Central-casting expected to be hot trend at NAB 2001

Las Vegas, Nevada - With interest continuing to wane for DTV and datacasting, broadcasters attending NAB 2001 are now looking to cut costs by using a centralized architecture of regional control hubs that would take over many master and control functions from local TV stations.

But the "central-casting" concept is raising questions about whether it will accelerate media concentration, extending the reach of larger broadcasters at the expense of smaller operations reports EETimes.com.

A handful of companies are expected to pitch server and networking technologies that underpin the hubbing concept at NAB 2001 next week. With at least one network and several broadcast groups planning to deploy the technology soon, critics said the drive to automate broadcasting will wrest control from local stations and cost many engineers their jobs.

Under the new architecture, broadcasters are building central operations centers that assume master and control functions now based at local stations. Central-casting integrates multichannel automation software and traffic systems, video servers, compression technologies and a remote monitoring system at a master site.

Hence, basic operations such as gathering, prepping and distributing programming; receiving and recording of ads; quality control, and editing of local content could all be centralized. Signals would then be streamed directly from the master site - over a wide-area network connection - to a local TV station's transmitter.

As federal ownership rules are relaxed, the impetus behind central casting is economics. For broadcasters that have aggressively acquired and consolidated TV stations, one goal is to eliminate the costly satellite feed between networks and affiliates, in the process ditching hundreds of videotape machines that TV stations use to add local commercials or air network programming.

By avoiding the duplication at local stations, broadcasters envision dramatic savings as they struggle to come up with funds for the digital TV transition.

Another goal is to reduce the work force. "I just see it as a cost-cutting effort, I don't see it as being more efficient," said John Clark, sector president of the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians (Nabet) in New York. The group, which is seeking talks with NBC about the network's hubbing plans, said central casting could cut the number of engineers needed to run a master control facility from five to one.

Central-casting would also allow broadcasters to operate more like cable companies, said Gerry Kaufhold, an analyst at In-Stat (Scottsdale, Ariz.). "The broadcasters have figured out that they can save a ton of money by using broadband networks to connect one central-casting facility to many of their transmitter sites."

The shift to centralized broadcasting raises regulatory issues. Since broadcasters would eventually look more like cable operators, observers said it remains unclear how government rules would be applied to terrestrial broadcasters. An FCC official said regulation would depend on how a regional distribution network is structured.

"It certainly goes against the spirit of the [broadcast] rules," said Harold Feld, associate director of the Washington-based Media Access Project.

Federal ownership rules that limit broadcasters from reaching more than 35 percent of national households could also come into play, Feld said. "It depends on the amount of control" exercised by the broadcast groups.

Technology companies at NAB nevertheless see this year as a turning point for the broadcast business. Al Kovalick, chief technology officer at Pinnacle Systems (Mountain View, Calif.), said central-casting could transform broadcasting. "A year ago, I didn't see it coming," Kovalick said. "I've never seen anything changing so quickly that affects people so much as this."

Pinnacle is working with several vendors including Encoda, a system automation company, and Miranda Technologies, a provider of remote monitoring technologies, to launch "Centralized Broadcasting Partners" at NAB. The companies will demonstrate how the key elements of central casting - video servers, automation software, WAN connections, monitoring and traffic systems - would eventually work together.

'Hybrid model'

Broadcast networks and groups are said to be planning some form of centralized broadcasting within the next year. Along with NBC, Hearst-Argyle Television Inc. may be furthest along. "We made a strategic decision to go with a hybrid model [combining central casting and distributed play-out] two years ago," said Marty Faubel, vice president of engineering at Hearst-Argyle. "We've worked on the standardization of automation software and traffic systems among all of our stations so that they can be tied back to a central-casting station." Hearst-Argyle will roll out its first hybrid model "within the next four months," Faubel said.

Under the central-casting model, real-time video can be delivered for direct airing from a master site to local stations via WAN connections such as asynchronous transfer mode over a DS3 link at 45 Mbits/second. Meanwhile, programming can be distributed over low-bandwidth links such as an FTP file transfer to the remote sites without fiber-optic links. Once programming is loaded on a local server, signals can be aired the next day from the remote servers. The latter model is called "distributed play-out."

"Not every group and network is following the same model. Nor are they all being as aggressive about the level of centralization. But they are all linking their facilities to some degree," observed Michel Proulx, vice-president of product development at Miranda Technologies.

Broadcasters said that cheaper video server and WAN connectivity technologies have made central casting attractive. "MPEG-2 encoding-decoding technologies have also matured, resulting in the reduction of price," added Hearst-Argyle's Faubel.

Recent advances in Internet Protocol-based broadband networks are also prompting the transition. Broadcasters are now examining the use of point-to-point DS3, ATM over DS3 to a switched network, or some form of multiple T1 lines (at 1.5 Mbits/s) in a point-to-point means to deliver broadcast signals to local TV stations. Meanwhile, broadcasters could also use a relatively thin TCP/IP network path as a return channel, to monitor remote signals from a central facility by using conventional streaming-video technology. Miranda has recently added such a feature to its monitoring system.

Still, costly WAN connections could blunt the shift to central casting. "We need to pay for a pipe that allows us to send a 6- to 8-Mbit/s real-time video stream over ATM," Faubel said. "Last mile" communications costs also remain a concern, broadcast executives agreed.

While WAN connectivity is getting cheaper, Faubel said, "We are not convinced that it's gotten cheap enough to eliminate our satellite feeds."

Technical hurdles such as finding the right mix of network technologies remain. Kaufhold, the industry analyst, said network providers would have to "mix and match actual connections, so that real-time video can be moved throughout the entire network without dropping any bits." Nabet's Clark said programming errors at the master control facility could eventually harm local broadcasters. "They'll lose credibility over their product" if computer errors disrupt programming, the union official warned.

DTV sparks diminish

With the focus shifting to central casting, enthusiasm for digital TV and datacasting is waning. Nevertheless, Ira Goldstone, vice president of engineering and technology at Tribune Broadcasting Co., said the two approaches are linked. "By evolving to a central-cast model we can potentially save on some operating costs while at the same time improving our origination facilities to support digital," he said.Products on parade

GeoVideo Networks, a Lucent venture, will launch a broadband service at NAB called ProMedia, designed to connect media customers over GeoVideo's high-bandwidth ATM and IP network for real-time interactive services.

Miranda will offer systems that display multiple television signals as well as hidden parameters showing the status of equipment transporting or converting signals.

Pinnacle Systems' central-casting strategy is based on its multichannel Mediastream video servers and newly added network management and edge-server technology. The company's VBase software manages the distribution to, and play-out of content from, remotely installed edge servers that can be used to customize a network feed to a local market.

Grass Valley Group will unveil its digital media distribution system, designed for centralized facilities. It will offer an XML-enabled software platform, called ContentShare, designed to share metadata for information access and exchange, allowing broadcasters to tie together asset-related application software from multiple vendors without custom interfaces among those applications.

Cable modem maker Terayon Communication Systems said it is moving into the broadcast market with an MPEG splicer/ad inserter and integrated decoders traditionally aimed at cable operators. "If broadcasters want to avoid discernible degradation of signals delivered to remote transmitter sites via a WAN connection, they need to look beyond fixed-bit-rate streaming," said Chris Summey, vice-president of marketing and business development at Terayon.

Terayon's MPEG splicers are designed to remultiplex compressed streams to maximize bandwidth efficiency while preserving picture quality. Its statistical remultiplexer could deliver up to 18 variable-bit-rate video streams over an ATM pipe that would otherwise carry only five streams, Summey said.

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