For a station in the country's 147th market, WBOC in Salisbury, Md., faces some big-time competition in local news. That's because the station, which is located on the Delmarva peninsula that incorporates parts of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, competes with intruding signals from stations in Baltimore, Washington, Norfolk, Va., and Philadelphia, some of which are carried by cable operators and some of which are receivable over-the-air. (Since the market doesn't have an NBC affiliate, WBAL Baltimore is carried by local cable systems.)
WBOC's strategy has been to take a big-market approach to covering local news, which it offers on both its flagship CBS affiliate and on the Fox affiliate, Fox 21, which it pumps into the market as a digital multicast. It produces over 4.5 hours of news on weekdays, 3 on Saturdays and 2.5 hours on Sundays; employs over 50 people in its news department; operates a helicopter, a satellite truck and three microwave trucks; and maintains remote news bureaus in the cities of Dover and Milton, Del. The effort has paid off, as WBOC's newscasts dominate ratings in the market, with its 11 p.m. newscast commanding a 13.1 rating and a 43 share.
“We've got arrows coming from different directions,” quips station owner Tom Draper, president and CEO of WBOC parent Draper Holdings. “When you flick the dial in this market, many times you see many stations which are very big-market stations. So to be competitive, it's important to look good. Over the years we've tried to look as good as we can, and I think we do pretty well at that.”
But Draper is far from complacent. Instead, he has invested over $7 million to create a new 11,000-square-foot news production facility, the NewsPlex, which WBOC will use to launch high-definition newscasts next week. Planning for the new studio began three years ago as HD programming started to take off. Designed by The FX Group of Orlando, Fla., and integrated by The Systems Group of Hoboken, N.J., the NewsPlex features an innovative rotating anchor desk set in the middle of an open, working newsroom.
“The idea was that with the set in the middle, from there we could use all the backgrounds as sets behind it,” explains WBOC's John Dearing, news director. “You can also get on-air quickly because the set is in the middle.”
Dearing says that it was refreshing to design a new HD facility with a clean slate instead of retrofitting an old building. The station brought in consultants to identify the most efficient workflow, and has located the work areas strategically—producers are located in pods near the assignment desk, and the Web team is located between the assignment desk and the reporters.
“Everything is to be seen on camera, and the whole building is a set,” Dearing says. “I know some stations have the Web guys in a room down the hall, but we literally put them right in the middle. Like a lot of stations now, we don't wait with a story—we put it right on the Website.”
Key gear includes Thomson Grass Valley's Ignite HD automated production system, which includes a Kayak switcher and four Thomson HDC-3210 robotic cameras with a remote-control Shot Director console. While the Ignite system has generally been used by stations as a way to reduce head count by automating functions previously handled manually, it won't mean any significant layoffs at WBOC, Dearing says, and the newscasts will continue to have prompter operators and floor directors.
“The beauty of that kind of system is that in a smaller market like ours, you usually are hiring part-time people from the community to run your studio cameras; it's not necessarily a full-time job,” Dearing says. “It's not like long-tenured union workers are losing their jobs. I think a system like Ignite is wonderful for medium and small markets.”
Other key gear includes Vinten Light camera pedestals; Hitachi HD cameras mounted on both a jib and the ceiling; an Omneon HD server with two channels of HD ingest and three channels of HD playout; IBIS asset management; Pro-Bel routers; Panasonic, Samsung and Sharp flat-panel monitors with an Evertz MVP multi-image display processor system; a Chyron Duet graphics system; Leitch infrastructure gear; AJA upconverters; Wohler audio monitoring tools; a Clear-Com intercom system; and high-definition weather graphics from Weather Central.
WBOC will still handle field acquisition with standard-definition DVCPRO tape-based cameras for now, though it plans to buy new cameras next year to move to HD field acquisition, along with upgrading its news chopper to HD, says VP and General Manager Craig Jahelka. It is moving from tape-based editing with DVCPRO decks to Apple's Final Cut Pro nonlinear editing software, with seven suites in all. Dearing says going nonlinear was an easy switch, as most of WBOC's young editors had been trained on Final Cut in college and actually had to learn tape-to-tape editing when they started at the station.
$13 MILLION INVESTED ON HD
WBOC, which was one of the first small-market stations to broadcast digital TV (DTV) signals, has spent over $13 million on the transition to HD so far, counting its investment in tower and transmission infrastructure and the NewsPlex HD production facility.
While that level of investment may seem foolhardy to some, Draper notes that WBOC is in a different position than a small-market station owned by a larger station group, many of which are “waiting in line” to get the necessary budget to launch HD news.
“We're not a chain station, so we don't have to wait in line,” Draper says. “Fortunately we're in a strong financial position, so we were able to start reinvesting in the TV stations year after year. Am I right or wrong? I don't know. The market is very tough right now.”
Looking ahead at the station's September and October billing is “scary,” Draper says, particularly since 30% of WBOC's ad revenues have traditionally come from automobile advertising.
But he thinks in the long term, going HD now is the right move, and notes with pride that only one station in Baltimore (Sinclair's WBFF) and one in Washington (Gannett's WUSA) have launched HD news so far.
“I think it will pay for itself,” Draper says. “After all, I don't want to lose my audience to Baltimore. I hope they lose some of their audience to me.”