improve the bottom line, and those savings can be reinvested into converting the facility to HD. By upgrading local news and programming to HD, stations can improve their on-air product, attract new viewers and, in turn, increase advertising revenue to their stations.

A centralcasting solution can significantly streamline operations and save money, which can be redirected into capital improvements that advance a station's standing in the market.

What is centralcasting?

Centralcasting promotes greater operational efficiency because it centralizes the master controls of multiple stations at a single, centralized network operations center (NOC). It essentially makes local stations the spokes of the wheel, and the NOC serves as the hub that feeds programming to them and controls their operations remotely.

As a result, stations controlled by centralcasting can reduce their master control personnel, reduce costly errors, and employ an economical alternative to broadcast automation and program distribution.

Rather than being based on costly fiber or satellite networks, some centralcasting solutions provide IP-based program distribution over less costly networking technologies, such as high-speed DS3 telco circuits or digital microwave.

By the time a station has invested in all the gear needed for its satellite site, including encoders, dishes and control systems, the bill could reach $750,000, not including the $65,000 a month needed for satellite time. In contrast, comparable IP signal transport over DS3 can be obtained for roughly $200,000 to $350,000.

Unlike satellite distribution, which is limited to blasting the same programming to multiple stations, IP-based centralcasting allows the NOC to simultaneously send customized program transport streams out to all of the stations in its Internet cloud.

Centralized master control

When centralcasting is deployed, master control operators can manage, control and oversee the master control operations for the central hub, as well as any remote, sister stations. This includes the capture, preparation and distribution of all syndicated programming, network feeds and even programming streamed to their Web sites.

Rather than stations having to obtain and prepare the same syndicated show for air, this process is done just once at the NOC and then delivered to the stations for immediate broadcast, saving the group considerable man hours of work over the course of a year.

A centralcasting network can use bidirectional DS3 telco circuits, each of which offers a maximum of 45Mb/s, which is more than sufficient for carrying the 19.4Mb/s ATSC transport stream. It also offers a 5Mb/s backhaul of the live video and audio signal to the NOC for confidence monitoring that the station is on the air without technical glitches. This leaves the remaining bandwidth open for station-to-station Internet traffic and control signals for remote automation.

At the NOC, raw video and audio are encoded and compressed into an ASI transport stream and then encapsulated into an IP-based stream and transmitted over the IP network. At the receiving stations, the IP stream is decoded back into its ASI components and turned back into video.

Space-saving measures

While the NOC manages the house routers, master control switchers and other broadcast gear on behalf of multiple stations, sometimes a broadcaster's central master control room is not enormous.

One way to save space in a small master control room is to use multiview monitors that allow multiple video signals for each station to be displayed on large-screen monitors. This greatly reduces the footprint required by dozens of individual monitors.

Another piece of equipment that central NOC and remote stations might want to install is a 3Gb/s router capable of passing SDI, HD and ASI streams.

By using space-saving techniques, a broadcaster can fit all of the equipment needed for the centralcasting network into a rack and a half of space. A centralcasting solution can be scalable and customizable to meet the needs of any station group.

Flexibility and redundancy

Centralcasting can also position stations for HDTV broadcast. For example, stations may currently receive signals via centralcasting in SD and upconvert them to HD. Network feeds are sent in native HD and can be accessed via satellite at the individual stations. However, in the future, those HD network feeds may be captured at the NOC, encoded into MPEG-4, transmitted over the IP network and then downconverted at the stations wherever necessary.

While the individual remote stations are being fed programming by the NOC, centralcasting stations still have a high degree of autonomy. They can break away from the network if they need to, for example, to produce a local newscast, and then rejoin centralcasting when they're finished.

Centralcasting can be designed with many levels of redundancy to ensure failsafe operations. While live programming is sent from the NOC to stations for broadcast, program content can also be sent in advance of airtime to individual stations on a lower bit rate, store/forward basis and placed on a station's server. In the event of a technical problem, station personnel can switch to the local server and air that content from the server, as well as any evergreen programming they keep stored there.

Also, because most stations still have satellite downlink equipment on hand, in an emergency, a centralcasting NOC could resort to sending a program or two to the remote stations using satellite transmission. If for any reason network feeds can't be relayed to the stations, each station can still directly access feeds from the network with the flip of a switch.

In the event that a DS3 circuit should fail, the network can be set up to switchover to another telco service, or to squeeze an additional transport stream into the spare bandwidth of another DS3 circuit. The individual stations can use several circuits, which further improves reliability.

Return on investment

All of these redundant measures can be activated and controlled from a central hub, so the remote stations do not have to hire as many master control operators, which reduces operating costs.

By centralizing several of its stations' operations at its hub — including master control, syndicated programming ingest and preparation, traffic, and other engineering and production positions — a broadcast group can save money, cut staff or reassign personnel to other critical tasks. Installing an integrated production system could reduce a production control room full of operators to just a technical director and producer to handle local newscasts.

As centralcasting stations realize these operational cost-savings, they are freeing up money that can be spent to expand the plant and improve the on-air product, such as offering their local newscasts in HD. This move enables them to gain a distinct market advantage by attracting high-profile HDTV viewers, which in turn can drive additional ad revenue to the station.

Mark Warner is vice president of Advanced Broadcast Solutions (ABS).