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Governments’ Broadcast Agendas Governed by Master Controls

Officials at federal agencies and local governments across the country are searching for the best ways to reach their constituents with a growing array of video programming.

The upgraded Rockville 11 master-control unit. Photo courtesy of Rockville 11
Officials at federal agencies and local governments across the country are currently facing an important and likely expensive question: what is the best way for them to reach their constituents with a growing array of video programming. The answer most likely includes upgrades of studio and master control facilities.

by Art Kingdom

Some federal officials have it a bit easier because the bigger agencies have dedicated transmission facilities. In many cases, they take their own program material and transmit it to local offices throughout the country over private satellite channels. Their field offices have satellite receivers and monitor the channels in real time. But a live satellite feed is more of a linear process that can only be watched in real time. If a viewer misses the program, they have to wait until it comes back on the schedule. But federal agencies also have official web pages that offer video on demand that are also made available on venues such as Facebook and YouTube.


Local governments have been broadcasting over Public Education Government (PEG) cable channels for decades and there are more than 10,000 such channels around the country. Most of the funding for that comes from local cable companies through licensing fees, but local governments provide the program content. The cable feed is predominately standard definition, but local governments are revamping facilities in order to produce high definition (HD) and provide themselves with important options.

But why produce programming in HD?

Local government broadcast entities will be working with a hybrid standard definition-HD world for years to come, predicts Chuck Heffner, senior applications engineer for Professional Products Inc. of Gaithersburg, Md.

“In the words of Marshall McLuhan, the medium is the message,” says Heffner, “People get used to watching what they like and they like high definition.” Heffner maintains that fewer people will watch something if the quality is not there.

Heffner is telling clients they have to look at multiple delivery mechanisms to get their message out to the public, and Internet streaming is the dominant direction that is being chosen. That is mainly because it is a relatively inexpensive alternative to broadcasting in HD.

“If they wanted to put out HD over their cable system it would require hundreds of thousands of dollars in master control hardware,” Heffner said. “The Internet has more flexibility because it is a better distribution model for HD video,” says Heffner, adding that from 25 percent to 70 percent of viewers are watching over the Internet, depending on geographic location and the availability of a high-speed connection.

Why not just stick with standard definition? For one thing, Hefner says, a local government producing in HD today is creating an archive of material it can use if, or when, their cable company eventually provides an HD channel.

A key issue to resolve when it comes to HD is aspect ratio. Standard definition has a picture that is higher than it is wide while HD is widescreen.

Overall, a government facility manager has to consider how to shoot a program, how to format a program and how to handle graphics.


The heart of a video broadcast is an automated control system. It has the playback schedule for the government agency’s station. Including live events, such as council meetings and pre-recorded programming.

A Fairfax Cityscreen-12 staffer operates part of the master control. Photo Courtesy of Fairfax Cityscreen-12 “The system tells the various playback devices in master control what to do and when to do it,” Heffner said. The playback devices are either tape decks, or increasingly, a computer system that plays video as a file.

A master control switcher controls the playback between live, recorded and any billboard information put on screen between programming.

If there is a studio, it will have a production control room. The studio will have lights, cameras and monitors. The control room will have a video production switcher, and audio mixer, monitors, graphic generator and recording equipment.

A basic system for a local government is what is called a station in a box. It is essentially a computer with video capture cards that can cost $20,000 to $30,000. A top end system is a multimillion-dollar production and master control operation. Which system is used depends on the budget, the staffing capabilities of each agency and what message needs to get out.

“We’ve seen government agencies with what amounts to a computer in a closet to some taking up multiple floors in multiple buildings,” Heffner reports, but most government agencies find they do not have a lot of room.


Two examples of this are the broadcast facilities for the City of Fairfax, Va. and the City of Rockville, Md. PPI recently finished a project for Fairfax Cityscreen-12 and just completed a three-year upgrade for Rockville 11.

The Rockville system was 12-years old and included three-quarter inch tape deck-to-deck editing, says Bridget Broullire, principal reporter and station manager. Rockville 11 has gone tapeless so that, among other things, the Final Cut editor is connected to all the appropriate digital storage equipment.

“We wanted to do it right at the right budget number, “ Broullire says, “Now everything can talk to everything else.”

In addition to covering live events, Rockville 11 produces a monthly newscast and documentaries, all of which are available anytime on the Internet via YouTube. In addition to convenience, that reduced the number of requests for dubs of aired programs, Broullire said. Both Fairfax’s Cityscreen-12 and the Rockville facility use Nverzion software for their automation systems. A Ross Expressions unit generates the graphics for Fairfax City and Rockville.

Fairfax uses a Harris Nexio video server for recording and playback while Rockville 11 employs an Omneon Spectrum.

Miranda Technology is employed for the master control system switcher.

Both also use Evertz multi-image technology that provides significant cost savings. In the past, a station had a dedicated monitor for each signal. Now one monitor handles multiple signals through a multi-image device that has four to 80 inputs. The device reduces the image to a single frame so there are eight to 16 windows on a single screen.

A multi-image device cuts the cost of operation by using less power, reducing the need for extra air conditioning and reducing integration costs. In addition, all the images on the screen are of the same quality to ensure consistent video quality control.

Since few, if any, cable companies will set aside their HD channels for local access, local governments have to provide one feed for cable and another for streaming video. To resolve that issue, PPI supplied equipment for a down-conversion from HD to standard definition for master control operations.

Live streaming and video on demand is hosted by an external Internet service provider that creates a URL so a viewer can click on a selected video and be redirected to the service provider’s website.

The user does not know the difference, it puts less of a burden on the local government’s website, and the government does not have to make a healthy investment in infrastructure required to support streaming video.