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Lifetime's new, 50,000sq-ft technical operations center in New York is the culmination of many years of intensive planning and evaluation. In 1988, four years after Lifetime's launch, the network built a studio production facility in a lease arrangement at Kaufman Astoria Studios with the help of systems integrator Ascent Media Systems & Technology Services.

The expiration of its long-term lease at Kaufman Studios offered Lifetime the perfect opportunity to assess the current and future needs of its core operations, as well as create a facility to support the multichannel network's continued growth.

Infrastructure

The main requirement of the network operations and engineering management team was a hardened building infrastructure, including mission-critical mechanical and electrical systems capable of providing continuous and reliable services. The new site features 14ft ceilings, supports floor loads of 200lbs per sq ft and provides vast electric power, complete with multiple emergency generator farms.

The building is also home to domestic and international telecommunications providers, enabling the team to implement diverse, redundant terrestrial connectivity to the Ascent Media Network Services uplink facilities in Tappan, NY, and Glenbrook, CT. It also supports the network's mission critical TOC infrastructure, which includes:

  • independent and redundant AC systems;
  • an automation control system designed for monitoring and emergency load shedding;
  • primary and backup UPS systems, emergency generator capacity; and
  • connectivity to the network's remote disaster recovery facility.

Teamwork design

With its infrastructure set, the next step was facility design, with an emphasis on migrating Lifetime's videotape-based workflow to digital files. Ascent Media headed an engineering design team that included Lifetime's engineering department and the network's newly formed digital media task force (a team comprised of broadcast and IT engineering experts). From the outset, plans were in place for a digital asset management system central to the architecture, as well as a data center relocation, which would naturally blend the previously diverse cultures of broadcast and IT.

There were two big design challenges. The first involved the digital media applications and infrastructure supporting the production systems, vendor development partnerships and interoperability. The second concerned change-management issues surrounding entirely new workflows.

The selection of a media asset management partner was also critical to the design process. Following a comprehensive review process, Venaca's S3 production system was selected to serve as the core digital media application.

The task force's mission was clear: Work with Ascent and Venaca to build a system that would support and enable efficient, highly reliable media workflows from product delivery through handoff to on-air systems. The team developed a master project plan that included organization and resource planning, as well as the design of overall architecture and integration between systems.

The formation of the team enabled Lifetime to proactively and effectively mesh the divergent approaches to systems engineering that exist between broadcast and IT implementation. For example, when evaluating NLE systems for the new facility, broadcast engineers learned the merits of full requirements gathering and a product gap analysis as organized by the IT project manager. Similarly, during the design phase of the facility's network infrastructure, IT engineers gained an appreciation for the unique and often pragmatically simple needs of an environment that cannot tolerate downtime.

Working together, the converged team had a better grasp of the broader business, with the positive result of an in-house knowledge base that allows for the integration and support of workflows across the enterprise. Management teams from each of these areas continue to collaborate and determine ownership of facility systems, troubleshooting responsibilities and first response procedures.

During the design phase, careful attention was also paid to the media switching architecture, VLAN administration and security. The media switching architecture features five Cisco Catalyst 6513 switches with two PIX 535 firewalls for a secure on-air environment.

This HD-ready facility uses complex digital media systems and applications that enable a virtually tapeless delivery-to-air workflow for Lifetime's networks and brand extensions, including Lifetimetv.com. The facility contains:

  • four QC and ingest suites where incoming program materials are encoded into the production system;
  • 12 nonlinear post-production suites designed for creative collaboration;
  • a graphics and digital media services bureau;
  • an audio production suite;
  • a four-pod master control complex;
  • a transmission control room; and
  • a central technical area dedicated to broadcast and IT equipment.

Ascent and Lifetime designed a core routing system with simplicity as the primary goal. After many years of using multiple layers and sub-routers, the network's new facility uses HD, SDI-embedded audio and time code as the base signals.

The team selected two routers from NVISION, one for post production and one for on-air operations. The post router is prewired for a 512 × 512 matrix. The first 256 I/O frame is for SD signals and the second is reserved for HD signals with a 196 × 196 section active on the first day. The 256 × 256 on-air router is entirely super-wide bandwidth. This allows any cross point to be either SD or HD with virtual layering as part of the configuration. All primary master control switchers are fed from the router for ultimate flexibility, and all uplink STL and TSL signals are incorporated to make them available at the push of a button.

Post production

The digital media infrastructure and applications at the core of the post-production facility handles full-length movies and programs as high-resolution digital files. The heart of this environment is the S3 production system, which contains a comprehensive set of tools that manage media ingest, storage, search, retrieval, annotation and transcoding of digital assets.

Venaca and Optibase partnered to provide a complete encoding solution that serves as the heart of the facility's each QC and ingest suite. Real-time ingest of long-form programs is performed using the Optibase encoding system under S3 control. Master and proxy streams are encoded simultaneously, and the system uses Vela's CineView decoding module to provide decode-while-encode playback of all digital assets.

IMX 50Mb serves as the high-resolution master file format. During ingest, metadata is created and stored in S3, along with simultaneous generation of time-code accurate proxy viewing copies. Venaca developed a custom button logger for the network's quality control workflow to enable real-time annotations. Annotations can be sorted as category strata and note everything from discrete technical issues to segment start and end time codes.

Venaca and Optibase partnered to provide a complete encoding solution that serves as the heart of the facility's four QC and ingest suites. Promo and long-form format producers browse the low bit rate MPEG-2 proxies generated during quality control ingest. The producers have access to the QC annotations and have the ability to add metadata using the standard annotation tool. To aid producers in session preparation, Lifetime's IT applications group developed a custom XML edit decision list tool that is integrated with the logger.

