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Discovery Bridges IT, Broadcast

STERLING, VA: Television "in the round" might be the best way to describe the new Discovery Communications Discovery Television and Technology Center that began operations on Aug. 1.

This unusual facility is located in Sterling, Va., 20 miles west from Discovery's world headquarters in Silver Spring, Md. Sterling is a D.C. bedroom community and with the dawning of the "dot-com" era, has become part of the Washington "technology corridor."

According to John Honeycutt, Discovery senior vice president of television operations, the decision to cross the Potomac into Virginia was based on several factors. One of these was the post 9/11 realization that emphasis needed to be placed on facility decentralization and the relocation of critical operations away from large cities. Another consideration was easy access to both ground and air travel. (Interstate highways and Dulles International Airport are just a few miles away.)

But perhaps the most important consideration was the availability of a large and empty building that could be quickly built out for television purposes, which Discovery Communications located and purchased in 2003. Ascent Media Systems & Technology Services, assisted by Davis Construction, was brought in to turn it into one of the most modern television facilities in the world.

"The challenges were really those faced in any large scale facility of this type," said Tom Canavan, executive vice president of systems and technology services for Ascent Media. "Since this is more of an IT-based facility than than a video facility, prime concerns were with digital linking, file sharing and software. Various security measures had to be implemented too."


While not the largest part of the 53,000-square-foot complex, the master control room is perhaps the most interesting in terms of both appearance and design. It is completely round, with a diameter of approximately 70 feet and encompasses an area of nearly 4,000 square feet. As master control rooms go, this MC has a very high ceiling, with the central portion appearing almost rotunda-like. Almost every vertical surface in the room is occupied by television displays. It is somewhat reminiscent of a 360-degree motion picture auditorium.

According to Honeycutt, a single nail was central to the build-out of the master control and the entire facility. When construction started, the nail was embedded in the concrete slab in the center of the designated MC space and became the "mile zero" reference point for measuring distances outward from the plant.

While visually striking, the master control room is also very functional, supporting transmission of up to 64 program channels in any mixture of SD or HD. It is divided into 10 "pods," each with independent monitoring and switching equipment. Some pods are set up to accommodate multiple network feeds and others are designed to monitor and switch but a single path. One of the pods is used solely for training and simulation purposes. In the center of this "round house" are positions for three duty supervisors. These are not merely "people spaces," but are equipped to allow a supervisor to take over switching operations, should a problem arise in any of the surrounding pods.

Each pod is equipped with three Barco 61-inch projection displays, driven by Evertz MVP and VistaLink equipment. The Evertz display drivers not only provide audio level monitoring, but also display DTMF tone levels required for cable network operations. The large screen display provides a very visual indication that the tones were fired and levels were correct.

All program switching is accomplished with Miranda Oxtel MC switchers. In selecting Miranda for this application, Discovery gave special consideration to graphics features provided by the company's Imagestore system. The pairing provided a very tight integration of switching and graphics functionalities. Adjustment and reconfiguration of graphics material is easily and transparently accomplished and a full selection of DVE transitions is also provided.


Eight months were required for physical construction and equipment installation. As soon as the construction phase was completed, a "shadow" operations period lasting two months was initiated. This was a shakedown interval, with the facility fully staffed and functional, but with the program feeds generated never going to air. After a high comfort level was reached, feed services were seamlessly rolled over from contract origination entities in Atlanta and Denver.

Failsafe and redundancy were key design concepts in designing the facility. Very large UPS units can float the entire plant for at least an hour should both 4,000 amp. utility company feeders fail. Two 1 MW diesel generators can be brought on line in case of a lengthy outside power interruption. Honeycutt estimated that on-site fuel is sufficient to power the operation at full load from four to six days. Great care was taken to physically separate critical electrical distribution equipment and feeders in order to prevent a malfunction in one area from disabling the integrity of the system. The UPS systems are located in three separate areas. Electrical installations required 71 miles of electrical conduit.

Honeycutt explained that in designing the plant's VLAN system, 16 different user groupings were identified. Isolated LANS for these groupings were created to greatly reduce the possibility of a data storm.

In a tour of the equipment racks housing the Cisco network switches, Honeycutt detailed the measures taken to ensure full redundancy--mounted adjacent to every LAN switch is an identical switch powered and ready to go. Network cables connected to all switches are sufficiently long enough to be plugged into the hot standby units, if necessary.

Additional insurance against disabling failures was tightly woven into the plant design. This is an alarm and reporting system, not limited to the IT structure, but also constantly monitoring the readiness of video server play-out, support equipment or even building physical conditions. When something is amiss, fault reporting is not limited to the Virginia address.

