Anne Imanuel is the local news anchor in Salisbury, Maryland. And Meridian, Mississippi. And Hattiesburg. And Gainesville, Florida.
She anchors newscasts for all those markets from west Little Rock, playing her part in a technology-driven shift that is upending the business model for small-market TV stations.
In a chilled 31,000-SF multimedia center at Shackleford Drive and Shackleford Road, Imanuel works for The Media Gateway LLC, a pioneer in the growing world of remote TV station operations.
Producing newscasts is just one service at Media Gateway, which has an even bigger job distributing TV stations' programming 24 hours a day via internet protocol systems. Both lines of business reflect a trend of outsourcing of tasks once routine at individual stations.
Imanuel and her colleagues coordinate their newscasts for viewers hundreds of miles away, with small teams of journalists on the ground in each market providing local reporting.
"Every 30 to 60 minutes I'm anchoring in a different city," Imanuel told Arkansas Business. "I need to constantly stay updated on the issues that matter to those communities."
It's a new kind of newscasting in a consolidating industry where master control functions, the last line of quality control before broadcast, are increasingly being outsourced.
Media Gateway specializes in that sort of outsourcing, offering to save TV stations two-thirds of the usual cost for some functions. For a monthly fee it will, as its website puts it, "take over the headache of television master control and playout through our central facility."
Under the day-to-day leadership of Managing Partner Jeff Lyle and the watchful eye of New York investor Matthew Davidge, a British-born client of Lyle's who was impressed enough to buy in, Media Gate-way has become "the back room" to dozens of TV stations.
"We take signals off satellites, line up the programming with local commercials, programs and newscasts, and ship it right to the stations' broadcast transmitters, cable outlets and Dish and DirecTV, all by IP," Lyle said. "We also have the people and equipment to let stations outsource their newscasts, and do them better than they could have done on their own."
Hubbing, as the centralized approach is known, is a future that has already arrived, Davidge told Arkansas Business.
"In 10 years, all of the small-market stations will be doing it that way," he said. "The large-market stations may beat their chests and say look at how many anchors and rooms of computers we have." But for smaller markets grappling with shrinking margins as viewers turn away from traditional TV habits, "this makes a great deal of business sense."
1 Shackleford Drive, with 23 massive satellite dishes outside, is a computer-lover's wonderland, a warren of large, heavily air-conditioned rooms filled with millions of dollars' worth of equipment.
"We've got 30 gigs going through that facility," Davidge said, "bigger bandwidth than your internet service provider. There's a lot going on there."
Media Gateway uses Level 3 Windstream, and its "big new pipe" of bandwidth is from Unite Private Networks, a provider based in the Kansas City area and partly owned by Cox Communications.
In Media Gateway's spacious Playout Center, employees program the output of 60 TV stations — up from about a dozen just a year ago — along with three television networks and two talk radio networks. Beyond lining up the content and distributing the signal, Media Gateway handles Federal Communications Commission compliance issues like closed captioning. The company has 45 full- and part-time workers, including five news anchors, three sports anchors and three meteorologists, and is on track to reach a goal of 70 full-time positions, with an average wage of $15.50 an hour, by March of next year, Lyle said. That employment level is the standard for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission to consider $500,000 in state aid to be repaid in full.
"We're on a steady growth track, and we've almost doubled our revenue over the last two years," Lyle said, though he wouldn't reveal financial details. "We're adding two newscasts next month, and two more the month after that." Media Gateway is handling about 20 local newscasts now from two different studios at 1 Shackleford Drive.
The company's service can "dramatically cut" newscast expenses, typically the largest single cost faced by local TV outlets, leaving stations free from capital expenses, compliance worries or the cost of maintenance and equipment upgrades. "The local stations can concentrate on ad sales and marketing," Lyle said. Small news staffs can pursue local stories and issues without worrying about studio overhead.
Davidge used a hypothetical example: "If you're in Wyoming and have a TV station, a visitor now might go there and see four salespeople working hard to sell the ads and a small news team gathering the local news, and that's it. No machinery in the back, no satellite dish, no big anchor desk or 2,000-SF studio. Somebody else is pulling down the programming, inserting the commercials and news and streaming it all back to Wyoming. We've changed the model."
