Retrans Deal Drives Cowles Centralcasting
Two of the biggest developments in local TV broadcasting over the past several years have been centralcasting and retransmission consent.
This week, they are converging in southeastern Washington where Cowles Publishing is rigging up a three-station centralcasting system using fiber links acquired in a retrans deal with Charter Cable.
With an upgraded master control, KHQ Spokane, Wash. (DMA 75), will be the centralcasting hub, feeding programming to two other stations in the nearby Yakima-Pasco-Richland-Kennewick, Wash. market (DMA 126) — KNDO, which is based in Yakima, and KNDU, which is licensed to Richland and serves the Tri-Cities (Richland, Pasco and Kennewick). All are NBC affiliates.
"It will centralize all of our programming in one place," said KHQ President-GM Patricia McRae. "It creates an efficient workflow across the board for us."
McRae said the retrans deal with Charter was "creative," benefitting both parties. She declined to discuss details of the deal, however, citing confidentiality clauses in the agreement.
Charter declined to comment.
Although Charter operates in only Yakima and Tri-Cities, she said, it had the necessary fiber links into Spokane. Comcast is the Spokane operator, she notes.
Mark Siegel, president of Advanced Broadcast Solutions, a system integrator that helped to design and implement the centralcasting system and upgrade KHQ's facilities, said the Charter fiber is actually a 100 mbps loop. "It goes from Spokane to Yakima, Yakima to Tri-Cities and Tri-Cities to Spokane."
Siegel also said the centralcasting system is not wholly dependent on Charter. "We have a redundant digital microwave path in the event the fiber goes down."
Cowles expects to complete work on the system and have it up and running by the end of this week, Siegel said.
Busy with the project, KHQ's top tech Paul Caryl wasn't available for comment prior to posting.
According to McRae, the KHQ hub will be pumping out seven channels — three NBC channels, each with its own local commercials; three versions of its SWX, Cowles' home-grown sports and weather multicast channel, which carries local or regional spots; and a channel containing NBC programming for cable systems in Canada.
"The traffic department is here in Spokane and it traffics all three [Washington] markets," McRae said.
The centralcasting system is the culmination of more than three years of planning and upgrading on the KHQ facility that also puts the station on the verge on being fully HD.
The station's master control is now outfitted with Avid Titan for automation, Omneon servers for playout, PixelPower's BrandMaster and LogoVision for the channel branding and Linear Acoustics for the audio.
The newsroom is using Panasonic P2 camcorders with Grass Valley Edius for editing. News playout is handled by Grass Valley Aurora with K2 servers.
The facility still awaits HD studio cameras and a studio HD production switcher, which will allow the introduction of HD news. McRae said she expects those pieces to fall into place and move to HD news in either 2012 or 2013.
By law, cable and satellite operator must get permission from TV stations before retransmitting their signal to subscribers if the stations request that they do. That leads to negotiations in which stations now typically ask for per-sub fees in return for retransmission consent. The negotiations may also involve commitments by the operators to buy ad time on the stations or other considerations such as, in the case of KHQ, access to fiber links.
From time to time, operators balk at the broadcasters demands, and signals are dropped from the cable system until the parties can work out a deal.
Most negotiations are amicable, as KHQ's were with Charter and with Comcast in Spokane. "We have a good relationship with Comcast," said McRae. "We got more than a fair deal from them."
In its purest form, centralcasting involves distributing programs to multiple stations from a hub as Cowles is doing. The non-hub stations can operate without master control, but may maintain them for backup purposes.
A variation leaves the master controls intact at all stations, but monitors and controls them from one station.
Seigel is a big proponent of pure centralcasting and expects to see more of it. "It's an attempt by a station group to consolidate operations and find efficiencies in a challenging economic environment," he says. "And efficiency isn't just in saving money. Efficiency is also in quality and consistency of product."
But it's not for everybody, he concedes. "Some people find success in centralcasting; some do not."