Lowering Production Costs

After 25 years in the broadcast industry Italian TV production company Eta Beta has never been busier. Its operations now span ten OB trucks and five studios across Naples, Rome, and Milan. However, the company realized two key issues with its business model. First, it was duplicating investments in equipment; and, second, it operated with a distinct and consistent pattern, with sporting events at weekends and other more general productions on weekdays.

With these findings, Eta Beta sought to create a new style of OB truck that would minimize capital expenditure, while also maintaining production flexibility. This effort has resulted in the highly modular FLEXIVAN OB truck.

It was obvious that we just weren’t optimizing our resources between our OB van and studio productions. It was frustrating that on certain days, for some jobs, we were limited with the amount of kit available (especially for OBs), whilst on other days much of the kit in a studio or truck was sitting idle. It was this inefficient return on investment that triggered our FLEXIVAN concept.

The main issue with a traditional OB truck set-up is that each vehicle and each studio has very different and independent ‘glued-in’ ecosystems. There is no mobility or flexibility at the core of these facilities, which usually consist of a very large kernel with many trunk lines between fixed production areas.

We began developing a solution that was based on a ‘star’ connected kernel or core, with very few trunk lines to many ‘plug & play’ expandable production areas or islands, which we now call MOW (Module Optical Wired) islands. This design can create very solid and flexible modules, which address all the key production area elements, such as cameras, audio mixers, servers, VTRs, signal processing, and monitoring.

Our first truck using this modular design, called the FLEXIVAN, was developed in the summer of 2010, and was launched in November, 2010, at the Ferrari World Finals in Valencia, Spain.

This is now Eta Beta’s flagship OB truck, and it’s configured for any kind of modern HD/SD television production. It has six expandable panels, which provide 70m² of space for up to 40 crew members.

The key benefit of the FLEXIVAN production ecosystem is that we can reduce or expand the number of MOW islands, and reconfigure the truck’s equipment according to the type of production we’re shooting. In essence, we can have the same equipment as a traditional ‘glued-in’ OB unit, but the modular concept gives us much greater flexibility in terms of possible system configurations. For instance, the FLEXIVAN offers the ability to set up seven, 10, 25, 28 or 36 cameras; three or seven audio mixers; three, seven, or 12 recording systems, and three or seven VTRs. This allows us to match our equipment closely with the production requirements. Not only that, we’ll be able to build future OB vans in a 25% shorter timeframe than traditional OBs because of the design’s high level of modularity.

What’s more, we’ve made set-up as simple as possible so that any of these configurations can share the same front panel, and the MOW islands can be connected to the kernel with a single click. This way we reduce installation/dismantle time, transport costs, and travel time between locations. This concept also standardizes on MOW-friendly equipment.

Router At The Core

At the truck’s core, which is effectively a 2x2x2-metre block flight case kernel for the television operating center and main tech desk, we needed a reliable, multi-format router that would address all of our concept requirements and help us pioneer the FLEXI concept.

Most imperative to our concept, is the interconnectivity between the modules. We selected Miranda’s NVISION 8500 Hybrid router, fitted with fiber interfacing using CWDM wavelengths and SFP modules. This is how we interconnect the router at the core to other islands, and it makes for very easy connection/reconnection, straightforward signal and cable management, and a more solid back-up system. The fiber connectivity also offers us the ability to run cables over longer distances, and we can also easily mix fiber and coax within the same frame.

Furthermore, by combining the NVISION 8500 Hybrid router with a Kaleido-X multi-viewer system, we were able to address a number of other limitations that are traditionally associated with OB truck design, including restricted rack space, integration with legacy products, and limited flexibility with the monitor wall.

The router saves space and investment in a number of ways. Because it is a video/audio hybrid router which performs audio processing within the frame, there’s no need for external de-embedders and embedders. This eliminates the requirement to install a separate audio level router, as it works within the HD-SDI domain with embedded audio. Here, we also save on frames, cards, patch panels, distribution, wire and labor. We configured the router’s internal audio processing section with re-entry to embed and de-embed tracks to almost any signal combination, including split feeds, and mix-minus etc. The NVISION 9000 controller also gives us extremely flexible router control to address different workflows so the truck is ready-made for any event, sport or other type of production.

Thankfully, there is also a high level of integration between the router control system and our 192 x 12 Kaleido-X multi-viewer, and this provides highly flexible signal display on the monitor wall. As part of the ‘core’, the truck’s monitor wall mechanically rotates to give multi-viewer and single screen views depending on the director’s preference. To allow fast turnaround betweens productions, the monitor wall and router can be instantly reconfigured using one-touch presets.

Another major reason behind our selection of the NVISION 8500 Hybrid router was its direct MADI interconnects. Currently, the router is configured as 63 x 72 fiber, 80 x 64 HD, and 32 x 48 MADI. We’ve created a diverse set of MADI paths to share resources bi-directionally between all control rooms and studio areas.

We also use Miranda’s Densité modules for signal processing, including DAs, embedders/de-embedders, encoders/decoders, and converters for SD, HD and 3Gbps signals. These modules are brilliant as they simplify control with multiple functions on a single card, and multiple cards can be housed in the same frame, saving us yet more space in the truck.

We’re confident that we’ve made the right choice with our equipment selection. Not only does it fulfill our criteria in terms of successfully pioneering the FLEXI concept but it also represents very good value for money.

We intend to use the FLEXI design methodology in all future design. In fact we’re currently looking to build new partnerships with Systems Integrators who are interested in adopting FLEXI in the manufacturing of new OB units. FLEXIVAN is pending an EU patent and is expected to achieve the full status in the coming weeks.

Roberto Mazzantini is Director of Business Development for Gruppo Comunicazione Italia (GCI), Owner of Eta Beta.