Gray Television’s Permanent Revolution

Station group continues to revamp newsrooms with latest technologies
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When top engineers and technologists gather Oct. 10-11 in Atlanta for the B&C/TV Technology annual News Technology Summit, streamlining newsroom workflows and delivering more content to mobile and online platforms will once again be top of mind.

One particularly radical approach to those imperatives can be found at Gray Television, which in recent years has been using HD upgrades to its stations as an occasion to implement much widerranging changes to the way the stations produce local news.

Gray has already garnered industry-wide attention with a radical approach to automation that allows one person to run both its newscasts and master control operations. But it is also pushing the envelope in several other areas with some newer implementations—including a plan to go all-IP—that Gray VP of technology Jim Ocon believes are equally revolutionary.

“You used to see innovation coming from big markets, but don’t see that happening anymore,” Ocon says. “But at least in this cycle, I see innovation coming from the smaller and mid-sized stations.”

Much of this began in Omaha, Neb., in 2009, when Gray used a planned HD upgrade at NBC affiliate WOWT to install a Ross OverDrive automation system and combine the control room for news production and master control operations. Thanks to that upgrade, one person at WOWT now handles all the directorial and commercial playback and graphic duties.

Some broadcasters viewed this as simply a cost-cutting move that, if implemented, would hurt the quality and overall competitiveness of their own stations, Ocon says. But as the group pressed forward with similar deployments at some 20 other stations, opinions have shifted.

“We are now seeing a lot of discussion with clients” over whether a similar system might work in their stations, notes Jeff Moore, executive VP and CMO of Ross Video.

Part of that change in attitude can be traced to practical successes. During this summer’s Colorado fires, for example, the streamlined system played a key role in helping Gray’s KKTV Colorado Springs, a CBS affiliate, stay on the air with reports for more than 130 straight hours.

“If we hadn’t had this model in place, there is no way we could have done this,” Ocon says. “We only had to worry about having one person at a time to keep the news on the air, which let us focus on augmenting the news reporters we had in the field and keeping them fresh.”

As part of the group-wide upgrades, Gray has also standardized the equipment and software it is deploying around a few key vendors. These include graphics hubs and graphics sharing systems using Vizrt; a low-cost emergency backup system built around the Ross CrossOver production switcher; and Harris ADC automation and Nexio HD servers.

Looking forward, Gray is also eyeing deployments of virtual reality systems, working with Sony on an automated ingest system and planning to go to an all-IP infrastructure within the next three years. “We would like to get rid of all baseband video,” Ocon says.

As part of that push to IT and IP technologies, Gray has already deployed an innovative KVM network that lets every computer in the newsroom access different assets and systems. “That is kind of our secret sauce,” Ocon says. “Our approach has been to put in a KVM matrix for the whole station, so you can go anywhere in the station and sit down and access any of our assets.”

This IP infrastructure should also help Gray with its newsgathering from the field; the group is already using IP technologies to send video back to stations. Gray has deployed a number of TVU backpacks and recently worked with On Call to develop a hybrid system that uses both an IP satellite and cellular bonding systems for ENG.

The company is also looking to deploy smaller, lighter cameras and has asked all the major camera manufacturers to demo their prosumer camcorders. “I want to see every reporter with a smaller camera, an iPad, iPhone, a laptop for editing and maybe a backpack for an IP uplink,” Ocon says.

To help make sure all these systems work together, Gray has also set up a lab at Ross Video, where vendors can test new equipment and software in a replica of a typical Gray station.

“Tightening up that relationship between broadcasters and vendors is more critical now than ever, because it is the only way we are going to get products that make sense for our future,” Ocon says.

E-mail comments to gpwin@oregoncoast.com and follow him on Twitter: @GeorgeWinslow

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