November 4, 2010
by Frank Beacham, TVNewsCheck

ABC, Fox and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. are among the broadcasters investing in a new generation of lower-cost centralcasting technology based on the convergence of Internet, computing and broadcasting technologies. They offer remote-controlled systems operations and enterprise management via low bandwidth connections - in other words, the promise of group broadcasting with fewer people at lower cost.

Internet and computer technology has merged with traditional broadcast technology to create a new generation of centralcasting - one that promises broadcasters lower capital and operating costs and far greater flexibility than ever before.

A decade ago, centralcasting - the idea of operating multiple stations from a single location - generated a lot of interest among station groups looking for ways to cut operating costs. And several variations were tried, from true centralcasting to sharecasting to monitoring and control.

The technology worked fine, but the execution proved more complicated and expensive than the plan. Interest waned.

Now a new model is emerging driven by three developments. First, low-cost software replaced all that expensive broadcast hardware in the hub's control room. Second, IP technology pushed down the cost of connectivity. And, third, the economy hit rock bottom, causing stations to once again reexamine ways to save money.

The new model is a combination of the old models, described by some as hybridcasting. It has drawn the attention of several station groups, including Fox, ABC and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

Hybridcasting allows stations to dynamically change operations during the broadcast day. The station keeps it's local control room and playout capabilities. It can operate locally or can be operated remotely - all at the flip of a switch.

For example, a broadcaster can operate in the day hours with its local staff and switch to a remote site for control after hours and during weekends. During a disaster, control of a station can be passed to a safe site out of the danger zone.

If a master control operator calls in sick, a sister site can take over. Even a station's equipment can be shared. The system allows underutilized gear at one station to serve as a backup to co-owned stations.

All of these functions can be enabled using low-bandwidth connectivity and software running on commodity hardware.

The words "sea change" were used to describe the new technology by executives of the two leading companies that are pushing new IT-based central automation systems: Omnibus and Florical. Both companies offer a new generation of products that they say dramatically lower the cost of controlling television stations from a central location.

In fact, even using the term "central location" is a misnomer with these systems. They are so flexible, they can control stations from anywhere with the proper software and an Internet connection.

The new systems are also very flexible. They can still use high-bandwidth connections - which are still too expensive for most broadcasters - to send video using the older models of centralcasting.

But a key breakthrough is the cost of the required connectivity. For example, a TV operator can use a bonded T1 line that can cost stations as little as $600-$1,000 a month.

At NAB 2010, Florical introduced Acuitas, a radical new "TV Station in a Box" concept. It combines an entire broadcast chain in software - including switcher, effect, graphics and servers - that runs on commodity, off-the-shelf hardware. And it costs about $150,000 plus the operating cost of low-bandwidth connectivity - a fraction of the nearly $1 million that a centralcasting facility once cost.

"I can build an entire TV station for a quarter of a million dollars," said Shawn Maynard, VP-GM of Florical and a pioneer in the early centralcasting industry. "And now I don't have to build an infrastructure at one location. I can wake up these components from anywhere. We use a SmartCentral technology that allows me to run all 10 of my channels from any station at anytime.

"This new product has completely reinvented the business," Maynard continued. "This is going to be a fundamental shift in how we think about master control moving forward."

Florical's chief competitor is Omnibus's iTX system. Omnibus was purchased earlier this year by Miranda, and on Jan. 1, the name will change to the Miranda iTX system.

John Wadle, VP of technology at Omnibus, said his company does not use the term "Station in a Box" because it's too limiting. iTX, he said, can range from a single channel to hundreds, and includes television, radio and the Internet. Florical's Acuitas system, for the record, is also scalable.

"It's a combination of bandwidth cost going down, combined with the lower cost of the IT-based solution," Wadle said. "Also, station groups are under drastic pressure to reduce operating costs. These things have made centralization popular again."

The new model of IT-based centralcasting is relatively new and no broadcaster yet has a full-scale installation. Florical said it has made its first big Acuitas sale and will name the buyer in January.

Omnibus iTX customers include the ABC station group, Fox and CBC.

Dave Converse, VP of engineering at the ABC-owned television stations, said his network is experimenting with an iTX system for the distribution of its multicast channel, Live Well, in a traditional centralcasting mode. From a hub at KFSN Fresno, ABC is sending the diginet's programming to the ABC's O&Os and several Belo channels via an MPLS network, a technology designed for transporting broadband video.

"It's working very nicely, but we are still figuring out what we can do and can't do in a call letter station environment," said Converse. "It's fair to say we are experimenting with it and haven't decided how far we are going."

As to its performance, Converse said there had been "a few rubs," but all had been worked out by Omnibus. "It's becoming more reliable," he said. "You're doing a lot of complex transactions. As you add a new feature, sometimes you undo an old feature. So it takes time to get all of the things working all at the same time. We've not had any train wrecks created by the experience. It just takes time."

Fox is building a hub-and-spoke master control system with a hub in Las Vegas that will have enough flexibility to allow each station to air local live events, according to one source. Fox hopes to have the system up and running in the first half of 2011.

And neither the CBC nor Omnibus would comment on the CBC project. "The CBC has not provided us with their permission to announce or discuss this installation yet," an Omnibus spokesman said.

These new projects signal a new generation of lower-cost centralcasting technology based on the convergence of Internet, computing and broadcasting technologies. They offer remote-controlled systems operations and enterprise management via low bandwidth connections — in other words, the promise of group broadcasting with fewer people at lower cost.

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