Taking the Central Idea Public

Cutting costs by centralizing master controls is first step in bigger changes for public broadcasters

Public television stations have long discussed
centralized master controls as a way to cut
costs and allocate resources so they can beef up
programming budgets and better compete in the digital
arena. This year, they will likely take a major leap forward
in implementation on the path from idea to reality.

Stations covering more than 10% of the U.S. population
have already implemented centralized master controls,
and a number of public stations and private companies
have set up hubs to make it happen.

“The economy has put the idea on front burner for
stations nationally, and as a result many stations are
looking at it very seriously rather than just talking
about it as they have in the past,” says Bob Olive, COO
at Georgia Public Broadcasting, which moved to a centralized
master control in Atlanta in December 2012,
run by Encompass Digital Media. GPB is hoping to save
about $400,000 per year as a result of the change.

More stations are eyeing similar measures. In the last
year and a half, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting
(CPB) funded 90% of the cost of two major hubs for
centralized master controls in New York and Florida.

“New York is coming on line and Florida is about to
begin building theirs out,” with others on the way, says
Mark Erstling, senior VP of system development and
media strategy at CPB.

The move helps address major problems faced by
public stations in funding their technical infrastructure
after the federal government eliminated its long-standing
grants for new master controls. And while the CPB is
not funding any new centralized master control facilities
like those in New York and Florida, it is providing
grants to help stations cover the costs of moving their
operations to centralized hubs.

The Centralcast Competition

WGBH Boston is providing master control services to
New Hampshire public stations, and private companies
are beginning to offer their services. Besides Encompass,
Stratus Broadcast Solutions is currently handling two
public stations and has signed on two others. “It is becoming
very competitive, which makes for a more vibrant
marketplace that benefits stations,” Erstling says.

Cost savings for the move can be significant. As part
of the development of a centralized facility in Florida,
the Digital Convergence Alliance (DCA) projected $12
million in savings over a seven-year period for
seven stations, says Michael T. Boylan, president
and CEO of WJCT Public Broadcasting
in Jacksonville, Fla.

WJCT spearheaded the DCA project, which
received a $7 million CPB grant. A WJCT
for-profit subsidiary, JCT Services, manages
day-to-day operations; it has contracts with
CoLo5 for a hardened facility where the hub
will be housed, TW Telecom for the fiber network
and NETA Business Services.

DCA expects the facility to go online in
August with 11 stations: Florida outlets
WJCT in Jacksonville, WFSU in Tallahassee,
WEDU in Tampa, WUCF in Orlando,
WBCC in Cocoa Beach, WPBT in Miami and
WWFSG in Panama City, as well as WPBA in
Atlanta, WTTW in Chicago, KERA in Dallas
and WLL in Urbana, Ill.

The Centralcast project went live last December
in Syracuse, N.Y. “The stations have
been very pleased with the results,” says Crist
Myers, president and CEO of Myers Information
Systems, which has been working with
several stations to centralize their traffic operations.
“Three stations are now connected
to the hub, and they [are] adding seven more.”

Fat Fiber Pipes

Technology is also helping the push to centralize operations
as lower-cost fiber networks have become more
widely available. “The technology has caught up with execution
and the need for more efficient business models,”
says Marc Jaromin, president and CEO of Stratus.

But the impact of these projects goes far beyond solving
some major financial issues, Jaromin and others note.
Teya Ryan, president and executive director at GPB, says
it will allow them to focus their resources on content creation.
“Our core business is within the educational realm
and content realm,” Ryan says. “We are content creators
and not necessarily in the hardware business.”

While GPB has only centralized its master control
operations, other stations have also folded their traffic
and billing operations into hubs and are eyeing additional
related opportunities to save money.

“When we conceived the DCA we never wanted to
limit ourselves to just the Florida stations, or being just
a centralized master control,” says Boylan. “Once we’ve
launched, we will begin to explore other opportunities
in content creation, graphic design or even development

In time, this could lead to a fundamental reevaluation
of a way public stations operate. Erstling explains
that fiber links between stations and the development
of other projects for sharing media create “peer-to-peer
networks that could really change the way they share
content and costs and work with other stations to develop
and distribute content to their communities.”

Such changes can be painful. While some stations have
moved employees to different jobs, others have laid off
staff. And the process is likely to take time. Unlike the big
station groups where top managers have been centralizing
operations for more than a decade, “you have maybe
200 public stations that are truly independently managed,
and each one has unique needs,” Jaromin notes.

Don Rodd, senior VP of North American engineering
and architecture at Encompass, also stresses that
providers of centralized services and the public stations
have to work closely with each other. “What will work
for one station may not work for another, and we have
to work together to figure out how to improve workflows,” Rodd says.

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