Tech Wizardry Controls Network

Sep 22, 2003  •  Post A Comment

It kind of works on the same idea as ATMs.

When Jamie Kellner came up with a plan to distribute The WB Network via a string of cable operators and broadcasters and give the stations a local identity in each market, he needed the tech guys to make it happen.

“No one had ever done anything like this before,” said Chris Cookson, president of Warner Bros. Technical Operations. “At the time, we were working on video compression, developing digital video disc technology.”

That research, and the subsequent evolution of MPEG II technology, was crucial in the development of the SIB (station in a box) unit, a box about 5.25 inches high that has a computer brain. Created by Warner Bros. and IBM, the box, which is located in cable offices and broadcast stations in all 109 station locations, receives a data feed from a satellite-basically file transfers-and that feed is then transmitted via cable to viewers as programming and advertising on The WB. The WB pays for SIB units in each of the stations or cable offices across the country, to the tune of about $9,000 each, according to Two Blue Rhino founder Nory LeBrun, who helped bring in the cablers.

“It’s kind of like e-mail,” Mr. Cookson said.

While Warner Bros. and IBM created the initial file transfer management system, Mr. Cookson said, technology has since moved on and later systems are not based on the same hardware content. “This isn’t something that is proprietary in any way,” he said, “but we were lucky to be able to realize its usefulness early on.”

In addition to receiving the data for the programming, the SIBs also receive data feed for local advertising and local call letters-but each SIB box has its own address and knows when to pick up the local programming or call letter identification for its particular market.

“If we have an ad for a local car dealer in Beaumont, Texas, we send a file on the satellite addressed to the box in Beaumont,” Mr. Cookson said. “And only that box captures it and stores it on the hard disk.”

Each box also receives a playlist telling it when to air programming, when to insert commercials and so on.

“It’s basically mimicking what a TV station does, but it’s just a few inches of hardware sitting at a headend,” Mr. Cookson said.

The transmissions are sent from a WB facility near Los Angeles International Airport, and all 109 stations around the country are monitored by employees in Los Angeles. Executives said they can operate the nationwide channel group at 10 percent of the usual cost of running a nationwide station group, and they contend that the system works with very few problems.

“The boxes call in on a regular basis to report what they’ve been doing,” Mr. Cookson said. “If there’s a problem, several things can be done to correct it without actually having to travel there.”

What if the box forgets to call in? “Then we can tell it to call in,” Mr. Cookson said. “And it will listen.”