CCTV builds a digital future

China Central TV (CCTV) is the national TV station and a news agency in the People's Republic of China. Its function includes news broadcasting, social education, culture and entertainment services, sports, and information services. The station offers 15 sets of TV programs covering almost every aspect of social life. In addition, it owns nearly 400,000 hours of program resources, has a daily broadcasting volume of 300 hours (approximately 60 percent of the broadcast programs are produced by CCTV), covers more than 90 percent of the Chinese population and has a viewer-ship of more than 1.1 billion.

While the switch from analog to digital technology represented a costly challenge for media organizations in the mid-1990s, CCTV faced a bigger challenge than most stations. It had been in continuous operation since 1958, and by the 1990s, its analog archive was huge, as was its investment in analog technology. The network knew, however, that the key to remaining relevant, profitable and competitive in the new century rested with digital technology.

Therefore, in 1995, the facility launched a massive effort to digitize its entire operation, including a 40-year program archive, as well as all editing, production, broadcasting and transmission procedures. Today, more than 90 percent of its programs are digitally produced, and 100 percent of new programs are digitally broadcast. As a result, the station remains a powerful voice of broadcasting in China, feeding news, entertainment and related materials to a vast audience.

It's hard to overstate the importance of the network's migration from analog to digital. Broadcasts and TV programs are the products of a media organization, so these intangible assets are inherently valuable. However, their value rests with their repeated use and a continuous supply of new products and programming. A single broadcast, or a program that is locked in an archive, has little value. When the broadcast or program becomes part of an inventory that can be shared instantly and reused easily, however, its value soars beyond calculation and continues growing as the network adds new programs. Organizations such as CCTV, with an inventory spanning nearly half a century and a requirement for immediacy in new programming, all face a critical question: What's the best way to store and share a mix of new and old assets? The question is as old as broadcasting itself, but recent advancements in digital technology have radically changed the answer.

Digitizing an analog world

The station's inventory includes a wide range of video programs and related raw materials, but its news products carry the greatest value. Local, international and news broadcasts link overseas information sources, sports news centers, local news desks and more. Capturing, archiving and protecting these valuable assets has become increasingly urgent in recent years. Today's analog technology falls far short of the facility's requirements due to limitations in storage life, storage quality and resource management. One of the most severe limitations of conventional analog technology is in data access: News organizations thrive on immediacy, so fast access to stored archives is crucial. Plus, an industry-wide increase in programming content means more information must be stored and protected, potentially resulting in a warehouse full of tapes. For CCTV, these limitations of analog technology became more obvious with each passing year.

The answer for the network — and the payoff for its affiliates and viewers — came six years after its push toward digitization. In June 2001, it launched its News Sharing System, a fully automated storage and management service for producing and distributing news programs and related materials in real time to five subordinate channels. The system handles the station's ever-increasing volume of digitized programming content, while also accommodating older tape formats.

The system includes the StorageTek PowderHorn 9310 tape library, which is the cornerstone of the station's digitized operation. It balances ultra-high storage capacity with high-speed access, providing a safe place for the network to store all of its rich media assets while giving program producers the ability to quickly locate and retrieve videos and programming in its vast archives.

The configuration includes one StorageTek PowderHorn 9310 library with five T9840B and five T9940B tape drives. It's a mixed-load system, which means a variety of tapes from multiple sources can be loaded into any slot in the library and be readable by the system. Slots can be assigned and reassigned as needed to accommodate different types of content. All of the programming content is catalogued automatically when it enters the library, so program editors have fast, random access to archived content. Integrated software simplifies storage-related management tasks such as deep data archiving, media management, and data backup and recovery. DIVArchive software is also included, so it achieves the station's goal of data sharing and archiving in a real SAN environment.

The tape library is built for expansion. Each library storage module (LSM) can hold up to 6000 cartridges, and up to 24 LSMs can be linked together, potentially putting up to 144,000 tape cartridges under a single point of control. The library is also built for speed, a basic requirement for any news organization. Its T9840B tape drive requires only four seconds to access the first data block, allowing CCTV to solve the typical delays when transferring analog video assets.

The News Sharing System also includes optical channels, so the network can centralize data storage and management as part of a storage-area network (SAN) environment. In scale and capacity, the system is large and advanced, using high-efficiency coding, large-capacity storage, nonlinear production, media asset management and other emerging technologies.

Film at 11

The automated networking system is one of the station's most ambitious technical projects. It's also one of its biggest competitive advantages. The system provides a fully digitized environment to accelerate the way program content is produced, approved, shared and delivered. It accomplishes CCTV's goal of sharing news resources quickly and effectively. At the same time, it has fundamentally changed news production procedures. Editors and correspondents can use computer desktops anywhere, whether remote or network-connected, to choose subject matter, modify drafts, finalize their work and submit it for broadcast. Managers can use any desktop with network access to review written materials and preview content. Programs can be approved in real time, transmitted instantly over the network and broadcast directly to the audience. It introduces a new model for news delivery that is automated, immediate, paperless, tapeless and ideally suited to the 24-hour news cycle.

The system also improves the network's operation behind the camera. It provides a stable environment for long-term data protection. The nearline tape library system includes software to catalogue, archive and retrieve data automatically, and includes database capabilities to manage, query and even broadcast the station's complete inventory of video, audio, text and script contents. These knowledge assets are now easily available through the organization. As new programming assets are added to the archive, they automatically become available alongside the historical assets, so the network's inventory can literally grow without limit.

Centralized storage is another advantage. Because multiple users have simultaneous access to all data files, there's no longer a need to create multiple copies of files. For CCTV, which deals with extreme volumes, the cost savings in data duplication alone can be dramatic. Add to that its ability to centralize management and share storage resources, and the system gives the network the ability to support more channels and regions without a big increase in resources or budget.

One of the biggest benefits, though, goes to the station's viewing audience. They're the ones who see the effects of changes made behind the scenes, where digitized access to a high-speed archive makes program production timely, fast and efficient, without the delays or human error common to analog environments. Those are the kinds of changes that will make CCTV the face and voice of China for the next half-century.

Yuan Hui is deputy director of the news production department at China Central TV.