WEST CHESTER, PA.
“All right, we have just two left—just two before we run out,” intones a QVC employee. “We’ve going to have to close this out soon.”
| QVC engineer Mike Sheffer connects one of the 40 new studio cameras.|
No, this isn’t a household item being sold with the usual sales patter heard on the QVC network. It’s spoken this time as part of the effort to make sure that the marathon camera-swapping program the network has embarked upon stays on schedule.
Early in 2006, QVC decided that it was time to replace its aging standard-definition Sony and Hitachi studio cameras with Sony HDC-1500 high-definition models. A total 40 new cameras were ordered, along with 60 Canon HD studio and field lenses. Plans were made also for upgrading camera robotics with new Vinten units supplied by Vitec.
“What a lot of people don’t understand is that we’re one of the largest multimedia retailers in the world,” said Angie Simmons, QVC senior vice president of broadcasting and TV sales. “One of the biggest things we’re concerned with is making sure our customers can make a really informed buying decision. For us, it was a natural transition to upgrade our studio facility—allowing customers to see merchandise more clearly. With items such as jewelry and apparel this makes a big difference. This was the big driver for us.”
Under any circumstances, an equipment removal and installation project of this magnitude is not something to be rushed into. And after it was determined that the cameras could not be installed on a “staggered” or phased-in basis, QVC personnel, at all levels, began a lengthy series of planning meetings and dress rehearsals on the best way to accomplish the project.
It was ultimately decided that the engineering personnel would be allowed only a 12-hour window in which to perform the switchout. This amounted to just 18 minutes per camera.
WHY THE RUSH?
Has there ever been such a rush to put new television cameras on the air?
Probably not, according to Ron Schiller, QVC’s director of broadcast engineering and technology. But this was a special case. As virtually all of QVC’s telecasts are live, 24 hours per day, there was no downtime available.
Schiller further explained that there was really no choice when it came down to an all or nothing camera replacement. It was felt that if the change-out were to be performed over an extended period, viewers would notice inconsistencies in the appearance of products being offered for sale and that could have a negative impact on business.
“Being a live retailer, we didn’t have the luxury of switching cameras over at will,” he said. “In our testing of cameras, we saw that there was a real discrepancy in the way they looked over the air. This was based on our in-house testing with typical products.”
QVC (Quality, Value, Convenience) is one of the largest retailers in the world, yet possesses only has a handful of retail stores. The majority of the business comes from electronically pitching products to prospective customers via television and 23 on-camera hosts.
| Sony representative Steve Flynn (foreground) and QVC System Engineer Frank Palmisano make sure everything is just right with one of the new CCUs.|
And business via the airwaves is good.
On one record-setting occasion, viewers committed $80 million in orders in a single day. The QVC record for orders shipped in a single day exceeds 246,000 units, and the operation boasts a record 24 million hits in a 24-hour period on its Web site on the occasion of QVC’s 20th Founder’s Day in June 2006.
TELEVISION AS IT USED TO BE
Since television is the heart and soul of QVC’s marketing operations, the broadcasting facility here is big, with no expense spared to make it absolutely first rate. There’s both a very large physical plant and equally large production and engineering staffs. Electrons flow through more than 400 miles of cable here.
In many respects, operations at QVC are reminiscent of television as it existed in the early 1950s—before there was a lot of network-supplied programming and before video recording technology was available. To ensure a steady flow of programming, larger stations relied on multiple studio setups, with programming shifting from one theatre of operations to another throughout the day.
The QVC facility features a 20,000-square-foot main studio, with an enormous home set occupying most of that space. The set is a one-of-a-kind effort, in that it accurately replicates virtually all areas of a large American home—complete with an outdoor sundeck and very large bathroom with all fixtures plumbed and operational (with the exception of the toilet). Other amenities in this “home” include three different kitchen areas, a formal dining room and even an operational fireplace.
The “home” is A/V wired and lighted so that broadcasts can take place from any area, hence the need for 40 more or less permanently stationed cameras.
The QVC production facility also includes a 135-seat audience participation studio and a fully-equipped set and scenic construction shop and storage facility, which was typical of most medium- to large-sized television operations when the majority of programming was live and locally produced. There are also four green rooms. About the only thing missing are staff musicians.
It’s doubtful that the Guinness World Records book will ever have a category for camera swapping, but if it did, based on the work that went on here, the QVC operation would probably qualify for the top slot.
The operation began on schedule and without fanfare at 6 p.m. on May 23, and continued until 6 a.m. the following day.
More than 200 people were involved in the mammoth operation, which involved not only camera head and CCU replacement, but also installation of new robotics systems and lenses, as well as a change from copper cabling to fiber in some areas.
To make the proposition even more intriguing, new Sony MVS-8000A studio switchers and a plant router were also involved. Beck Associates, a Totowa, N.J.-based systems integrator, was given the responsibility for overall integration efforts.
“We had some 40 support venders from the different companies involved, plus our own technical and operational staffs,” Schiller said.
Once the commitment was made for the camera swap, the network initiated a large-scale training and logistics program involving virtually everyone even remotely connected with air operations.
“We initially met every week,” Schiller said. “Then, as we got closer, twice a week, and then every day. People had to be trained to use the new equipment too. Our training program started in January of this year. It didn’t just cover camera operations, but involved production switcher training and many other areas.”
“This technology change had an impact across all of our broadcasting operations,” Simmons said. “This included lighting, makeup and how our products are shot—there was a lot of learning. This has been really an exciting time for us, both the learning experience and the new technology.”
Schiller said that the operation went surprisingly smooth, but he added that no one took any chances or left anything up to the imagination.
“We had developed a good plan and there was a good execution,” he said. “Every possible risk was anticipated as much as we could. We addressed everything that we thought could go wrong, but really none of what was anticipated happened.”
“For a project of this scope and magnitude it was really anticlimactic,” Simmons said. “From my standpoint there was, of course, the last minute anxiety of cutting over, but it went very smoothly. Our people were all focused on a common goal. This included our control room staff, floor managers, security people—even our commissary. Everyone understood their role and helped to make it happen.”
According to Schiller, there were some last minute changes and touch ups to the master plan, but even that contingency had been anticipated.
“We had set up a command center with technical triage to disperse personnel as needed,” Schiller said. “We had two staging areas and teams with subject matter experts—engineers from both Beck and Sony—to deal with any last minute issues.”
At the end of the ordeal, Schiller reported large numbers of exhausted personnel prostrated on studio and hallway floors.
“That was one big caffeine letdown crash,” Simmons said.
Schiller and Simmons said that the network would be hosting a “victory celebration” party later this month for all hands involved.
Schiller pointed out that even though high-definition cameras and switching gear had been installed, the network would not be jumping to HD operations just yet.
“We’re production-ready now in terms of being able to do multiple formats,” he said. “And while we’re not announcing any HD plans, we are positioning ourselves to be ready when the time comes.”
When asked if the retired cameras might be offered for sale on QVC, Simmons was quick with her answer.
“No! We can safely tell you that,” she said. “You won’t be seeing them any more around here.”
Actually, plans for disposal of the obsolete cameras had been made months before the May 23 event.
“All of them were already sold before we started removing them,” Schiller said. “They’re all gone now. In fact as soon as they were pulled out they were placed on pallets and from there went to trucks that were waiting outside to take them to their new owner.”