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Grass Valley Targets Tight Budgets

News automation will be the prime pitch for NAB 2/02/2007 07:04:00 PM Eastern

Responding to two big needs facing broadcasters, hardware vendor Grass Valley declared strong sales of high-end HD cameras and switchers, and it pitched automation software that can cut news production staffs in half.

As stations prepare for the annual tech bazaar at the National Association of Broadcasters, the firm said in a pre-show press briefing in Santa Monica, Calif., that its off-the-shelf IT technology, such as cheap disk storage, will combat “the intense cost pressures” facing many stations. “IT tech-

nology lowers the barriers to [HD] entry,” says Senior VP Jeff Rosica, projecting that 70% of the production gear Grass Valley sells in 2007 will be high-definition. “So our strategy is to use as much commodity[-type] IT components as possible.” The Nevada City, Calif.-based firm is owned by Thomson.

A major plank of that strategy is the Infinity tapeless camcorder, a $26,000 unit designed to record in various compression formats on Iomega disks and other removable media and to work seamlessly with Grass Valley's nonlinear editing systems and newsroom software. Since being introduced at the IBC show in September 2005, the Infinity camera has been touted by Grass Valley as a flexible, IT-friendly alternative to format-based cameras from Sony and Panasonic.

But the Infinity program has experienced a series of delays, and Grass Valley now says the camera, originally scheduled to ship last July, will not be ready until late June this year. That will allow Grass Valley to make several technical improvements that trial customers have asked for, such as reducing the camera's power consumption.

“It's clearly disappointing to us and to our customers,” says Rosica, “but we're working on some enhancements that we think will bring some new benefits.”

Grass Valley is having better luck with its Ignite automated news-production system, which it has been developing since acquiring ParkerVision and its automation business in 2004. The system, which uses software to remotely control studio cameras, switchers, character generators and other devices integral to a live newscast, can reduce the staff required for an average newscast from 10 people to as few as three. It is now on-air at 17 stations, with 37 more slated to launch, and counts large groups ABC, Cox, Meredith and Media General as customers.

The notion of replacing people with software and robotics has been a sore point with broadcast unions for years, but as stations seek to place more content on more-diverse platforms, the opportunity to save money is appealing.

Grass Valley and competitors Ross Video and Sundance have generally positioned their production-automation systems as a way to save money while re-deploying staffers in more-vital areas, such as producing news content in the field.

While Grass Valley still promotes Ignite as a tool for broadcasters to cheaply launch secondary services such as multi­cast news channels, in Santa Monica, it presented a rather detailed financial model that showed the return on investment (ROI) for an Ignite system directly attributable to reduced head count.

By eliminating three employees at an average compensation of $65,000 (including benefits) across an average of 2.5 shifts, Ignite could save a mid-market station as much as $487,500 annually in salary costs alone, says Alex Holtz, Grass Valley director of product management. After factoring in interest rates and cost-of-living increases, the value of the “avoided costs” could reach more than $3 million in five years.

Holtz said Grass Valley had presented that model to Blackstone Group and other, undisclosed investment firms. Blackstone has already installed it at CBS affiliate KOIN Portland, Ore., which it acquired last year from Emmis Communications.

KABC Los Angeles is proof that Ignite can deliver big-market, high-definition news. The ABC O&O uses a large, redundant Ignite system for all its newscasts with the exception of weekend evening news, mainly because the required staffers haven't been trained yet, says Dave Converse, VP/director of engineering for the ABC-Owned Television Stations. ABC station KGO San Francisco is also on-air with Ignite, and WTVD Durham, N.C,. is due to launch the system this spring.

There have been some slight hiccups in using the Ignite system, says Converse, which is a big departure from traditional newscast directing. “But,” he says, “we haven't had problems the viewer would recognize.”

As for the ROI model that Grass Valley presented, Converse couldn't verify the exact numbers. But he says Ignite made financial sense by allowing ABC to reduce head count in areas like machine control and to “devote human capital” to writing and producing on-air content.

“In larger markets,” he says, “this is not a losing proposition.”

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