Originally featured on
Apr 9

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4/9/2009 10:00 AM  RssIcon

green-electricity.jpgNot so long ago, a TV station’s rack room was an area housing multiple racks filled with a dozen chassis-powering graphics, intercom systems and signal distribution equipment. These devices consumed perhaps 10A per rack, generated little heat and were generally ignored.

The real broadcast action was in the master control room (MCR). Here one would find multiple tape machines, perhaps a library tape machine for automation, gulping enormous amounts of power. Also there would be the master control switcher and film chain, each with an additional operator and perhaps a dozen or so video monitors located around the room. One operator was responsible for handling several tape decks. The area was abuzz with activity.

Working in dimmed lights, engineers and operators moved between devices loading videotapes, recording network feeds and assisting with production chores. These control centers represented the pinnacle of broadcast activities, and this was real television.

But the heart of today’s broadcast centers increasingly resembles data centers, rooms filled with racks of servers, blades and other rack-mounted equipment. Practically everything used in today’s master control room relies on a computer. The tape machines, if they are used at all, are much smaller and there are usually only a few of them. Instead, video is stored on servers, hard disks. Graphics are no longer static slides, but moving, dynamic images complete with sound. Sure, there’s lots of video moving around a television station, but it’s often just digital bits — another file. And, there are fewer humans involved in moving pictures from station to viewer.

Such changes may sound innocent enough, but digital technology is forcing broadcasters and production houses to handle video differently, and this requires a new approach to facility design and operation.

Making digital decisions

Over the next few weeks, a series of articles will examine more closely how facilities need to be designed differently to handle digital video content. Readers will learn about the unique demands digital video equipment makes on content facilities. We’ll see how a modern, efficient MCR more closely resembles a data center than control rooms of a few years ago.

This series will look at the decisions that need to be made when building a new broadcast facility, machine room, newsroom or other digital content space. There are specific steps, calculations, simulations and planning that should be performed when creating the proper environment for both people and equipment. In addition, there are new regulations, both state and federal, and failure to properly follow these guidelines may result in additional costs or fines.

Finally, we will examine the basis, both financial and environmental, behind certain types of technical decisions. The articles will review how, for instance, just adding 6in of extra wiring space beneath your racks can reduce cooling costs while increasing the speed of the ROI. The articles will illustrate ways to use renewable sources as both design and creative components. Such decisions can increase versatility, reduce costs and highlight a station or production center as a good corporate citizen.

Along with each article will be a series of Web-based resources. These resources will both enhance and expand on the knowledge presented here. Armed with this background, engineers will be well positioned to make better technical and eco-responsible decisions.

Why be green?

The availability of power is increasingly a concern when broadcasters build or expand. In the past, the primary building location criteria was “how much floor space can we get?” Some broadcasters have even found themselves reaching the limit of available electricity at their current locations. The costs to rebuild an entirely new power feed to a combination studio/transmitter building can be millions of dollars. That would hardly be an efficient use of capital when the goal was to just rebuild MCR.

The consumption of power is almost invisible. The studio lights come on for the evening news. Video servers hum and spit out pictures. Broadcasters seldom think about power. Its use in most facilities is practically invisible. It must be a cost-free resource, right?

Unfortunately, every kilowatt used has to come from somewhere. In the United States, approximately 50 percent of our electricity comes from coal-fired power plants, many of which are aging and have reached their output capacities. Nuclear energy supplies about 20 percent of the electricity used in the United States, leaving the remaining 30 percent divided between natural gas, solar, wind and hydroelectric plants. Electrical power is becoming an ever increasingly expensive commodity. And, with the president’s proposed cap and trade legislation, electricity costs are only going to increase. All these factors make conservation a key goal for any business.

Just as bad, this nation’s power grid is fraying at the edges. Despite the administration’s plan to build a digital power grid, many experts say that spending billions of dollars creating an “intelligent grid” is short sided, because the power grid itself is unreliable. See the references at the end of this article.

Broadcasters need to be more efficient. When you add the importance of being an environmentally friendly business with reams of new regulations regarding power consumption, it becomes obvious that broadcasters have a financial incentive and corporate responsibility to be as efficient as possible when it comes to the use of electricity.

The next column will begin our discussion of the two most important spaces in a video content facility: the master control room and the machine room.

Additional resources:

The reliability of America’s power grid

Updating the smart grid

Patching the grid

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