The economics are simple, Davidge said. "Instead of building a studio, putting $400,000 into equipment, hiring anchors and paying them and providing benefits and having all that ongoing cost, you can come to Media Gateway and we will do all that for $12,500 a month, at zero capital cost. And this is an approach that some TV chains have taken to some extent. Nexstar and Sinclair have been hubbing their signals."
Austin Kellerman, the news director at KARK, Little Rock's Nexstar Media Group station, wrote in an email that at his station "there's no news hubbing beyond the traditional sharing" of reports with other Nexstar stations serving Arkansas viewers. But Nexstar does hub many of its master control operations.
"In Little Rock, our master control runs stations in LR, Fayetteville, Monroe, Shreve-port — and of all places — Hagerstown, Maryland," Kellerman wrote.
Nick Genty, news director for Sinclair's Little Rock station, KATV, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
One of Media Gateway's clients is Soul of the South, the 24-hour regional broadcast network targeting black viewers that was closely associated with 1 Shackleford Drive before the network was devastated by financial problems.
But Davidge and Lyle said Media Gateway has moved beyond its past association with Soul of the South, which went through bankruptcies, lawsuits and scrutiny by state entities that gave it financial support, including the AEDC.
Anne Imanuel is married to AEDC Director Mike Preston, and her hiring at 1 Shackleford Drive two years ago made news because of that connection. But Davidge made two points: First, "AEDC made the business development grant to Soul of the South long before Mike Preston came to town." Second, "Anne was hired because she's great at her job. Her husband's coming to work in Little Rock was fantastic for us, and I'm glad we grabbed her first."
Davidge added that while he has an "outstanding relationship" with several AEDC leaders, including Bryan Scoggins, the business finance director, he has never met Preston. "There's froth around the history of the building and some of the people associated with it, but there's none whatsoever in how Anne got to read the news for us."
Soul of the South's struggles are largely in the public record, and "it's been a subject of a lot of debate and discussion," Davidge said. Doug McHenry, the Soul of the South CEO who has steered the network through its crisis and attempts to appease creditors and investors, "now has a tight little operation, with solid plans for the future. Media Gateway has moved on."
Davidge gives much of the credit for Media Gateway's resilience to Lyle.
"Jeff has been doing TV over IP for 15 years; when he started nobody did it this way," Davidge said. "When he came up with that idea it was revolutionary. Then, over time it became evolutionary, and now it's ‘of course we do it.' And if something quits working, Jeff Lyle is the guy you want next to you with his screwdriver — but, of course, with Jeff it's not a screwdriver, but a computer."
A technological shift from satellite distribution to fiber-optic IP methods was a key development, Lyle said. While satellites offer a great way to distribute content if you're shipping exactly the same network programs to hundreds of stations — "NBC Nightly News" to every NBC affiliate, for instance — IP distribution is far more economical for sending unique content to individual stations.
After spending as much as $250,000 a month to send 30 different channels of standard definition signal via satellite just a few years ago, Lyle is now spending less than 10 percent of that to send multiple gigabytes of high-definition signal to dozens of stations by IP.
"The migration of technology toward fiber offers more bandwidth, and more reliability," Lyle said. "Fiber in the ground is more reliable than signals from the sky, of course, until somebody cuts the cable with a backhoe."
Davidge said that when he first saw 1 Shackleford Drive as the part owner of a TV station and Media Gateway client, he was hooked. "I saw this and knew this was the future, so I bought in with Jeff."
The best aspect for viewers at home, Lyle said, is that the quality of the broadcasts they're seeing actually improves with hubbing. "It doesn't really matter that the work is being done in Little Rock," he said. "From the viewer's perspective, all you see is a superior product."
Between newscasts, Anne Imanuel said that technology makes remote operations practical, but nothing will replace some human connection.
"I lived in Gainesville for six years, so I'm intimately familiar with the roads, businesses and issues," she said. "I've had the chance to visit our Salisbury market several times to host parades there," and she said she looks forward to spending time in the other cities where she's seen.
"Overall, it's a privilege to be the local news anchor in so many markets throughout the country. I may call Arkansas home, but I really care about what's happening in each place that I travel to virtually each night."