"If we have a problem, we not only get an internal alarm here, the Global Operations Center in Silver Spring gets an alarm as well," Honeycutt said.

Video file servers play a key role in the Discovery facility. There are a total of five Omneon server systems for the 13 Discovery networks and BBC America, providing enough storage (24 TB) for four full days of operation. In all, more than 2,000 hours of online video storage are available.

Server management and content play-out is a bit unusual at the Sterling facility. The air servers are loaded with scheduled material and controlled by an OmniBus automation system to play-out exactly three hours before the program is supposed to air. This three-hour-early stream is sent to Doremi time delay units that provide a three hour holdup of content. In this manner, last minute tweaks and changes can be invisibly made to the play-out stream. This allows for sponsor-requested commercial substitutions and correction of scheduling and other errors. Should this system fail, a "real-time" server is also rolling for backup purposes.

Programming is delivered on tape--Digital Betacam and IMX formats. The bulk of this material is from Discovery's Silver Spring post-production operation. Plans are in place to convert delivery from physical media to direct file transfers in 2006. Of the eight ingest rooms, seven are set up for SD and one for HD. Provisions have been made to expand this number to 10 if needed, as well as to increase HD capability. In addition, the facility's dubbing operation can also serve as an ingest point. There's enough storage space for 150,000 cassettes.

Near on-line and archival storage is provided by a StorageTek SL8500 device, which can provide up to 90 petabytes of storage. In planning the facility, floor space was left open to double the size of the StorageTek device, should future requirements make this necessary. Front Porch Digital software is used for archival management operations.

A rack room that would dwarf many entire television plants provides equipment support for the new Discovery operation. It is divided (at present) into two discrete areas--television and information technology. A space, larger than that occupied by either of these two groupings, was left open. When asked about future plans for installations in this vacant space, Honeycutt said that it would be left up to "whoever gets there first."

In discussing the extremely IT-centric nature of the operation, Canavan further elaborated on this equipment room expansion space.

"As the two ends of the equipment room converge with additional installations, it will be more and more difficult to tell where channel origination begins and IT leaves off, as the technology becomes more identical."


In addition to simplifying logistics and control matters, Honeycutt said that startup of the Sterling facility has allowed Discovery to be much more flexible in its business operations.

"The world is changing. We needed to be able to react to this time of significant change in the media business. Decisions are being made really quickly and being in an outsourced environment just wasn't effective. We were constantly on the other end of a business deal when we would want to change our services. Now we can just reapply resources where we see necessary to address a business application," he said.

In addition to the MC, ingest and dubbing operations, the Sterling center also features two post-production suites and a live events control room. The facility serves as origination point for 13 of Discovery's U.S. networks and transmission of the BBC America service. Including West Coast delayed transmissions, a total of 17 network feeds are played out and monitored at the Sterling location. The center employs approximately 100, with 30 to 40 on a given shift.

Signals are routed via an nVision 512 x 512 matrix and the plant intercom system is supplied by Telex/RTS. Approximately 370 miles of video cable were used in constructing the plant. Motorola compression and encoding equipment is used to process signals for satellite transmission.

The Discovery facility is linked to contract satellite uplink operators in Alexandria, Va. and Atlanta, via 622 Mbps OC-12 circuits.

Key design features in this very functional plant were not left to chance. Honeycutt explained that as part of the planning and design process, an internal merger was performed to better address the structure of the facility.

"In Discovery, we have merged our television technology and information technology groups into one organization, which has been a really positive experience. This facility has been the byproduct of really strong television people and really strong IT people," he said.

In addition to the Sterling Television and Technology Center, Discovery has three other origination centers located in Miami, Fla., London and Singapore. Programming from these centers reaches 1.3 billion subscribers worldwide.

Launched 20 years ago, the Discovery Channel's new Virginia origination center marks another step in the company's growth and expansion from a single satellite-delivered program channel in 1985 to the present global operation with 90 networks representing 25 network entertainment brands reaching viewers in more than 160 countries and territories.

James E. O’Neal has more than 50 years of experience in the broadcast arena, serving for nearly 37 years as a television broadcast engineer and, following his retirement from that field in 2005, moving into journalism as technology editor for TV Technology for almost the next decade. He continues to provide content for this publication, as well as sister publication Radio World, and others.  He authored the chapter on HF shortwave radio for the 11th Edition of the NAB Engineering Handbook, and serves as editor-in-chief of the IEEE’s Broadcast Technology publication, and as associate editor of the SMPTE Motion Imaging Journal. He is a SMPTE Life Fellow, and a Life Member of the IEEE and the SBE.