One of the key pieces of development tackled by Venaca was the licensing of Avid's workgroup APIs to build integrated media, data and command exchanges with Unity ISIS. The blade-based storage system uses a distributed intelligence architecture.

Venaca used the ingest and playback data handling module to create a plug-in that works with Unity TransferManager to perform drag-and-drop ingest transfers directly into an Avid media bin. At the same time, it checks the associated metadata into the Unity MediaManager. The facility also features the new Avid Symphony Nitris HD/SD nonlinear editing solution.

On-air playback

Lifetime's master control complex is enclosed by an aluminum and glass storefront and includes four master control pods and a transmission control center. The center of the complex features an on-air supervisor post with sight lines into each of the pods from a central location. The initial pod configuration includes:

  • a room for the network's East and West Coast playout;
  • a room for Lifetime Movie Network and Lifetime Real Women playout (single feeds);
  • a live events and training room; and
  • a future HD control room.

The flexibility of the facility's master control design and Miranda's Kaleido-K2 system allows the control and monitoring of the channels to be combined or switched between pods.

Harris supplied a ADC-100 automation system for the new facility, controlling a variety of hardware devices, including the Miranda Presmaster 2 and Imagestore Intuition branding device and Omneon's Spectrum media servers. Harris also controls the movement of air-resolution files to the facility's dual partitioned ADIC Scalar 10K archive. One partition is dedicated to high-resolution production media and is managed by Venaca. The on-air partition is managed by MassTech's MassStore system.

Each Lifetime network is designed to run two playlist streams simultaneously. The first is a plus-three stream, which provides a three-hour advance screening that is monitored before going into a three-hour buffer. The second is a plus-zero, or real-time, stream. The advance stream serves as the primary playout and provides the network ultimate flexibility and quality control. If a problem occurs, the facility's master control staff has a three-hour window to correct it on the plus-zero stream and switch to it at time of air.

The automation architecture is designed for redundancy, with six device servers deployed. At any given time, there are four device servers available to get playlist elements to air. In the unlikely event that all four servers fail, each network will still have the ability to get a simple playlist to air using the Omneon PlayTool in its MediaControl suite connected to a single video decoder port.

The remaining two device servers provide main and backup functions for Harris ingest stations. With all content being delivered via files to master control, it is essential that the ingest stations remain online. A backup device server for this area will minimize downtime due to hardware failures.

Adjacent to master control is the ingest and gatekeeping suite. Here, technicians perform quality control on digital long- and short-form files, which are delivered to an Omneon catch server at 12Mb/s through Venaca's transcoding process. Venaca has successfully integrated with Harris' H-Class Media Ingest module to transfer house XML metadata to the automation database during this process. A copy of this air-resolution file is pushed via a Gigabit Ethernet connection to a disaster recovery site, where a remote air client runs an unattended, 24/7 automation playlist.

The MassStore system interfaces with the Harris automation system, dual Omneon media SANs and ADIC Scalar 10K robotic archive in Lifetime's multichannel environment. It monitors all content ingested or flipped to the dual SANs. Then the Harris ADC video archive control protocol (VACP) command directs the archiving of content. It archives broadcast-resolution content from the source SAN to the MassStore system or restores from MassStore to the SANs.

ADIC's Scalar Distributed Library Controller (SDLC) provides a fully redundant and robot controller for the Scalar 10K. Lifetime installed a dual-aisle configuration with 10 LT-20 drives and 1884 slots. Five drives are dedicated to high-resolution media under Venaca control, and five drives are dedicated to on-air under MassTech control. Venaca controls to the SDLC are executed via IP using the DAS protocol. Control for the MassTech environment is sent over Fibre Channel to ADIC's server. Miranda's iControl, the facility's monitoring and control-over-IP system, alerts operators and engineers when any signal falls out of defined specifications or hardware failures are detected.

The digital media technology at the core of the new facility enables streamlined production and distribution across multiple platforms. The same media files help create new products in formats appropriate from HD to wireless resolutions, giving the network tremendous flexibility at much lower cost. It also enables a robust disaster recovery and business continuity system through the distribution of master video files over the wide area network.

Pete Sgro is vice president and general manager of operations and engineering, and Don Jarvis is director of broadcast engineering for Lifetime Networks.

Design team

Lifetime

Gwynne McConkey, sr vp of operations, information systems and technology
Pete Sgro, vp and gm of operations and engineering
Don Jarvis, director of broadcast engineering
Carl Charleson, director of digital media applications
Marc Glenn, director of post-production engineering
Padraic Boyle, sr IT network engineer
Michael Simpkin, sr IT network engineer
Dave Dellafave, IT business analyst

Ascent Media

Howard Dixon, sr project manager
Brian Luscombe, design engineer
Eddie Ly Son, design engineer
Dave Liptak, design engineer
Jim McGovern, test and commissioning
Ed Buchanan, project administration
Kelly Damstrom, purchasing
Kenny Brueck, project leader and installation supervisor

Technology at work

ADIC

Scalar Distributed Library Controller
Scalar 10K archive

Avid

Unity ISIS
Symphony Nitris NLE

Barco projection displays

Cisco

broadcast LAN
Catalyst 6513 switches
PIX 535 firewalls

EMC post-production SAN

Forecast consoles

Harris

ADC-100 automation system
H-Class media ingest

MassTech MassStore archive management system

Miranda

iControl SNMP monitoring
Imagestore Intuition channel branding
Kaleido-K2 display processing
Presmaster 2 MC switcher terminal gear

NVISION SD and super-high-bandwidth routers

Omneon

MediaControl software suite
Spectrum media servers

Optibase encoders

Vela CineView PCI decoders

Venaca S3 MAM