CPB renews its economy push for shared master control facilities
CPB has come up with another incentive and a new demonstration project in its long and sporadic campaign for the cost savings of shared technical facilities and staff.
Under a new rule adopted by the CPB Board, public TV stations won’t be eligible for master control equipment funding unless they share the facility with one or more other stations, according to Mark Erstling, senior v.p. for system development and media strategy.
CPB meanwhile is planning for nine stations, not identified in a January request for proposals, to participate in a trial of “centralcasting” — sharing a central master control. This will save “millions of dollars” and become a model for public TV at large. The RFP sought an organizational consultant to launch the project.
Though merged operations haven’t always shown obvious savings, two Washington state stations say sharing master control is saving each of them $250,000 to $350,000 a year.
Money from CPB has built “many, many” master controls for stations over the years leading up to the digital transition, Erstling told Current. But the costs for operating control rooms at individual stations are “significant and burdensome,” he said. After consulting with system reps, the CPB staff recommended the funding change to the board last month; the board agreed.
“The economy is shrinking,” Erstling said. “Stations have to figure out how to operate at a lower cost structure. And we want to help them work toward that.” To realize the greatest savings, however, stations must make painful changes, he added. “They have to be willing to reduce or relocate staff, and often stations find that hard to do,” he said. At the same time, the workload of many stations has grown as they handle one, two or three additional program streams for DTV multicast channels.
Costs savings are hard to determine precisely, Erstling added, because so many factors are involved: Salaries are determined by size of station, staffing hours vary, some employees have union representation and others don’t.
In an era of advancing technology and retreating funding, centralcasting’s time may have come. It’s actually “a decade late,” said Dale Emerson, a Tampa-based consultant to nonprofits who worked on a CPB-backed project early in the decade to join three New York City stations. Emerson estimates that public TV could save close to $500 million a year, mostly in operating costs, by creating regional, multistation master controls.
Control and mastery
Stations aren’t resisting the idea because shared master controls don’t work, Emerson said. It’s because everyone in the system “is afraid to do it,” he said. “If they can’t walk down the hall and talk to a person at their own master control, they feel they’ve lost control of the station.”
In the New York project that he worked on, WNET ended up merging with Long Island-based WLIW in 2001, but the city-owned WNYE–TV remained separate. The city now operates WNYE as a non-PBS pubTV station, part the NYC Media unit that also programs the city’s cable access channels.
Some stations remain reluctant to switch to centralcasting, insiders say, in part because they haven’t seen it done. CPB needs to be able to “point to empirical-based evidence” where merged controls saved money in particular cases, said Wick Rowland, president of KBDI in Denver, which shared a master control with its larger neighbor, Rocky Mountain PBS (KRMA), from 1998 to 2008.
Ted Krichels, who managed KBDI when the partnership began, said the collaboration “didn’t realize specific savings” for that station. “If you have two master control operations, there’s a certain amount of staffing, broadcast operations and engineering support. And, on paper, having one master control should save money. But the reality of what happens in any given situation varies.”
Douglas Price, now president of Rocky Mountain PBS, characterized the past cooperation as “beneficial to both stations.” Now it’s in discussions with KAET in Phoenix and other regional stations to “thoroughly consider the feasibility” of technical consolidation, he told Current. Any savings could then be plowed into on-air content and community outreach services, he added. Kelly McCullough, g.m. of KAET, said the potential partners are “at square one, just pondering the opportunities.”
Joint master controls are not a new idea; they’ve been used by numerous multitransmitter state networks for decades. But stations under different managements, who are new to the concept, are at risk of marital strife. Like any new spouses, the would-be partners confront sticking points about control, housing of the facility, clashing personalities and resistance to compromise.
One group romance that tried to attain wedded bliss more than eight years ago was Advanced Digital Distribution Entity project (Current, Sept 24, 2001). Thirteen Northwest stations from Montana to Nevada came together to explore a plan. Dennis Haarsager, then g.m. of Washington State University’s KWSU in Pullman, Wash., spearheaded the effort — for which his peers promptly dubbed him “ADDE daddy.”
The project received “very good support from CPB,” said Haarsager, now senior v.p. for system resources and technology at NPR. “We had consulting teams, good technical advice and we visited commercial operations already doing this. We were all pretty sold.”
Ultimately, the only parties to consummate a union in the Northwest were two stations just 75 miles apart in eastern Washington state, KWSU in Pullman and KSPS in Spokane. Why no more? “Everybody was philosophically on board, but at the end we had to come to the table with money to capitalize it,” Haarsager said. “It ended up, unfortunately, with the two largest partners [Seattle and Portland] suffering severe financial distress in the same year we were going to aggregate. So it was impossible to continue.”
