Station group strengthens regional coverage with Bitcentral systems

Feb 09 2009

Station group strengthens regional coverage with Bitcentral systems

By Glen Dickson — Broadcasting & Cable, 2/9/2009 12:00:00 AM MT

When an ice storm swept through the central U.S. late last month, Raycom Media stations in Arkansas, Missouri, Indiana and Kentucky provided viewers with a wide-ranging look at the storm’s impact by sharing edited packages through a file-based storage and delivery system from Bitcentral.

Raycom first started using Bitcentral’s Oasis, which stores edited packages on local servers and lets them be browsed through a Web-based interface, more than two years ago. It has now rolled out the technology to all 30 of the 44 Raycom stations that produce local news. Overall, Oasis is used by nearly 100 stations including the NBC owned-and-operated stations, which helped Bitcentral develop the system, and independent station groups such as Media General and Freedom Communications.

The Internet-based Oasis system allows Raycom stations across the country to quickly share material without having to book expensive satellite time, says Raycom Chief Technology Officer Dave Folsom. It has been particularly effective in enhancing coverage for the large number of Raycom stations that are strategically located in contiguous markets, such as KAIT Jonesboro, Ark.; KFVS Cape Girardeau, Mo.; WFIE Evansville, Ind.; and WAVE Louisville, Ky.

“There are an awful lot of markets that touch each other, and chances are what happens in one town has implications in the next town over,” Folsom says. “You’d also be surprised how many stories have universal application from market to market.”

Full-resolution stories are stored on local Oasis servers at each Raycom station, while low-res proxy versions are kept on a central server that Bitcentral maintains near its Irvine, Calif., headquarters. The Oasis client software allows producers to search the central database of stories through the Web and quickly download a full-res version of a story through the public Internet, without even having to place a phone call.

Raycom stations move hundreds of stories a day through Oasis, and the system has become a key part of the group’s approach to regional news coverage. The Oasis system at each station costs roughly $15,000 and is configured for about two years of storage, which Raycom is thinking about expanding. So far, Raycom as a group has accumulated more than a million clips in the system that can be accessed through what Folsom calls a “fairly sophisticated search engine.”

Raycom likes Oasis so much that it has purchased a system for news partner WPEC, the Freedom Communications station and CBS affiliate in West Palm Beach, Fla., which produces news for Raycom’s Fox affiliate WFLX. The Oasis system at WPEC, which was installed a couple of weeks ago, will archive news stories that WPEC produces for WFLX and will give WPEC access to news footage from all Raycom news-producing stations.

Media General stations are also regularly using Oasis to share content both for newscasts and for creating promos, says Ardell Hill, senior VP of broadcast operations. While Media General has sought to streamline operations and cut costs by installing Thomson Grass Valley Ignite production automation systems at its stations and centralizing graphics creation with Miranda’s Xmedia system, the installation of Oasis wasn’t about “forcing efficiency,” according to Hill. “Primarily, [stations] use it as a way to get content without it having to be an expense to us, either through booking satellite feeds or mailing content overnight,” he says.

News-Sharing Made Easy

Raycom had previously used a self-built FTP (file transfer protocol) site to share footage, but that required a phone call between stations to flag an inbound story. With the Oasis system, edited packages are automatically archived to the system after each newscast. Raycom stations with a particularly hot news story may also place it on Oasis before the story airs so multiple stations can get quick access.

Stations either run the packages whole or incorporate relevant pieces of video into edited stories. To make repurposing easier, stories are stored on the Oasis system with metadata that identifies their subject matter. The video is stripped of graphics, and stored with separate voiceover audio tracks and scripts that are accessible through stations’ newsroom computer systems. That allows stations to insert their own graphics and do voiceovers with their own talent.

Oasis incorporates a rights management feature, so that Raycom stations don’t borrow a piece of video that originally came from a network news service or for which it only has local rights. For example, WIS, Raycom’s NBC affiliate in Columbia, S.C., had footage last week relating to the Michael Phelps marijuana controversy, but the rights were only for the Columbia market. So, the Oasis system prevented other stations from grabbing that footage.

“Anything else, you can see it and pull it,” says Raycom VP of News Susana Schuler. “It’s drag-and-drop.”

A system like Oasis probably wouldn’t have been as important to Raycom five years ago, when its properties were more geographically scattered, Schuler says. But over the past three years, through a series of station acquisitions and divestitures, Raycom has assembled its stations in three main geographic clusters: the Gulf Coast region, the East Coast and the Mid-South/Ohio Valley region. News directors from those regions hold daily conference calls to discuss stories they’re currently working on or top stories from the night before. Oasis is regularly used to share such video, which Schuler notes isn’t typically available from network news services.

But Oasis does have its challenges. The biggest one is making sure that a station’s Internet connection is fast enough to use the system effectively.

“It’s been a great tool, but bandwidth has been a huge issue,” Schuler says. “You have to have the right bandwidth or the system does not work.”

In that vein, Raycom has improved the broadband connections at several stations, raising them from 3 to 10 megabits per second. For hot stories, Raycom will also transfer hi-res versions to a “pre-air” folder that Bitcentral maintains on its own servers. That way, 30 individual stations aren’t trying to download the same story sequentially from one station’s Oasis server.

“Rather than tying up the station server, it gets shipped to the server farm in California and it gets pulled from there,” Schuler explains.

An Expanding Oasis

The Oasis installation at WPEC is the first time two different groups will use the Bitcentral system to share content. Bitcentral CEO Fred Fourcher expects that the convenience of Oasis will appeal to more groups as broadcasters look to share content in local markets. For example, he has pitched Fox on using Oasis as part of the Local News Service partnership it has formed with NBC.

“There’s a lot of news that’s non-exclusive in markets,” Fourcher says. “Instead of having to microwave-feed it to someone, you could just click in ENPS [AP’s newsroom computer system] and make it available to others.”

Bitcentral is looking to expand Oasis’s functionality by letting stations sell news footage on a syndicated basis through the system. At the NATPE show in Las Vegas last month, it launched a program called the Oasis Media Marketplace that will initially pull content from some of the stations that use Oasis, and also include video from Reuters.

The Marketplace system includes rights management that prevents stories from going to local competitors, and is intended to let stations buy stories to fill gaps in their newscasts or broaden their regional and international coverage. Story prices are based on the market size of the station buying them, and range from $30 each for small-market stations to $120-$200 for stations in the top 10 markets, with discounts depending on volume. About 70% of the revenues go to the content provider, the rest to Bitcentral.

Both Raycom and Media General plan to make some of their video available through the Marketplace, and Media General is also thinking about selling the graphics it creates at its MGFX graphics hub in Richmond, Va., through the Oasis platform. Both groups emphasize that the Marketplace is still in its experimental stage. But they think that in this economic environment, buying footage a la carte may be more appealing to stations compared to subscription clip services.

“I certainly think the concept is solid,” Hill says. “Whether or not people use it remains to be seen. But we’re willing and anxious to participate.”