Global Television, Canada’s second largest broadcaster, faced a major challenge as it considered the future and HD production of local news, says Global TV director of technology Gerry Belec.
How could it with 14 stations, many of which are in smaller markets like Red Deer and Lethbridge, ever hope to realize a return on its investment in HD technology needed to produce HD news? The answer, he says, resided in leveraging bandwidth put in place between the stations and a centralized master control center in Calgary as well as in taking advantage of the nation’s five time zones.
The solution, the brainchild of Global TV VP of engineering John O’Connor, puts the broadcaster on the path to supporting production of local HD newscasts in a manner that makes achieving a return on its investment possible. In this first of a two-part interview, Belec, who was a member of a five-person team O’Connor assembled, discusses the approach as Global TV prepares for the launch local HD newscasts throughout Canada.
HD Technology Update: Could you explain how Global Television arrived at the decision to use virtual news sets at its local stations with control rooms in four regional broadcast centers to roll out HD news?
Gerry Belec: The foundation of this was laid a couple of years ago with John O’Connor’s vision of connecting every one of Global’s 14 stations together in one centralized master control in Calgary [Alberta]. So, the first stage of the process was to centralize master control and build a centralized HD master control. In doing so, we had dedicated bandwidth between all 14 markets. That laid the foundation.
At the beginning of 2007, we were tasked with using this bandwidth for production. We were doing several things at the same time, including moving to the [Thomson] Grass Valley digital newsroom system. On one end of the spectrum, we have digitized and centralized our master control playout. On the other end, we started digitizing our aggregation process as far as a digital newsroom system, so it’s a tapeless system. In the middle of all that, you’ve got news production, and that’s what we started about a year ago. All three areas coincide.
Starting with the Grass Valley system, we were installing very large Grass Valley systems in the four production centers. Consider that Global Television has 14 stations, and we are serving these 14 stations with four production centers spread out across the time zones in Canada — one in Vancouver, Toronto and two on the prairie, one each in Edmonton and Calgary. We are connected with high-speed connectivity — a minimum of DS3 and can go as high as OC3.
HD Technology Update: How did the economics of HD local newscasts play into the decision to consolidate control room functions at these regional centers?
Gerry Belec: Once you start centralizing your master control, you start realizing there are other areas where you can find efficiencies in TV production. We started looking at our control rooms. It’s one thing to build a $3 million or $4 million production control for a large center like Vancouver or Toronto. Those are large markets, and you are going to have some kind of return on that investment with ratings. They’re highly rated newscasts with larger audiences. That’s not really a problem.
The problem lies in these small to midsized markets. The question became, how do we bring HD and digital news to the small markets, Red Deer, Lethbridge, Saskatchewan, Saskatoon and Regina, Halifax, Montreal? As you can appreciate, you can’t build a $3 million production center in these little towns and ever see a return.
So we started looking at leveraging our high-speed connectivity, which relies on the Harris NetVX as our transport, via telco and the fact that Canada has five and half time zones. In theory and practice, we built two very high-end control rooms in Vancouver with the [Snell & Wilcox] Kahunas. Not only are we using these sophisticated control rooms on our local newscasts, but we’re offsetting the times. For example, 2 o’clock in the afternoon in Vancouver is 5 o’clock in the afternoon in Halifax. So we basically are keeping our staff and our investment in these high-end control rooms very busy by doing the news for these other markets.
HD Technology Update: What are the ramifications of this approach to staffing requirements?
Gerry Belec: It’s important to understand that we are not replacing the reporters, the cameramen, the editors or the newsrooms in these markets; it’s far from that. We actually are making a huge investment in these small markets with Grass Valley digital newsrooms. The only thing they are not getting is a control room. So we’re using this high-speed virtual network to move content to our master control, but we’re moving our newsroom content from the editorial desktop to the Grass Valley playout servers in the centers.
