Spotlight Bloomfield:Rebuilding For Now and The Future But Recognizing The Past
By Bob Duthaler, Station Manager, Bloomfield
And So It Began… WBMA-TV (Channel 35) in Bloomfield, NJ has been in operation for over 45 years, making it one of the oldest municipal channels on Comcast. Its purpose was and still is to inform the Bloomfield Community of events happening throughout the township, while supporting open government through the playback of meetings on the cable channel. It started out like many stations across the state have, in a small space, a bunch of VHS players and a graphics system. Over the years the space in which the station operated grew larger, but much of the equipment stayed the same. VHS players, mixed with SVHS with shows being recorded on mini-dv, were the flavor through the early 2000s. Unfortunately, due to the death of the station manager, and a couple of short-term interim managers, the station was starting to fall by the wayside. Thankfully, a new board member who was experienced professionally in the industry, kept the station on life support, convincing the Township of Bloomfield and the Cable Advisory Board that the station needed to change both the way it operated and the technology at hand.
Timing Is Everything… Just like the timing was right for the station to change, so would the timing for its current Executive Director, Bob Duthaler to step in. Brought in by the Cable Advisory Council liaison and Board President in 2007, Duthaler hit the ground running. Fortunately, he had the support of the Township Council and Cable Advisory Board behind him. The station quickly converted from analog playout to a Telvue digital broadcast server and bulletin board system. Doing away with the racks of SVHS and VHS players, the station started down a new road. New edit systems, new studio cameras and file-based recorders all became the new norm for WBMA-TV. Within the next few years more township events were being covered, in addition to council, board of ed, planning and zoning meetings. The station soon began its own series of shows including Bloomfield Buzz TV, Saturday Night at the Movies, To Your Health Bloomfield and WBMA-TV Sports Coverage. Within a few short years, the station now had an operational studio, ENG cameras for remote events and the ability to do live events. They even pulled off an 8-hour live Harvest Fest Coverage with an outside studio for interviews, live music coverage and remote live “man on the street” interviews using microwave transmission. Duthaler will be quick to tell you that coverage of this event was possible due to all the Cable Advisory Board members pitching in as volunteers, along with several JAG members who also volunteered to help him as well.
Leap Forward… Skip ahead ten plus years and WBMA-TV remained strong in its operation, covering more township events than ever. There is a regular programming schedule, and the station continues to be a community fixture. WBMA-TV now includes an online presence with live streaming of the station on the township website, its own video on demand player with access to years of programming, along with now operating two channels on Comcast and three on Verizon. Operationally, WBMA-TV adapted to the changes over the years. “As volunteers started to become far and few between, we needed to start hiring freelancers to keep up with the coverage of events for which we were requested” said Duthaler. He continued to say, “The industry is always changing, and we learned to keep up with and adapt as necessary to that change. This is what has helped us remain a successful station. JAG has also played an important role in that as well, giving us access to vendors, equipment and conference workshops that teach us and help us grow.”
Who Knew It Was Coming… Then in 2018, WBMA-TV had developed a strong relationship with the Township’s IT Director along with continued support from the Mayor and Council and would begin to start its next phase of growth and expansion. The station took over the operation of the educational channel as well on both Comcast and Verizon. Soon, both Comcast and Verizon would run new fiber to the WBMA-TV studios in addition to placing digital encoders to receive the stations broadcast signal. WBMA-TV finally removed the last remaining analog component to its operation and became all digital in its broadcast. It would also be through the local franchise negotiations with Comcast, that Bloomfield had put in place for its future the running of fiber between the municipal building and the civic center, in which WBMA-TV was located. The plan was now to setup PTZ cameras and Dante Audio systems at the municipalities’ Council Chambers to send them back to the station control room via a network connection to produce meetings from the WBMA-TV studios. In addition to that project getting underway, the station also purchased a used video production truck from the negotiated franchise funds and was starting to create its own mobile production vehicle. Things were about to get underway with both projects, then the calendar read March 2020!
Lockdown, reinvention, LIVE… It all changed that second week in March, when we all got the word that everything was shutting down because of COVID-19. Fortunately for WBMA-TV, we had everything in place for operating the station remotely. Thankfully because of vendors associated with JAG like Telvue and Varto Technologies, we could already operate the station remotely, handling station programming, bulletin board updates, program insertion and more from remote locations. What WBMA-TV was now being challenged to do, how do we cover all meetings from remote locations, some in a hybrid situation and broadcast them live and on-air and social media. Thankfully, through the support of LiveU and their PEG bundling equipment and pricing we found that solution. So, with lots of COVID testing, masks, social distancing, a large monitor with Zoom, and our camera equipped with a LiveU 300 unit, we started out in uncharted waters of live, remote tv coverage from Conference Rooms at town hall, Media Centers at the HS Library or in large rooms with everyone spread out, we embarked on a new adventure that has changed our operations even today. We were now the Live Channel! We also ran daily live press conferences from the governor, health updates from township officials and regular updates from the mayor as well.
It Took Longer, but it’s here… COVID brought about changes in both the truck project and remote meeting coverage system. A new Tricaster TC-2 Elite was purchased during covid to replace the TC-1 in which we were about to install in the studio control room. The new unit allowed us to incorporate Zoom meeting directly into the switcher allowing for individuals to brought up on air as single shot. The TC-1 which was slated for the studio, now was put in to the truck, which started a yearlong build out of the vehicle (COVID and Supply Chain- not a winning combination). In addition, we continued the long road of battling COVID, lockdowns and mask wearing to build out the council chambers with PTZ cameras, incorporating Dante for audio and sending it across a fiber network from town hall to the studio control room about a mile away (as the fiber goes). It wasn’t long before we started doing all Zoom meetings in our control room, which allowed us better broadcasting quality, individual shot selections, presentation pull-ups and more, while broadcasting live on-air, streaming on the website and social media. We eventually came back in person for council and a zoom portion for public input. Hybrid meeting coverage was well underway. We also were rolling out OTT capabilities during this period. We launched our own Apple TV, ROKU, and Amazon Fire Channels. This now allowed cord cutters to be kept in the loop as well during the pandemic. Change was coming hard and fast (as fast as you can go during a pandemic) and the station was once again evolving. The Mayor, Council and Community all put their trust in the station to keep the community informed and involved during the pandemic, and WBMA-TV came through with flying colors.
New Era Underway… July 4th, 2022, WBMA-TV began its first remote production with its new vehicle. Coverage of Bloomfield’s annual July 4th Concert and Fireworks kicked off a new chapter for WBMA-TV. The new production truck would continue to cover summer concerts, parades and more, both live and live to tape (or hard drive). The Studio control room is fully operational for remote, live meeting coverage – in which live is the new norm now. The video production truck now has a replay system installed for future sports coverage and is working on getting its own power source for locations where two 30amp circuits are not setup to accommodate the vehicle. WBMA-TV also added its first high-definition channel on cable, with the new Verizon 2137 Channel. WBMA-TV is also working on creating an iOS and Android app, to make the station available on phones, computers, and tablets. The next phase in the evolution of the once Channel 35 is underway, again! Feel free to reach out to Bob Duthaler at WBMA-TV and have a look at the station’s operations, studio and production truck. Fun Fact: Channel 35 as it was known for years, as being on channel location 35 on Comcast, is called WBMA-TV. What does WBMA-TV mean? Watch Bloomfield Municipal Access TV. You can see the station’s website at www.wbmatv.com