Allbritton controls quality with color-coding, communication and plenty of gear
When it came time to occupy a new building, corporate siblings WJLA and cablecaster Newschannel 8 moved into a shared facility that uses technology and synergy to streamline the operation of both organizations.
At the time, the television systems were built from a mix of already-owned and new equipment and installed by two separate systems integration vendors.
WJLA (Washington's ABC affiliate) and Newschannel 8 are owned by Allbritton Communications. The parent company decided to move the over-the-air broadcaster from its Washington studios and the cable news operation from its suburban Virginia location to a combined facility in Arlington, Va. The new facility is spread over 76,000 square feet and includes WJLA (Channel 7) and three different Newschannel 8 feeds for Washington and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs.
Charged with the design and installation of the television systems was Mark Olingy, the director of engineering for WJLA. Olingy decided that the complex installation required a two-vendor approach to better leverage the specialties of the systems integrators. Olingy ultimately settled on The Systems Group (TSG) for the technical infrastructure and Pro Products Inc. (PPI) for the newsroom and studio systems.
"I looked for strengths," Olingy said. "PPI is a local company and it could be on-site for training on the newsroom systems, while TSG has strong experience with complex facilities like MTV."
Started in December 2001 and completed at the end of September 2002, TSG installed the core systems, including the main router, the intercom system, master reference generator and distribution and the master control room. PPI installed the studios, studio control rooms and the post-production rooms.
TSG supplied and installed about 80 racks of gear for the core systems and PPI supplied and installed another 115 racks. Almost all the video and audio signals are digital, although a few analog holdouts are scattered among the equipment.
Neatly laid out in overhead cable ladders, colorful cables snake throughout the system. Olingy used a color code that both integration vendors followed: green for SDI video; blue for digital audio; yellow for analog video; orange for blackburst; red for control; and black for cable TV.
The 8-input/10-output core video storage and retrieval system is built around Leitch VR-440 DDRs with MPEG-2 compression and a maximum capacity of 400 hours. A Leitch NewsSan comprises the news storage and retrieval system and uses the DV25 format and Fibre Channel II technology for a sustained data rate of 3 Gbps. The NewsSan has 14 channels, stores 640 hours of video and supports ingest transfers at four times normal speed. Leitch BrowseCutter II software is used for low-resolution desktop editing.
Several quality control stations are spread throughout the racks. Olingy said that his philosophy is to use these QC stations often to ensure that the signals are as clean as possible before they pass deeper into the system. The QC stations are a combination of Tektronix measurement gear and Ikegami CRT monitors.
The thread holding the core systems together is a Harris automation system, while the newsrooms are automated by the ENPS system from the Associated Press. Obviously, there are many points of interconnection between the two systems integration vendors, but Olingy found that the handshaking between the vendors was not an issue.
"It worked out very well - they played in the sandbox together with no problem," he said.
Although some equipment (notably studio cameras and camera support equipment) was reused from the two operations, the core of the system is mostly new. Among the many new products are 44 Leitch DPS-575 frame synchronizers, a 256 x 256 Thomson Grass Valley 7500 main router, two Thomson Grass Valley M2100 master control switchers and dozens of Clarity Lion rear-projection cubes for control-room monitoring.
The Clarity displays are fed from a combination of Avitech virtual monitor wall systems and Evertz Quattro SDI monitoring processors, giving the operators a free hand in placing images on a virtual monitor wall. With the Evertz Quattro devices, any video signal can be displayed with its associated audio and video levels, and some 15 technical parameters are automatically monitored. Alarms are triggered if the video and audio signals fall out of a specified range.
Olingy plans on the master control operators developing special presets for various circumstances, such as when WJLA is broadcasting a sports event and the different feeds of Newschannel 8 shift to special programming. In addition to the flexibility that the Clarity/Avitech/Evertz virtual monitor wall provides, Olingy expects other advantages from the virtual monitor wall system.
"The cost from a maintenance and operations standpoint will be lower," he said.
As client-furnished equipment needed to be removed from its existing location and integrated into the system, the Newschannel 8 operation had to work from a production trailer for one week before moving into the completed facility. A couple of weeks after Newschannel 8 moved into the Arlington studios, WJLA followed.
In addition to the Newschannel 8 studio, two studios were built for WJLA's news operation. One of these is an "open newsroom" style of studio; the other is a more traditional facility with enclosed walls. Each has its own control room with a somewhat different complement of equipment.
The control room for the open newsroom is anchored by a Grass Valley 4000 switcher, which was brought over from WJLA's old facility. An interesting feature of this control room is that there is no door to seal it from the newsroom studio - the on-air talent is about 16 feet away from the control room staff, with only a glass wall partly dividing the two spaces.
WJLA's more traditional news studio is fitted with a Ross Synergy 4 production switcher, purchased new for this system. All the news studio control rooms, including the Newschannel 8 control room, use the same Clarity/Avitech virtual monitor walls.
Many manufacturers are now providing IP ports on their products, and the integration vendors were responsible for building a computer network that linked the technical equipment. TSG engineers provided 200 IP nodes for the equipment they installed.
The master control for the combined facility can handle up to eight simultaneous feeds. Currently, Olingy said, there are "four-and-a-half" feeds, including the signals for WJLA and the Newschannel 8 feeds for Maryland, Washington and Virginia. The "half channel" is the DTV feed from WJLA, which was one of the first high-power DTV stations on the air.
The transmitter site for WJLA remains at its original location in Washington. The station uses a shared tower and shared antennas for both its analog and DTV transmissions and has no plans to move the transmitter site.
A leased fiber-optic line is WJLA's primary analog studio-transmitter link (STL), and the TwinStream system from Microwave Radio Communications provides the station's primary DTV STL and backup analog STL. WJLA's Harris FlexiCoder is located at the studio site and the 19.4 Mbps DTV signal is carried by the TwinStream to the transmitter.
Combining the technical facilities for WJLA and Newschannel 8 will ultimately result in some cost-savings for corporate parent Allbritton Communications. But Olingy seemed excited about the interaction between the people at the two operations.
"We got great synergy by combining the two staffs," he said.
And how did using two integration vendors really work out? Olingy, who has designed several facilities and also has a background in systems integration, knew that once you have good integrators on the project, the rest is a matter of supervision and communications.
"I had a lot of faith in the process," he said.