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In terrestrial radio and television broadcasting, centralcasting refers to the use of systems automation by which customised signals for broadcast by multiple individual stations may be created at one central facility.
Traditionally, many operations at an individual broadcast station were handled manually by broadcast engineering technicians at the local station. Network feeds would arrive by satellite; these would contain time cues to indicate when the station could switch to a prerecorded local station break from a videotape recorder, a local station ID from a character generator or a local program such as a newscast. Syndicated programming would arrive separately, either recorded in advance from satellite for tape delay or transported on prerecorded media. Local advertisements would be stored on tape cartridges ("carts") which would need to be inserted in the correct timeslots manually. A station could not operate unattended, even if it were merely retransmitting a network television programme originated elsewhere.
Broadcast automation relies on computers to store and retrieve video, largely eliminating the use of individual videotapes and allowing switching and retrieval of stored programming, advertising and titles to take place automatically. The server would operate from stored playlists, in which each programme, each commercial advertisement, each live or network feed and each station break had been configured in advance.
In some cases, broadcasters have operated groups of multiple stations at the regional or national level from one central facility, removing many tasks which were formerly done locally. These operations normally take one of two forms:
A fully centralised operation may have local stations which function as little more than a local news bureau and a transmitter site. The local station sends its news footage to the central hub, which inserts it (along with local advertising and station identifiers) into a national network or syndicated programming feed. All video is stored in one central location. The resulting broadcast video streams are centrally assembled then sent directly to local station transmitters by the central hub.
A less-centralised approach involves installing servers at local broadcast station sites which may be controlled either locally or remotely. The central hub would be able to send video to the local station, along with playlist information, and local facilities would then be used to store and rebroadcast programming.
Many traffic and operations tasks, such as acquiring programming, selling advertisements, scheduling and keeping records of what was broadcast and billing advertisers take place behind the scenes, yet are also suited to automation and central operation by regional broadcast station groups. If computers handle scheduling of individual broadcasts, advertisements and local identification, a computerised record of what has been broadcast can easily be extracted for use at a central location to bill advertisers for broadcast time. Central operation of non-broadcast business functions removes the need for these tasks to be carried out at each of the multiple local stations.
For some broadcasters, centralisation of broadcasting operations has reduced the number of people required to operate a station, with some saving in cost. This must be carefully balanced, however, against the cost of the extra communications links required from the local station to the hub; these often are optical fibre, microwave or (occasionally) satellite and can be costly if large amounts of digital video must be carried great distances.
By shifting many of the control tasks to a central hub, centralcasting may also reduce the investment which must be made in equipment for each individual local station in the group for upgrades such as digital television broadcasting as less equipment is required at each local station site.
Centralcasting can also be used as a way to control a station's local operations remotely during off-hours (such as late night, where there may be no one or just a skeleton crew at the local site). This can allow a station to operate on an "auto-pilot" basis during off-hours in which it otherwise may have needed to sign-off.
An over-reliance on automation (and a reduction in the number of people at the local station) may leave an individual station less able to respond to local breaking news, such as tornadoes or other natural disasters which require local, live and immediate coverage. Individual local stations must also retain enough equipment to handle Emergency Alert System messages, routing them automatically to any remote locations being used to encode the final broadcast signals.
The use of large amounts of centrally assembled programming may also reduce local diversity, turning a station into little more than a semi-satellite of a main broadcaster in another city. In some cases, individual stations in a group will legally need to maintain nominal main studios in or near their respective communities of license but will originate little or nothing from these facilities once most broadcast-related tasks become centralised.
Broadcast centralisation can create problems when one station in the group is sold (as the local master control functions which had been centralised must be restored before the local station is a viable stand-alone entity). There also needs to be some means to remain on-air locally if the link to the central hub is lost, lest a single point of failure take down all stations in the regional group.
Individual users of centralcasting facilities include:
WCNY-TV, the PBS station based in Central New York State, hosts Centralcast LLC, which broadcast PBS content to over 20 stations in over 9 states. This represents 40% of PBS content in the USA.
Some groups, such as Sinclair Broadcast Group, have attempted to centralise not only routine operational tasks but also the production of local news. The News Central format, which Sinclair abandoned in 2006, involved inserting small blocks of local content into an otherwise-national newscast, which would then be presented to local viewers as having been generated at the local station.