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Transforming Playout at RTÉ

DUBLIN--In mid-2012, Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ, Ireland’s national broadcaster) started the implementation of a project to move all our content management, playout and related broadcast operations from tape to files.

This simple sentence hides the transformational nature of the project. We completely changed the way we work: we reinvented the business and have achieved real operational efficiencies.

The project is called FAST – File Acquisition and Server Technology. We implemented it with the support of Dublin systems integrator and distributor Eurotek, and founded it on an asset management and workflow system from TMD. They were absolutely central in achieving the transformation.

Before FAST, everything we did with our long form content was on tape, with all the limitations we are familiar with. With 50 percent of our content acquired, we needed to be in tune with our suppliers who wanted to deliver programmes as files.

We had staff pushing trolleys loaded with tapes around the building. They spent a lot of time chasing missing tapes, usually because they had been “borrowed” by someone else – an editor looking to make a promo, or someone checking a subtitle file, perhaps.

Each day we used over 100 tapes across three channels – RTÉ One, RTÉ Two and RTÉ Junior. Tape was labour intensive and cost inefficient, and we were seeing a number of tape rejections. With 50% of our content acquired, we needed to be in tune with our suppliers who wanted to deliver programmes as files.

We were also faced with the move to HD. Because of the geography of Ireland, our viewers also have the opportunity to watch

terrestrial and satellite television from the United Kingdom, and we have to work hard to retain our audience against increasing competition. HD is absolutely vital, but clearly it would be foolish to invest in a hundred HD VTRs. We had to move to a file-based infrastructure.

Through the procurement process the project team identified a preferred supplier: TMD and its Mediaflex product. Mediaflex ticked a number of critical boxes, not least compatibility with other technology we have here (including Pilat IBMS for channel management, Snell Morpheus playout automation, Avid and Omneon servers). Mediaflex delivers a great deal of flexibility, so we believed we could tailor the system to do what we wanted. Ultimately, its software module Mediaflex CI allows us to design our own workflows as we develop the way we use the system.

But having identified a preferred supplier, we still did not jump into the project; rather we bought a “vanilla” Mediaflex system from TMD, with a couple of key interfaces and a handful of workstations. We used this to develop the basic principles of what we were going to do and the workflows we would need.

As well as a proof of concept, this stage allowed the project team to show me and members of the RTÉ Executive what they were asking us to invest in. It gave us a great deal of confidence that this was the right path. We gave the go-ahead for the full implementation, retaining the original kit as our training and development system to allow us to test anything new before it goes live.

One of the ways in which we compete with other broadcasters is by showing the best international television before our competitors. We show the most popular U.S. programmes, sometimes 24 hours after they are premiered in the States. Accepting the content as a file allows us to streamline the delivery and process the content more efficiently, confident that it will arrive on the playout server in plenty of time.

Today, about 98 percent of pre-recorded content across the three channels is played out from FAST, delivering on our expectations. We are seeing savings of around €400k a year, even in the first 12 months of operation.

The size of the cost avoidance is greater than the capital we spent on FAST. It is not only making us more effective, it is saving us money.

As a project, FAST was a dream to be involved with. The project team, super users, TMD and Eurotek worked very well together and there was a close working relationship and strong collaboration between everyone involved. The project has been delivered to the quality expected, within budget and within the broad timescales we set ourselves.

Earlier I used the word transformational. Changing from tape to file is a transformation of the way we work, a really big deal, but it did not feel like it. The project moved everyone simply and seamlessly into a new and better way of working.

Today, many people in RTÉ who are not part of the FAST environment want to get in. For me, I see 250,000 hours of content in our archive – a national heritage – and I want to start the digitisation. It will not be FAST as we know it today, but it will be part of the future of FAST, the digital library.

Richard Waghorn is Raidió Teilifís Éireann’s CTO.