Finland's YLE goes digital

News and current events have always been a flagship operation for the public service Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE. Since going on-air as one of the company’s five DVB channels nearly two years ago, the digital news service YLE24 continues to be the focus of technical development. Its systems and facilities are a work-in-progress as IT issues become increasingly dominant.

Equipment used for YLE24’s newscasts includes an OmniBus Columbus playout automation system, Sony M1000C A/V transmission switcher and Pinnacle Systems Deko2000 CG. All photos courtesty of Touko Yrttimaa/YLE.

YLE24 is not only a digital round-the-clock news and current affairs channel. It is also a competence center that provides a news and current affairs service for two analog channels, teletext, the Internet and mobile devices. Its studio and editing suites are used for the production and playout of 20 newscasts that last five to 25 minutes in Finnish daily (13 on weekends) plus weather, sports five times a day, a daily extended sports magazine, two English-language broadcasts on weekdays, two Swedish-language news broadcasts weekdays, daily signed news for the hearing impaired, IT news once a day on weekdays and a “newsday” round-up magazine of 35 minutes daily. It also provides extended coverage of special events.

The design process to create facilities for YLE’s transition to digital services started in 1997 by documenting the entire system in use at the time, an evaluation of update needs and a determination of the desires of news production staff. At that juncture, there was still a lot of thinking about analog vs. digital video in news production. After experimenting with a facility based on digital tape, it was found not be the best fit for the workflow.

Shown here is the “long console” playout control area as seen from the studio.

Today the thinking at the station is all “files online” rather than video. The first concrete step in this direction was taken in 1999, when a test project was established for the evaluation of editing systems. The final runners were Quantel and Avid. The station found it to be a tough choice. The Quantel Inspiration offering was a favorite of the engineering staff because of the quality and features of its servers. But the users and editors preferred the Avid NewsCutter desktop editing system. The company has a good foothold in Finland in the education sector, and most users were already familiar with it. Retraining for Quantel would have been a significant burden. OmniBus offered integration for the desktop editing systems, and that was the key.

YLE24 started up with the desktop editing systems and OmniBus Columbus dubbing for news materials management and Columbus TX for newscast playout. The automation company’s software was used for routing, Avid AirSPACE server and tape control. However, some serious thinking was still needed to figure out how to integrate into the main production output.

Full playout facilities are used for morning TV, long news programs and special coverage.

Ultimately, the station chose Avid as the systems integrator and purchased more desktop editing systems, AirSPACE digital video servers, Air for playout and the Unity for News media network for news.

When choosing NewsCutter Effects (NC FX) as the editing platform, the idea was to create a server-based production environment. Three suites were placed in the vicinity of the new newsroom. Digital video servers were installed for material ingest and transmission.

In autumn 2001, the servers, the media network for news and the Media Browse browsing and low-res editing system were installed. Media Browse servers and software would allow for recordings to be sent to the digital video servers and to capture browse-quality video for editing. An OmniBus user interface was installed in the desktop editing suites to allow users to access the material easily. Such user interfaces also were installed on an additional PC in each of the YLE24 editing suites to control the digital video servers and enable the routing of material directly to the desktop editing systems’ hard drives. Since then, editing capacity has been expanded to include 13 News-Cutter FX systems, and the majority of broadcasts have been shifted to server-based transmission using both OmniBus Columbus and Avid iNEWS ControlAir.

YLE24’s 13 integrated digital editing suites are built around Avid’s NewsCutter.

The browsing and editing system, in association with router control, are the main acquisition tools for ingesting material to the video server storage. Nearly all the material sent to the video servers is recorded, in parallel, to the asset server as low-resolution MPEG-1-quality video, for user viewing and editing.

The developing technology had an impact on working methods. The station began training media journalists to do multiple tasks, primarily material acquisition, direction, editing, graphics, titles and transmission. A normal work shift consisted of one director, one graphics person and two editors. Along with the text journalists and the shift news editor, they are producing a 5-minute live news bulletin every hour. For transmission operations, one person operates the automation system, another takes care of the title graphics and there is a studio cameraman and a technical operations manager.

The station has experienced some disappointments with the fit between Avid and iNEWS. They are not digital islands, but for what the station is doing, bridges between them are not wide enough to satisfy all demands. Engineers are again evaluating the system and considering some significant changes within the year.

The station is also responsible for the content and technical operation of teletext news for the analog networks, digital (MHP) teletext services, Internet news with text, photos, streaming video, and background reports, and an MHP scrolling news ticker.

The latest innovations are focused on mobile services. The basic package is aimed at mobile phone users and is comprised of short message service (SMS) news, multimedia messaging service (MMS) news with text, still images and audio clips and WAP teletext. For any mobile device with a browser such as GPRS/WAP enabled phones, PDAs and Pocket PCs, there is an automated Internet site including streaming video. This is the station’s own offering. Mobile network operators are only the carriers for YLE, which itself maintains the service, feeding the stream from its own servers.

The station realized early on that producing, re-versioning and maintaining such a wide array of non-traditional services and platforms would either require a large, extensively trained, dedicated staff, or a means to integrate the workflow. Its solution was the in-house creation of a piece of middleware known as Delta. Delta is a middleware platform that connects the different databases and publishing media, integrating all of these systems into a single user interface. That means that the journalist can use a single program on the Windows 2000 network to access and manipulate text, pictures and video for use in predefined layouts for use in any of the company’s outlets.

With broadcasting firmly entrenched in the digital domain, operational functions have become a byte management game, and few broadcasters can manage on their own. In order to avoid this distraction and focus on its core business, YLE launched a joint venture at the start of this year in partnership with the northern European-based IT services supplier group TietoEnator. Within this partnership, a new company, TietoEnator Broadcasting IT Oy (TEBIT) has a mandate to support and assist YLE in developing and reaching its targets in the rapidly changing technology and business environments by offering special technical competencies. Initially, TEBIT’s range of operations within YLE is covering system development and maintenance, as well as processing and network services, including both hardware and software. These are specific IT issues.

As a new operational model, TEBIT is still formulating and extending its depth of penetration further towards IT development projects and full-scale integration. TEBIT is 20 percent YLE-owned, and most of its present staff of 90 was recruited directly from the company.

At present, Finland’s DVB network provides coverage to 74 percent of the population, carrying nine channels (five YLE and four by commercial broadcasters). The network and services are owned and operated by Digita Oy (a joint venture company of YLE and the French TDF). The network consists of three TANDBERG multiplexers and 10 sites with NEC and Rohde & Schwarz transmitters.

This summer, YLE commissioned a further 12 transmision site expansion. Commercial broadcasters, MTV3 and Channel Four Finland have come on board with a plan for extending the reach of their digital services with 12 new transmission sites. This will upgrade coverage to 94 percent by August 2004.

Meanwhile, pilot projects are currently under way in Finland to test new DVB-carried IP datacasting and truly mobile “anytime and anywhere” television associating digital TV and other advanced wireless data transmission networks. This is the environment in which YLE24 is operating, developing and innovating.

Eddy Hawkins is a technical consultant based in Finland.

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