A CPB-commissioned report recommends cloud-based technology for public television’s next interconnection system over PBS’s fiber-based v6.
The study, exploring options for replacement of the aging satellite distribution system, also calls for all public TV stations to move broadcast operations to joint master control providers. It notes potential for even more efficiencies and cost savings through consolidation with the public radio satellite service, though that possibility is still being analyzed.
For public TV interconnection, Cognizant Technology Solutions backs technology and architecture based on the Public Media Management system that WGBH and Sony began offering in April as a centralized master control service for local stations. The 91-page report, obtained by Current, found PMM’s approach would cost far less than PBS’s plan to build v6, which delivers content over fiber with a cloud-based storage service.
The price difference between the two is nearly $69 million over 10 years. Cognizant estimates that v6 would cost about $240.6 million; adapting the existing PMM for national interconnection, about $171.8 million.
Because so few public TV stations currently provide programs for national or even regional broadcasts, Cognizant agreed with stakeholders, including public TV executives, who questioned the need for v6’s bidirectional distribution capabilities. The report notes that four licensees account for 77 percent of public TV’s national programming, and 121 licensees produce none.
Cognizant recommends building on PMM technology to create a third hybrid approach. It would use a cloud-based interconnection system with a satellite overlay for live and near-live content. Only stations that uplink national content would be connected to its private fiber network. That system would cost about $181.2 million over a decade.
Letitia King, CPB spokesperson, verified that the corporation commissioned Cognizant for an analysis of v6 and other technology options, and that the findings were presented at last month’s CPB-PBS General Managers’ Strategy Meeting.
There is considerable urgency for public TV’s leadership to address the issues raised in the report. Satellite leases for PBS’s Next Generation Interconnection System, or v5, expire in September. For several years PBS has focused on its fiber-based v6 concept, and CPB sought congressional support for that plan. CPB’s appropriation request for fiscal 2016 and FY18 said it is “exploring a predominantly terrestrial-based system.”
Appropriations bills passed by the House and Senate early last year declined to fund v6, but the FY16 Omnibus Appropriations Bill approved in December by Congress contains $40 million “for replacing and upgrading the public broadcasting interconnection system.” CPB estimates total cost of system replacement at $206 million.
Although the report focuses solely on public TV interconnection needs, “initial opportunities for interconnection in radio were also explored,” according to the document. Cognizant will be “conducting further analysis” in that area, it said.
The report also suggests that public TV stations consolidate their local broadcasting operations into an “ecosystem” of centralized master controls as the new interconnection system rolls out in 2018. That timing “provides the greatest opportunity for member stations to avoid incurring unnecessary costs in daily operations as well as large capital refreshes,” according to the document.
Cognizant estimates that “widespread adoption” of joint master controls would save the public TV system “in excess of $340 million” over 10 years.
The debate over the different approaches has sparked spirited discussions within the public broadcasting system. “It’s easy to position this issue as PBS vs. WGBH vs. CPB,” said Tom Thomas, co-c.e.o. of the Station Resource Group, a Maryland-based public media consultancy. “At SRG, we’re trying to focus more on the technology and the costs of getting to a solution. Those conversations can lead us toward somewhat more of a dispassionate understanding.”
Jan McNamara, PBS spokesperson, said that the interconnection project “is continually undergoing re-scoping as the broadcasting industry evolves, as new technology and vendors enter the field.”
“We are committed to partnering step-by-step with the system, industry experts and others to design and deploy an infrastructure that meets public media’s needs in the short term and also positions stations and producers to serve the needs of our viewers,” McNamara said.
Examining the pros and cons
Whatever system is adopted, Cognizant said in the report, PBS should retain governance and control. Although PMM itself “could serve as a viable interconnection system,” the document noted, public TV executives “are decidedly apprehensive about WGBH managing interconnection.”
WGBH hasn’t suggested taking on such a role, said Ben Godley, c.o.o., in an interview. “That’s never been our desire, that’s not what we’re talking about doing.” Through PMM “we could provide significant value to stations in the non–real time delivery of content, which is the majority of content.” If PMM is selected for interconnection, “we would be a vendor under the direction of PBS,” he added.
The Cognizant report notes pros and cons for the PBS and WGBH concepts. It calls PBS’s v6 a “scalable and reliable” architecture that can handle multichannel and multiplatform distribution, as well as additional options such as joint master controls, closed captioning and emergency services. The v6’s “robust infrastructure” also could be valuable to national security during emergencies. And v6 enables stations to distribute live content and easily share other programming.
However, Cognizant calls v6’s terrestrial fiber network “an expensive proposition.” The fiber alone could cost more than $90 million over 10 years. “Cognizant does not recommend such an expensive investment or a technology approach that is strongly committed and offers limited flexibility,” the report says.
Also, PBS’s proposed implementation plan for v6 “is complex,” the report says, “which poses a risk that will need to be mitigated with effective management and careful roll-out planning” such as station training.
WGBH’s PMM, on the other hand, would centralize archival storage, reducing those costs for stations. PMM uses Amazon web services, “which means new services can be implemented quickly,” the report notes. It also “provides greater flexibility to adopt to changes in technology and business needs.”
In an interview, Godley added that PMM also provides “station-side savings of hundreds of millions of dollars over 10 years” on equipment updates for receiving files, storing content and managing workflow.
However, Cognizant cautions, “Sony may not have sufficient understanding of the public television domain and WGBH may not have the experience of handling an implementation and operation of such a scale.”
Ultimately, Cognizant supports WGBH’s approach, finding that “the technology underlying this solution offers significant commercial and operational benefits.”
But in a Dec. 14 memo to public TV general managers, PBS President Paula Kerger said PBS is “currently moving forward” with deploying v6.
“[O]ur goal has been to develop a system that both addresses stations’ needs today while preparing for the ‘beyond broadcast’ future that every media organization is facing,” Kerger told g.m.’s in the email. “This does not mean creating a platform that is oversized for what our system needs. It does mean creating an infrastructure that is effective and reliable — and is also able to evolve as technology continues to create new demands over the next several years.”
PBS has allotted $6.1 million in its FY16 budget for v6 work. In addition, the PBS Board in October designated $5.2 million from extra income in FY15 to support interconnection.
CPB’s King declined further comment, citing “the competitive nature of selecting the system and the vendors to support it.”
She said details of the final plan will be shared in a Request for Proposals early this year.
Michael Levy, CPB e.v.p., said the choice of the new interconnection system will be “a cooperative decision that involves CPB, PBS, APTS and public broadcasting stations.”
An earlier version of this story was posted Dec. 21. It has been updated with additional information.
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What would the interconnection system look like if stations had to pay directly for the system instead of CPB, i.e. the taxpayers, footing much of the bill?