One of the things we learned relatively quickly is that using FTP acceleration technology, we could actually move video from Halifax on the other side of the country to Vancouver faster than we could move it within the station. In essence, our reporters go out and shoot news and edit on the desktop in Halifax. We’re all looking at the same ENPS newsroom system.
When they finish editing something, it’s saved and goes into the placeholders, travels across the network and lands on the playout server in Vancouver in faster than real time. It’s important to realize, too, that we are still operating at SD resolutions right now, even though we are building the HD infrastructure.
HD Technology Update: When you complete this ongoing work, what approach will Global TV take to HD field acquisition?
Gerry Belec: When we finish this project a year from now, we’ll have built a digital HD-ready system, and we will probably go the route that many broadcasters go where we have HD studios with SD 16:9 field content upconverted.
News is going to be multidefinition for sometime. The No. 1 breaking news stories we’ve been playing in Vancouver typically have been recorded on cell phones, home video cameras, webcams and digital SLRs. We’re also aggregating SD content and HD content.
So the approach to news has to be multidefinition. I don’t think it can be HD end-to-end because that’s not the nature of news. Consider traffic cameras, helicopters, digital microwave — we’ve got a lot of infrastructure to change out to get to HD, but we are building a digital backbone that will make that migration easier when we need to get to it.
HD Technology Update: How does this remote control approach impact editorial control over the news product?
Gerry Belec: The local producers in the regions have affiliate producers, who are their advocate and liaison, in the production centers making sure their content and shows are marshaled from the newsroom to the control room with respect given to their shows. We are doing the Montreal and Halifax newscasts in Vancouver. We have to respect those markets, their needs and their editorial decisions. We’re simply the control room for them. That is key to this project.
HD Technology Update: How do you maintain the local feel and community presence of your stations?
Gerry Belec: The local anchors are fundamental to the success of any local newscast. They are members of the community; they’re on the billboards and the bus shelters. They’re at the local Lion’s meetings. They are a very important part of our local presence.
That became the next challenge. How do we now build an HD studio with all the bells and whistles in these smaller markets and improve the product and bring it into the HD world? We did that by leveraging Orad, Ultimatte and Telemetrics. In the smaller markets, we’ve purchased two studio cameras and the larger ones, three studio cameras that we remotely control from the production center using Telemetrics.
At least one camera in each of these markets uses a Telemetrics H Frame, which is spectacular. They are basically a remote-controlled jib that allows us to give a very high-end look to these virtual sets.
In each of these cameras, the heads are encoded and all of this tracking data comes back with the video and gets composited into the virtual set back in the production centers. We’re doing all the keying downstream. What’s really interesting is that we’re playing outstanding keys using Ultimatte on compressed video across 4000km.
We’re using Ikegami cameras and Canon lenses sitting on these Telemetrics heads, and the H Frame. It’s 12ft across and 10ft high, and it allows us to have a 10ft-high head movement across a 12ft track, getting spectacular moves of our desk and talent.
HD Technology Update: Besides reshaping the economics of the HD news equation, what other benefits has this centralized control and virtual studio approach presented?
Gerry Belec: By centralizing the production equipment in these production centers, not only does it allow us to use it across multiple regions, but now we’ve got the ability to build three-plus-one systems — or “N plus one.” In other words, we are buying redundant equipment because we are putting a lot of eggs in these baskets. If there is a failure, we have a backup. You can justify doubling your efforts on your gear because of the savings you’re making. That’s quite unique.
The other nice thing about this, too, is because all of the monitors on the virtual set are not real, we can build larger-than-real HD plasmas — set pieces that live in the virtual environment. Of course, we don’t have to feed those back across the 4000km. The Orads are local.
What’s really important to remember is that the delay across the entire network is about 300ms. We used to have a lot larger latency going up to the satellite and down. So there is a cultural change as far as cueing your talent and everything else, but television is a game of timing, and we’ve found our staff just hits their marks. They just know how to lead those server rolls, and the distance is inconsequential. When you are in the control room in Vancouver, you really don’t know or care that that newsroom is 4000km away.
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