BOB HESSKAMP AND MICHAEL KOETTER /
08.15.2011
Originally featured on BroadcastEngineering.com
CNN standardizes across all of its platforms

As CNN brings content to air on CNN, CNN International, CNN en Espanol and HLN, and to the Internet on CNN.com, our goal is to leverage our substantial volume of unique news content as fully as possible in telling compelling and meaningful stories. Last year, we replaced aging feeds-ingest, edit and playout infrastructure at our Atlanta facilities with a new HD infrastructure. With this upgrade, we took on the challenge of building an integrated production environment that would enable journalists to find and access the best of the media gathered by our global news organization.

The Broadcast Engineering & System Technology (BEST) and Image and Sound teams here worked with Omneon (now part of Harmonic) Broadcast Solutions Group, Adobe, Apple, Avid, Cisco, IPV, Sony, Telestream and Vizrt to design, install and bring online the systems comprising our new production environment.

We decided not to settle for an existing system but instead to leverage our partnerships and our own staff to define and develop an open HD infrastructure and media asset management system that could supply video to all of our platforms, integrate well with our archive and make it easy for journalists to get the video they need to do their jobs. In doing so, we achieved a number of firsts.

We were the first to use the combination of the Omneon Media Application Server (MAS) and the Omneon MediaGrid active storage system as a production system. We also achieved significant industry firsts in our use of MXF in Apple Final Cut Pro with the addition of Sony's Cinemon plug-in, and in our integration of Adobe After Effects and Adobe Premiere Pro functionality into our internal MAM system. These variables meant that we had to be dynamic in anticipating and handling the rollout, and we managed it successfully, implementing a system that will help drive our business forward.

Development

From day one of the project, our stakeholders were represented. We adopted a new Agile development process (Scrum), going through iterative development cycles right next to internal clients, whose ability to see our work early on was key to the project's success. The MAS environment simplified development by providing an intelligent middleware layer between stored media content and the applications used to access or process content. During our testing phase, collaboration among our development team, the engineering team and operations helped us to ensure that we tested almost every single scenario we might face in production. It was a careful yet fast process, as we were able to test and adjust quickly with new builds and fixes. During actual rollout, this earlier work helped us to maintain the performance required by the 24-hour news cycle.

Ingest

Within the new HD production infrastructure now online, we use MXF Op1a-wrapped HD XDCAM 35 as our house format, from pulling content off cameras to editing, archiving and fulfillment. This approach has allowed us to eliminate transcoding or reingest of 35Mb/s content and thereby maintain image quality while keeping file sizes small enough for fast, efficient movement around our facility and from bureau to bureau.

The MAS presents a single virtualized view of content across all Harmonic managed systems, including Omneon MediaDeck ingest server systems, two 126TB MediaGrid systems and Spectrum playout servers. The server also allows our internally developed media management system, MediaSource-2, to access media metadata easily, thus providing robust search functionality to journalists, and to trigger system functions such as file movement and transcoding. Our media management system also provides workflow integration with our Vizrt Viz Dart front-end ingest system, Final Cut Pro editors and other systems across the CNN enterprise.

Editing

The Sony Cinemon plug-in supports the direct import and editing of XDCAM MXF files in Final Cut Pro and facilitates the edit-during-ingest approach that allows our journalists to edit growing files on the MediaGrid and to move stories to air quickly. Cinemon preserves the quality of edited media by performing a GOP-splice render that cleans up long-GOP content so that there is an I-frame on the in and outpoint of a mid-GOP edit. This technique preserves the native encoding from the MediaDeck system or XDCAM camera and maintains image quality.

The new proxy edit system we devised in collaboration with Adobe and IPV provides a journalist-friendly user interface to Premiere Pro and a facility-friendly backend render environment, both of which are fully integrated with MediaSource-2. Seconds after an ingest begins, journalists can use the simplified Adobe Premier Pro user interface to edit low-resolution proxy video generated by our IPV system. Completed timelines can be conformed to our house format automatically by the MediaSource render management service attached to the MediaGrid system. While the autoconform process can support any effects employed by Adobe Premiere Pro, we continue to rely on our Final Cut Pro systems and editors for craft editing. This powerful and cost-effective new model makes true location-independent production a reality by eliminating the need to move high-resolution files around our facilities.

With this new production infrastructure, we tied all of our production operations together in a way never before achieved. The vastly improved workflow we've put in place at CNN Atlanta allows produced content to be taken to air or Web in a matter of minutes. Any media cut by any network (or for any network) is available for playback on any other CNN network, as well as to our more than 1000 affiliates worldwide via our Newsource services. We're now going ahead with plans to roll out this architecture at other bureaus around the world.

The future

We're seeing more and more companies take this kind of open IT approach, with MXF as a production format gaining a lot of steam. Widespread vendor support for MXF and MPEG as a meaningful production format indicates that this type of agile integrated production system will only become easier to build. Moving forward, our engineering team is contributing to this trend through its involvement in the development of an application specification, through AMWA, for simple MXF acquisition and production. The specification, AS10, will be based on SMPTE RDD9 and provide a significantly simpler and faster means of validating that files will work within a given MXF production ecosystem. There are already a significant number of camera, edit, transcode and playout vendors on the team, and we have great hopes for the value this will bring to the industry.

Bob Hesskamp is SVP CNN Broadcast Engineering and Systems Technology (BEST), Turner Broadcasting/CNN, and Michael Koetter is VP News Technology Planning and Development, CNN BEST.



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