Promising entanglements: shared master control

Originally published in Current, Oct. 12, 1998
By Steve Behrens

Denver's two public TV stations — once famous for their discord — will merge their master control rooms, tape libraries and traffic functions sometime next year, in the first of a series of expected cost-saving technical consolidations in overlap markets around the country.

The Denver stations, which got a $360,000 federal grant to help with the project two weeks ago, are two of 24 stations in nine markets that are working with CPB and consultants to scope out various efficiency moves on the operations side.

With DTV ahead, and the likelihood that public TV's digital stations will be able to air four simultaneous programs per channel, the field faces an increased demand for program management as well as for programs, says Ed Caleca, PBS senior v.p.

"Five or 10 years down the road, even a standalone station in a non-overlap market is going to be confronted with the issue--how will it do all that with its existing staff and equipment?" says Jerry Ostertag, a manager of station development at CPB. "It will be difficult — I would venture to say, darned near impossible."

[Even three years ago, before DTV became a major concern, consultants saw consolidating tech facilities as a major potential cost-saver in the field.]

Stations that automate their control rooms or share them with other stations will be able to choose between reducing their staffs and redeploying them. Moving technicians into local program origination may help stations maintain that important aspect of their work, says Doug Weiss, CPB's television v.p.

"A more positive paradigm"

The facilities sharing in Denver is a breakthrough after a failed attempt to work out a merger between KRMA and KBDI.

"We're both maintaining a strong editorial independence, but also trying to get out of the overlap box and create a more positive paradigm here--which is no easy feat," says Ted Krichels, g.m. of KBDI. The stations are jointly producing candidate debates this season and coordinating their pledge drives.

On the technical side, the Denver outlets will consolidate tape libraries, traffic functions, taping of satellite feeds and control rooms at KRMA, and connect it via digital microwave with KBDI's offices about a mile away, says Krichels.

He estimates that the two stations eventually will employ six fewer staffers in their merged control room--about as many as KBDI alone has now. Employees of both stations will be eligible to work in the merged facility.

When they consolidate, the Denver stations will also upgrade to more automated equipment, and that's where they'll see much of their savings, says John Luff, president of Synergistic Technologies Inc., a consultant to CPB's overlap market project.

The benefit from automating and sharing facilities depends on many local factors, according to Luff. If several stations share a master control facility with video servers rather than building separate new control facilities, each may save 30 percent on capital costs, he estimates.

But if the cooperating stations are located far apart and require long circuits to connect their control rooms, studios and transmitters, Luff continues, that could cut deeply into the capital savings.

The real long-term economies, he says, are in operating costs, especially salaries, instead of equipment. He notes that Discovery Communications' Latin America hub in Miami assigns five technicians to handle 15 program streams. With automation, "three channels per person is not an outrageous amount," he says.

Luff figures that stations may be able to run four DTV mulitcasting streams with a single control room, except for a small part of the time with an extraordinary workload.

The 24 overlap stations in CPB's nine-market study have chosen issues to study in the first phase of the study, just completed, says David Clark, a manager of station development at CPB. In the second phase, they'll make detailed implementation plans.

For projects like these, CPB is building Overlap Market Funds by withholding between $400,000 and $1.2 million from stations in each of the markets over three years, according to Clark. Participating markets include New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Tampa, Orlando, Denver, Salt Lake City, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Log rolling

Intertwined with control rooms, the log and traffic functions have plenty of room for improved productivity. Weiss says stations can save labor by reducing redundant handling of program information, which many station staffers now retype for schedules, logs, program guides and other purposes.

In Florida, where various groupings of the independent stations are selling underwriting, making schedules and handling direct mail in new central operations, "there are not going to be any combined control rooms for the time being," predicts Jim Moran, president of Florida Public Broadcasting Service. Potential savings now don't seem to outweigh the costs and trouble.

But some stations are sharing the preparation of logs. Mike Seymour's FBPS programming operation is now preparing the minute-by-minute broadcast plans for Tampa's WEDU and Pensacola's WSRE, and next year will add two more stations, including KOZK in Springfield, Mo., according to Seymour. The four stations are among the seven for which his staff prepares schedules in Tampa. (The Missouri station as well as WQLN, Erie, Pa., are Seymour's new out-of-state clients.) The work of drafting schedules flows naturally into the task of preparing logs.

In Washington State, Seattle's KCTS and Tacoma's KBTC are also planning to combine their log-preparation systems, but the payoff is revenue rather than cost-savings, according to Ostertag. By upgrading and coordinating their traffic systems, they'll know exactly when they have vacant spots to fill through their new joint underwriting sales effort.

Steps toward sharing

In a separate project backed by the CPB Television Future Fund, PBS and its consultant IBM Global Systems have surveyed public TV stations on their traffic and automation systems.

Judging from an early look at the survey, roughly half of the stations have automation of some kind, and those are "clearly more satisified" with their operations than the non-automated stations are, says Ostertag. Most stations are "pretty darned efficiently run right now," Ostertag comments.

But those that go all the way can operate unstaffed all night or during other dayparts, with a specialized company monitoring their transmitters by remote telemetry from down the street or across the country, according to Ostertag.

Three Ohio stations--in Akron, Bowling Green and Columbus — are considering a step in that direction, with help from CPB. Ohio stations already are highly dependent on the tape library and feeds from the Ohio Educational Broadcasting hub in Columbus, which is linked to the stations through the state's new fiber-optic network, says Bill Glaeser, president of Akron's WEAO. If the state provides equipment, OEB would assume switching functions for three or more stations during certain hours. Automation equipment such as the PBS Local Insertion System would add local IDs and spots at each site.

Stations in Pennsylvania also are considering expanded roles for their state hub in Hershey--an example of shared origination facilities that goes back 29 years, well before the present wave of efficiency mania.

The state-owned Pennsylvania Public Television Network is not only connected to most of the state's independent nonprofit stations, but it has separate two-way microwave links to them, so it can often feed different schedules to each, according to Ron Lask, director, engineering and operations. "Daytimes and weekends, most of the stations take about 95 percent of their programming from us," says Lask.

Chief engineers and c.e.o.'s from stations will meet Nov. 6 to discuss whether the Hershey hub should begin inserting local i.d.'s, expand operations from 18 to 24 hours a day, preparing logs, and taking on other work.

The potential staff savings from joint operations are clear. Hershey feeds seven stations at once with a two-person crew, according to Lask. If the state network wasn't there, he says, each of the seven stations probably would need two people for the same shifts.

Web page posted Oct. 31, 1998
Copyright 1998 by Current LLC


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