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 support.”

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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