But the relationship between the Spokane and Pullman stations took root. KSPS and KWSU now centralcast from a single tech center in Spokane. It handles three channels for Spokane, two for Pullman and two PBS-branded feeds for the tri-cities area (Pasco, Richland and Kennewick). KWSU kept control of one local cable channel, which students at Washington State University help to program. Claude Kistler, Spokane g.m., and Marvin Marcelo, Pullman g.m., both told Current the agreement works well.
Each station retains its own programmer, but they share a server and automation system and are linked by microwave. “There’s a technical complexity to it, but it’s not too terribly overwhelming,” Kistler said. “From a non-techy g.m.’s perspective, it works.”
Quieter corridors in Pullman
Before centralcasting, the Pullman station had eight to nine full-timers and four to five part-timers in programming, traffic and operations; Spokane had eight. Now there are 11 of those staffers for both stations working at Spokane. (Pullman provides money for 3.5 of those.) So that means in the ballpark of $350,000 annual savings in salaries and benefits at Pullman. At Spokane, Kistler estimates savings between $250,000 and $350,000 in capital and salaries.
Marcelo said they still experience a few tough moments here and there. The two need to coordinate carefully when the Pullman station goes live. When KWSU wants to switch to a live studio broadcast, its production crew and the distant master controllers need to coordinate carefully to switch the programming feed. And when there’s a problem with the signal, engineers need to carefully determine whose transmitter or tower is involved.
One odd change in Pullman that Marcelo noticed: “At first it felt really quiet.” He said he was used to “people running around and freaking out” — the sausage-making of broadcast TV. Now, the master control room at KSWU is housing its operational dubbing center. No more tour groups stopping to peer inside the former control room “fishbowl” for all those colorful lights and screens.
While there haven’t been outright clashes between the stations over control, there has been the entrenched “parochial thinking that we’re KSPS and they’re KWSU,” Kistler said. “It’s taking a while to shake this single-broadcast-station concept. But all partners are helping float the boat.” And there is indeed progress. As Marcelo said, “Fortunately, all the egos have all been able to walk through the door side by side.”
Ultimately, the synergy is advantageous to both. “I don’t think we’ll ever get to the point where we quit holding hands and doing this dance,” Kistler said. “We couldn’t live without their support.” Marcelo agreed. “If you’re committed to making it work because you know that down the road are economic savings, than that becomes the burning issue” — the motivation that pushes past the problems.
Illinois as template?
Other stations continue to explore joint masters. Last August, Erstling told the CPB Board that Illinois is a “bellwether state” for developing strategies for collaborations and mergers (Current, July 20 2009).
Mark Leonard at WILL in Urbana said CPB convened a meeting of Illinois stations last summer to determine what efficiencies could be achieved, especially since several struggled with financial crisis lately. WTVP in Peoria resorted to emergency fundraising in 2008 when it ran afoul of bank rules on its facilities debt. Network Knowledge, a three-station group based in Springfield, like the Peoria station, needed an advance on its annual CPB grants. And WQPT in Moline was glad to find a new licensee last fall when its parent college took steps to dispose of it.
Committees of Illinois station leaders are working with consultants and quizzing execs of centralized networks in other states to determine whether a joint master would be better for a few or all Illinois stations. The work is still in the feedback stage, Leonard said. He added the talks are “strictly on technical costs, not governance or culture.” Early responses show some stations “probably” would save money but not others.
One big question is the cost of the necessary connectivity between stations, “which in this state remains high,” he said. “There’s not a lot of dark fiber.”
When centralcasting would require station to have fiber-optic links to a shared master control, the costs are too often ignored, said Bruce Jacobs, chief technologist at Twin Cities Public Television in St. Paul, which shares a master with KSMQ in Austin, Minn. TPT and the Austin station share a server and use an existing fiber network, installed by the state to deliver video feeds from the legislature in St. Paul. The statehouse feed uses only half of the 10Mb cable so the rest was set aside for exchanging standard-def programs among public stations.
Drawing stations together is very challenging, Leonard said. “Conceptually, this would make wise use of resources,” he said. “But the vision of how to achieve that may not be totally in alignment among stations. We’re listening and watching carefully. We don’t want to put ourselves in worse position.”
“I recognize we need an ability to fund each of our technical needs and would love to find joint solution, but I’m not sure if this is it,” he added.
As Haarsager noted, “TV has gone through a huge capital outlay in the digital conversion, and PTFP funding is hanging on by a thread, so I don’t know where capital would come to do this. It may end up with us joining and singing ‘Kumbaya’ together, but in the end we can’t get it going.”
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Web page posted March 5, 2010
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