Bob Kovacs /
11.23.2010 10:00 AM
C-SPAN Works Through Major Upgrade

Most television viewers are familiar with C-SPAN (Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network) for its broadcasts of just about anything to do with the workings of the U.S. government—especially Congress.

C-SPAN has three identical master control rooms—this is the control room for C-SPAN2.
by Bob Kovacs

Created by the cable TV industry in 1979, C-SPAN is chartered as a non-profit educational organization funded by cable companies across the United States and available to 86 million U.S. viewers. Coming as a surprise to many of those viewers is that—despite its strong focus on the U.S. government—C-SPAN is not a government television operation, even if all its programming revolves around the intimate operations of federal Washington.

Today, C-SPAN employs 275 and produces three 24-hour cable television channels with programming increasingly in high-definition. In addition, there is C-SPAN Radio, available across the country via XM Satellite Radio, the Internet and an iPhone app, as well as via FM and HD Radio in the Washington-Baltimore area.

C-SPAN’s three television channels (called C-SPAN, C-SPAN2 and C-SPAN3) originate from the organization’s Washington, D.C. complex, a building it shares with NBC News, MSNBC and Fox News. Just blocks from the U.S. Capitol, C-SPAN has dozens of dedicated circuits (mostly fiber) wired into Congress and into the many committee rooms quartered in the buildings adjacent to the Capitol where the senators’ and representatives’ offices are located.

In the middle of a $15 million renovation of its television systems, C-SPAN is working with contractor Ascent Media to upgrade just about everything, while maintaining its gavel-to-gavel coverage mandated by Congress.

“We’ve been working on this for more than year and have about 15 to 18 months more to go,” said Roxane Kerr, vice president of technology for C-SPAN.

THE FIRST UPGRADES

The first major systems upgraded—with identical equipment—were the three control rooms that feed C-SPAN, C-SPAN2 and C-SPAN3. Those rooms have Grass Valley Maestro master control switchers, Chyron Camio database-driven graphics systems and monitor walls fed by Miranda Kaleido multiimage processors. Of course, all three rooms support high-definition, of which C-SPAN handles in increasing quantities.

Small Logitek audio mixers control voice-booth tasks (each master control room has its own voice booth), and the switchers use Evertz keyers for downstream graphic insertion. Grass Valley Concerto 64×64 routers and RTS intercom systems round out the primary equipment complement in the master control rooms.

The rooms are filled with professional-grade equipment, except for one important component: monitors. For its monitor walls, C-SPAN uses Samsung consumer-grade LED-backlit LCD monitors, an increasingly popular trend for professional control rooms. In the darkened master control rooms at C-SPAN, high contrast images pop off the monitors, making it difficult to miss any video problems.

An unexpected and important development within the federal government occurred while C-SPAN was in the middle of its long-term upgrade project: the nomination of Elena Kagan to the U.S. Supreme Court. Because broadcasts of Senate confirmation hearings have contributed to C-SPAN’s success, the network requested in early May that work on the control room be expedited.

Suddenly, the need to broadcast Kagan’s confirmation hearing became the driving force for Ascent Media to complete the C-SPAN3 control room as quickly as possible. Despite the pressures, Ascent Media rose to the challenge and completed the project by June 21, timely enough for C-SPAN3 to become the pool feed for the Kagan hearings.

‘A BUSY PROCESS’

Although the rooms act as master control, they are somewhat more complicated than the typical master control, said Mario Patuto, Ascent Media’s senior systems technologist.

“It’s actually a simplified production control room,” he said. “It’s a pretty busy process for the operator.”

Much remains to be done at C-SPAN for its longterm project, including moving the sizable equipment room from its present location to a larger room on the floor below. Racks filled with Rhozet transcoders, Harris X50 frame syncs and a variety of encoders and processing equipment will need to somehow be moved and integrated on another floor while C-SPAN stays on the air. The old standard-definition servers now in use may not make the trip, however.

Ascent Media will do some of the work at its East Coast headquarters in New Jersey, while a good portion of the integration will occur on-site at C-SPAN. One thing that will be preserved and upgraded from C-SPAN’s current system is a massive Sun StorageTek archive system that holds 4,000 data cassettes and three tape drives. The current 200 GB tape cartridges and tape drives will be upgraded to 2 TB cartridges and drives.

In the new equipment room, dozens of empty Middle Atlantic equipment racks stand—seemingly at attention—waiting for their turn at the integration process. “We will ship many of these racks to Ascent Media when it’s time to integrate,” Kerr said. When the equipment room integration occurs, several C-SPAN engineers will work side-by-side with Ascent Media’s staff, Kerr added. That makes Ascent Media’s task is to oversee a multiyear, multi-million dollar equipment integration which takes place at two locations separated by three states, and worked on by the staffs of two companies.

Roxane Kerr, vice president of technology for C-SPAN and Richard Fleeson, chief engineer, stand outside the John Saeman Master Control Room.
“We have a good feel for how much labor it takes to get it done,” Patuto said.

MAXIMIZE EFFORT

A good relationship between the integrator and client is important to minimize misunderstandings and maximize effort.

“We have a great relationship with C-SPAN,” said Julia Burton, vice president of sales and integration for Ascent Media.

Providing unblinking coverage of the U.S. government is a massive undertaking, but C-SPAN has been doing it with increasing levels of coverage and technical skill for more than 30 years. However, C-SPAN is showing its age, for much of the network’s current facilities are worn out and in dire need of upgrades which somehow must be completed at the same time C-SPAN serves its core mission of keeping a steady television eye on the government.

Bob Kovacs can be reached at bob@bobkovacs.com.



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