Hunting for a grand solution

Davis looks to manufacturers to help avoid having to play inventor at Cox

Sterling Davis, VP of engineering for Atlanta-based Cox Communications, will arrive at NAB looking for ways to save money by consolidating station operations. The idea is to go beyond what has been done already in the three markets where Cox Broadcasting has two-station operations; in the San Francisco Bay area, where Cox owns two stations not co-located; and in the Pittsburgh area, which hosts a three-station cluster: WPXI-TV and the recently acquired WJAC-TV Johnstown, Pa., and WTOV-TV Steubenville, Ohio.

"There are many little pieces of hardware that will work. Almost anything will. The question is, are there more grand solutions?" Davis says, adding, "I'd rather not invent the stuff myself."

At the top of the shopping list is equipment that will enable hub or cluster operations, including automation, traffic and methods for transmission between locations. "I don't know what kind of long lines we will wind up using: dark fiber, ATM, DS3. There are a lot of different solutions out there," says Davis.

He plans to take a look at automation for the few stations in the group without it at the moment, including WFTV-TV, the ABC affiliate in Orlando, Fla., and WSB-TV Atlanta, the group's state-of-the-art digital facility and newest station facility. Most recently, automation from Sundance Digital Inc. was installed in KIRO-TV Seattle, and Louth (Harris) automation was installed in WRDQ, Cox's second station in Orlando, Fla., which went on air in April 2000.

The recurrent theme in Cox's purchasing strategy is to upgrade on a step-by-step basis, rather than wholesale conversion, with an eye toward standardizing on a single system. Of course, that ideal sometimes has to give way to practical considerations. For example, since most Cox stations chose commercial- playback servers based on what was state-of-the-art at time of purchase, there is a patchwork of brands through the group. Pittsburgh, the last station to upgrade to servers, settled on Grass Valley Group Profiles.

Cox hasn't yet turned its attention to media-asset management, opting to wait and learn from one pilot system, an Ampex DST with Avalon's archive-management software installed at KTVU-TV San Francisco. With the system not yet 100% operational, Davis is "a little reticent to endorse the system just yet," although the initial experience has been favorable.

WSB-TV, the digital flagship station, is using Sony's NewsBase nonlinear editing system, And in San Francisco, Cox is testing the Vibrint NewsEdit, which is not completely installed at this point. "We are trying to crawl before we run," Davis says. "Vibrint is a Grass Valley solution, so it fits in with Profile servers as kind of an expanded feature."

Of the 15 Cox TV stations, seven are currently transmitting DTV; all use Dielectric antennas and Harris transmitters. The remaining eight are due to be on air before the mandated May 1, 2002, deadline, probably just before NAB 2002. Some stations are further along than others in the transition.

The transmitter for KAME-TV Reno, Nev., is at an altitude of 8,400 feet on Peavine Peak-virtually inaccessible between October and May, so preparing the site will have to wait at least until this summer.

Two Cox stations are operating single-vehicle, single-receive-site digital ENG systems as test cases for the group: KIRO-TV Seattle and WPXI-TV Pittsburgh; a third, WSOC/WAXN Charlotte, N.C., is budgeted for this year. The Seattle system was produced by NEC, and the Pittsburgh system was produced by MRC. "They will be getting MRC units in Charlotte," Davis says.

Of course, other ENG issues are on the table. At NAB, Davis will quiz manufacturers on how they will accommodate the FCC's new rules that allow mobile satellite service licensees to use part of the ENG spectrum. "It's no longer a question of whether we are going to do it. The question is, how are they going to approach it?"