Getting educated in Las Vegas

For Emmis, the show increases the odds of making the right technical decisions

There was a time when NAB was the place to make final buying decisions right on the floor. But today, group engineering VPs, including Mike McKinnon of Indianapolis-based Emmis Communications, don't attend with checkbook in pocket. Instead, they approach the gathering with an open mind, a full list of items to examine, and, perhaps most important, plans to tap into the brain trust of major broadcast manufacturers.

"We use NAB as a training session for engineering people," McKinnon says. "You have all your engineers and vendors in one location, so it's a good time to get the networking set up between engineering and vendors, train on products and get deeper information. We couldn't afford to do all of that anywhere else."

For example, Emmis station engineers, many of whom are converting their stations to Sony NewsBase servers, will be attending a Saturday-morning session with Sony tech people to get training and information on operating this product.

NewsBase was compelling, according to McKinnon, because of its asset-management capabilities and because it will allow Emmis to cut operational costs in news. "NewsBase is a good way to get that done," he adds, "but Grass Valley's Vibrint systems is also a good way to do it. We are certainly not locked into NewsBase by any means."

DTV conversion will be a major budgetary consideration this year and next for the group, which has grown from six stations in 1998 to 15 today. Both KOIN-TV Portland, Ore., and WALA-TV Mobile, Ala., are transmitting a digital signal; WKCF-TV Orlando, Fla., and WFTX-TV Fort Myers-Naples, Fla., are soon to follow. Emmis hopes to launch six additional stations in 2001, with the remaining stations slated to go live in 2002.

Group deals are in place with a variety of vendors, including Comark for UHF transmitters, Harris for VHF solid-state transmitters and Dielectric for RF systems, along with Tandberg encoding equipment and Miranda upconverters.

Approximately one-quarter of Emmis plants have been converted to 601-based digital, and the remainder are being upgraded on an ongoing basis. "As the old equipment wears out, we bring in new digital equipment behind it," McKinnon explains.

In the current uncertain economic climate, cost is key in buying decisions. One favorable change of late has been the dramatic drop in the cost of server storage with the introduction of 72-GHz drives, making it easier for Emmis stations to integrate servers. As a result, over the past year, a number of Emmis stations started using server-based news-editing and -playout systems.

Now "centralcasting" technology is taking center stage for Emmis. Centralization of master-control and other operations for six stations will be completed over the next 12 months; the remaining stations are to be completed within 24 months.

The centerpiece of the system is a centralized server farm that is housed at two hub stations, receiving all on-air content (except news) and distributing it among stations at the "spokes" of the hub via DS3 lines. Spoke stations will still produce their own newscasts and maintain sales/administration offices. All master-control functions are centralized at the hub location, and backup systems will be installed at the remote stations in case of DS3 failure.

Down or flat ad revenues will likely factor into this year's purchases. Emmis is seeking to make operations more efficient. Among the capabilities it's considering are server-based news playout, via NewsBase or Vibrint systems. and news automation, via ParkerVision PVTV Studio News product and others to be announced at NAB 2001. The group has already standardized on Discreet Logic for nonlinear editing, with about 12 edit systems in service and another four or five to be installed this year.

"Standardization works very well for us," says McKinnon, "in terms of lowering the cost of operations and training."