BBC Northern Ireland's digital initiative

Journalists now have hands-on control over their content, allowing stories to be distributed more quickly.
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In the heart of Belfast, County Antrim, sits Broadcasting House, home to BBC Northern Ireland (BBC NI), the primary public service broadcaster providing television, radio, online and interactive television content to the Northern Ireland region. BBC NI is part of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and one of three such national regions, along with BBC Scotland and BBC Wales.

BBC NI broadcasts two television channels from Broadcasting House, BBC One Northern Ireland and BBC Two Northern Ireland. The channels are mostly identical to the national BBC One and BBC Two broadcast from London, with the addition of regional programming and local announcers. The main signal is distributed from London to Belfast via dedicated lines where live continuity is managed by a team of regional announcers who double up as playout directors, inserting local programs and content.

With a history of social and political turmoil, the accessibility of regional news and current affairs has always been paramount to the people of Northern Ireland. The BBC Northern Ireland regional news service, “BBC Newsline,” provides lunchtime, evening and late-night bulletins. It offers several political programs, such as “Spotlight” and “Let's Talk,” as well as local arts programs and weekend chat shows. The Belfast facility produces a total of 11 daily regional news programs and covers any special events in the region.

In addition to local programming focusing solely on a Northern Irish audience, the facility also features a large production unit that generates content broadcast on the BBC's channels across the UK. This includes documentaries, drama and comedy programs, as well as other original content. In addition to the more traditional television and radio programs, the broadcaster also has an increasing presence on the Web.

A need for change

While the news team at BBC Northern Ireland has a reputation for cutting-edge journalism and original programming, it had been relying on aging technology. The newsroom was working on obsolete equipment that was past its serviceable lifetime, and the old tape-to-tape workflows required more effort and expensive equipment than modern software-based technology required.

Problems and shortcomings in the pre-existing production workflow were becoming increasingly apparent, unsustainable and expensive. The lack of a centralized media archive led to missing tapes and data, delays in digitization particularly for multicamera shoots, problems with multiple tape formats, inconsistencies in logging, and media security issues. The inability to browse and search the archive often led to a duplication of acquisition and research. Production bottlenecks arose frequently, especially as producers and journalists competed for time in a limited number of craft edit suites.

Additionally, the broadcaster faced delivery requirements that were increasingly multimedia and multiplatform. It also had a growing need to provide news content to bbc.co.uk ahead of, or simultaneously with, its multiplatform television output. Such requirements were difficult to fulfill through the existing linear workflow. Producers found the production of content for online distribution particularly troublesome and awkward.

BBC NI also faced a generalized need to reduce costs while maintaining or extending the quality and quantity of its production output.

The solution

BBC NI elected to resolve its dilemma by transitioning to a file-based production environment with a centralized digital asset management system, based on Cinegy Workflow. The software offered an ideal solution to the multiple issues the broadcaster faced. It is an open platform system consisting of a suite of tools, applications and open APIs encompassing the complete broadcast production chain from ingest through to playout modules. Principal components installed at the facility include Ingest, for real-time, uncompressed HD-SDI encoding; Media Archive, a server-based, centralized digital asset management system; and the Media Desktop NLE, deployed on client workstations for managing ingest, logging, browsing, editing and other operations. The installation also includes Convert for automated transcoding to enable integration with existing Avid and Apple Final Cut Pro systems.

The solution was selected for its ability to provide the following:

  • Flexibility and scalability, allowing adaptation to productions of varying size, scope and delivery requirements;
  • Improvement in production efficiency while reducing costs and without dictating a particular workflow;
  • Integration with existing processes and technology, thus easing migration while enabling the possibility for third-party components to be updated and replaced as time and budget allow;
  • A pathway for future growth in terms of size and functionality, and to meet evolving content delivery needs;
  • Seamless integration with BBC on an enterprisewide basis; and
  • A solution that supports open standards and formats.

All applications are designed to run on nonproprietary hardware, a key factor in the speed of the implementation, which was less than six months.

Ingest

Each of the 16 ingest stations has positions for one or two operators. In order to meet the needs of a busy newsroom environment, logging requirements at ingest are relatively minimal: program name, date, subject, genre, director, etc., which can be amended or added to during subsequent stages of production. Ingest stations are also capable of recording back to tape, to fulfill needs for such purposes as transcriptions and music composition. The ingest machines can generate video in multiple formats concurrently to satisfy complex delivery requirements as well as for use in the distributed work environment where users have varying format and resolution needs.

A linear editing system was retained so that news footage, arriving too late to go through the normal ingest process, could be edited in a conventional manner and immediately prepared for air. That system, however, will be phased out over the next year when a file-based camera acquisition system is put in place.

