Graphic Consolidation

Media General is latest station group to adopt a centralized model
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Media General is the latest station group to centralize high-end graphics creation in one location and use desktop-based systems to streamline the creation of everyday news graphics, reducing local labor costs in the process.

The Richmond, Va.-based station group is buying template-based graphics technology from Montreal, Canada-based Miranda Technologies that will allow producers and reporters to create simple graphics, such as lower-thirds and over-the-shoulders, through the same desktop PCs they use to access their stations' newsroom computer system. Most graphics artist positions at the 21 (out of a total of 23) Media General stations that produce news will be eliminated, and high-end graphics creation will be consolidated at a dedicated facility in Richmond.

A few of Media General's large-market stations, such as WFLA Tampa, will keep some graphics staff and high-end creation tools on site. But smaller stations such as NBC affiliate KALB in Alexandria, La., which employs a single graphic artist to service its newscasts, will see those jobs cut. Downsized personnel will be offered jobs at the Richmond facility, says Ardell Hill, Media General senior vice president of operations.

“The local positions will for the most part be replaced with positions at the central site, and we hope some people move to the central site,” says Hill, who expects the transition to be complete by year-end.

On average, about 80% of the graphics needed for daily newscasts can be satisfied through Miranda's template-based Xmedia Suite, says Hill, while the 20% that require higher-end tools will be handled by the Richmond facility.

Selling points for the Miranda system include a centralized, low-resolution graphics database that will reside in Richmond, but can be browsed by any station, and sophisticated workflow management software. Xmedia provides MOS [Media Object Server]-compliant software plug-ins that integrate with AP's ENPS and Avid' iNews newsroom computer systems, allowing journalists to access news images and graphics elements, quickly create graphics using templates, and then drag and drop them into the news rundown. The templates and high-resolution images will be stored on local servers as part of a distributed archiving and database system.

“Almost all of the new content will be residing as electronic file-based content in a server,” says Hill. “So if a reporter wants a still frame of a robber from a police mug shot in a video clip that aired last night, they'll have the ability to get into the database and grab it, then go into their story and insert it as an over-the-shoulder [graphic]. It's all very template-based and very easy.”

While the change is sure to be jarring for local staffers, Media General is simply following the lead of large station groups like Sinclair Broadcast Group, Raycom Media and the NBC Owned Stations, which have relied on centralized graphics operations for years. With desktop PCs and template-based graphics becoming more powerful—and the demand for journalists to perform multiple tasks growing in lockstep—the trend toward graphic centralization should only accelerate, technology vendors predict.

“They are not working in a vacuum out there,” says Miranda Senior VP of Sales and Marketing Spiro Plagakis, of Media General. Many station groups are interested in the cost savings of centralizing graphics with Xmedia, says Plagakis, who adds that “several others are either in early deployment or in negotiation.”

Caren Anhder, senior product marketing manager for Avid, says station groups are using Avid's Deko template-based technology to consolidate graphics in one of two ways. Some are centralizing high-end graphics in one location, such as NBC did some four years ago with its Fort Worth, Tex.-based ArtHouse facility. Others like Tribune and Hearst-Argyle are following a more distributed model, where they “all feed into a big pot of graphics, and people can look at it.”

Besides cost savings, the ability of desktop-based graphics systems to tightly integrate with newsroom systems like iNews and automatically update rundowns is a major benefit, as it allows many stations to boost the total number of graphics they incorporate into a newscast. But there is another benefit that is more qualitative, says Anhder.

“One of the biggest steps the workflow gave us is that now a journalist can actually see what the graphic is going to look like,” she says. “That's what's really pushed it down to letting storytellers fulfill the whole story.”

Vizrt is seeing its customers favor a distributed model for deploying its template-based graphics, says Isaac Hersly, president of Vizrt Americas, though they are often creating the standardized templates in a central location.

“We've sold several groups on creating the look and feel in one location, and saving that template,” says Hersly.

In most Vizrt deployments, a writer or producer is writing a story, calling up a template, putting in bullet points, grabbing an image, creating a graphic and dropping it in the newsroom computer's playlist, and “doing it all without calling the graphics department,” says Hersly.

“The graphic artist is there to do new stuff or very complicated stuff,” he says. “That's the workflow we're pushing.”

Sinclair first consolidated high-end graphics in Baltimore five years ago when it launched NewsCentral, a centralized news operation which provided large chunks of news content to Sinclair stations nationwide. Sinclair has template-based Avid Deko systems deployed in the 13 markets where it produces news, and a staff of 10 full-time graphics artists in Baltimore working on high-end 3D systems from Adobe and other vendors.

Raycom Media is another station group with a high-end central graphics facility, Raycom Design Group, which is co-located with CBS affiliate KOLD in Tuscon, Ariz. and outfitted with 3D animation software and rendering engines.

According to Raycom VP/Chief Technology Officer Dave Folsom, having an outside post-production firm create a new graphic look for a station costs from $100,000 to over $250,000, depending on the number of elements. So Raycom decided it would be cheaper to develop the capability in-house, he says.

“It's been very successful, and it saves us a lot of money.”

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