Archive

Media Archive facilitates a collaborative workflow for both newsroom and production activities by providing real-time access to ingested media to client workstations. As there is no local storage of media assets, users logging into any client station are presented with the same work environment. Changes made by one user can be viewed by other users in real time. Similarly, changes made to metadata are immediately propagated to other clients.

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Desktop client

Media Desktop is currently installed on more than 100 desktop systems, with over 300 users, and the number continues to expand. The desktop client is used by journalists in preparing news and sports segments, and by loggers, producers, editors and others involved in the creation of long-form content. The system interface is intuitive and includes relatively robust editing tools, allowing journalists to do much of the work of preparing stories for broadcasts at their own desks.

Integration

BBC NI existing Avid editing systems have been integrated using Cinegy Convert. Integration with the 14 Avid Media Composer editing suites has been achieved with a transfer speed of five times faster than real time without transcoding. Completed projects are reingested to the database as rendered flat files.

The broadcaster continues to rely on its pre-existing playout solutions, which have been integrated with the centralized digital asset management system. Graphics systems are not directly integrated with the system. Animations and other elements are ingested into it via SDI. The new workflow also enables the exchange of material between the new solution and an existing Dalet automation system, which is used for radio production as well as playout.

All this file-based workflow technology represented a sharp departure from the way television was formerly produced at the facility. While the engineers spent considerable time in mapping out the production workflow, they applied even more effort to assessing how the new technology would affect the people using it.

Using the new system

An integral stage in the transition was preparing the staff at BBC NI for their new system. This involved training on the new products as well as significant discussions about the impact on the work environment.

With super users in place to help end users as issues arose and act as a first line of support, the transition flowed better than expected, and journalists and editors embraced the new system more rapidly than anticipated. The implementation of the new system has inspired camaraderie between BBC Northern Ireland's journalists, producers and engineers.

Benefits of a centralized database

Having a digital archive that is immediately accessible and easily searchable has greatly affected the broadcaster's ability to conduct research, both for news segments and for documentary-style programming. For a program on “The Troubles,” the long sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, producers were able to quickly review relevant material dating back four decades.

Editing with the old and the new

Integrating craft editing systems was considered crucial during the planning stages, but in practice has come to be viewed as less important as journalists and editors have become more comfortable with the new digital asset management system and its internal editorial capabilities. The craft editors have both Cinegy and Avid available in the suites, and can choose the most appropriate tool for the specific requirement. This has both greatly eliminated the queues outside the facility's craft editing suites and empowered journalists by giving them greater control over the shape and content of their stories.

Journalist workstations feature large-screen monitors and headphones for reviewing voice-overs and other audio elements in privacy. Existing resources for loudspeaker monitoring and voice-over recording have been preserved. Where Avid is still required, Cinegy Convert has made the process of moving projects to and from craft edit suites quick and seamless.

Changing production processes

The new technology has produced similar benefits for BBC Northern Ireland's production unit. By providing an efficient way to ingest, log and review media, it has significantly streamlined the post-production process. Now a producer can watch the digitized footage along with a transcript and effectively create a visual edit rather than just a paper edit.

The ability to exchange material quickly and easily between content production systems has changed the workflow for radio and online news as well. Previously in the tape-based world, radio and online news competed with TV for access to tapes as they came in from the field. Now with a digital workflow, radio and online news simply transfer the files to their relevant systems for edit and playout/publication.

A success

As a result of implementing the new technology, BBC NI accrued benefits in terms of cost reduction and cost avoidance, and in terms of less tangible creative benefits. Through such things as less time spent in craft editing suites and the elimination of tape transfer equipment, the broadcaster has seen overhead costs shrink. It has avoided costs by implementing a system based on standard PC hardware rather than more expensive file-based solutions that require proprietary hardware, or by taking an ad-hoc approach toward investing in new technology. Creative benefits derive from empowering journalists with greater hands-on control over the content of their stories, providing the means to distribute news more quickly via television and online, and through the creation of a more accessible digital archive for future production purposes.

Lewis Kirkaldie is product manager and Anthea Kirk is marketing and communications manager at Cinegy.

Design team

Cinegy
Lewis Kirkaldie, product manager

BBC Northern Ireland
Archie Canning, technical lead (Digital NI)
Clive Jones, technology development manager
Kieran Morgan, technology portfolio manager

Technology at work

Cinegy
Convert servers
Ingest servers
Media Archive
Media Desktop
Workflow

Foundry FESX and MLX16 data switches

HP
DL series, quad-core dual Intel CPU servers
EVA8100 based storage
ESL712e tape robot with 8 LTO4 drives and 650 tap

Microsoft SQL server database

StorNext SAN file system with HSM integration