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France 24

There are several 24-hour news stations aimed at a global audience, including Al Jazeera, BBC World and CNN. A recent entrant to the fold is France 24 — three new channels that deliver world news with a French perspective to an international audience in French, English and Arabic languages.

The mission

French companies rarely have a corporate mission statement. France 24 not only has a mission statement, but expects all staff to adhere to that mission, which is namely to air news with a French perspective, to be honest and impartial, and to convey French values across the world.

Before embarking on the project, the company performed market research in 20 countries to understand what the potential audience identified as French values. The values identified include a diverse view of the world, a love of debate and contradictory views, and a balance of culture and lifestyle with sound economic principles.

Extending its reach

France 24 decided to air English and Arabic versions in an effort to reach a much wider audience. It wanted to target the conventional television viewer as well as reach younger viewers through Web streaming. The station's Web site includes RSS feeds and blogs to encourage interaction from the audience.

The Web site is video-oriented, unlike the largely textual sites of most broadcasters, and shows the same pictures as the broadcast version. The use of the same pictures for television and Web also leads to savings when compared with many existing broadcasters. The latter often use a separate editorial team to create the Web version, which adds to costs.

The station's newscasts are distributed via satellite and cable and can currently be seen in 80 million homes and 100,000 hotel rooms. Due to budget limitations, the services are being rolled out in stages. Phase 1 focused on Europe, the Middle East and Washington, D.C. Phase 2 will extended coverage in North America, South America and Africa.

Challenges

Running a 24-hour news operation is an expensive undertaking. The cost of bureaux, field correspondents and running the central newsroom operation all adds up to several million euros. France 24 was allocated an annual budget of E80 million, small by the standards of existing operators. In order to provide a comprehensive service within the cost constraints, the station looked to technology to deliver operating efficiencies. The two biggest challenges included running the service in three languages and offering Web TV, as well as conventional broadcasting.

In Europe, a project of this nature has to go through the formal EU tendering procedures. For this process, the tender was split into five batches:

  1. IT, newsroom computer system and editing;
  2. studio and control rooms (conventional video);
  3. playout automation and traffic;
  4. technical supervision, or health monitoring; and
  5. overall project management.

Avid handled the IT, newsroom computer system, editing and overall project management, Thomson Grass Valley the studio equipment, Harris the automation, and IBM the technical supervision. This was Avid's first TV and Web integration project, and it forms part of the company's future strategy to provide professional services alongside products.

Avid designed the architecture, and the media data and metadata systems around the IT infrastructure and workflow management. A conventional broadcast approach would have been to design around the video system. Instead, Avid addressed the integration of the tasks into an efficient workflow. The solution offered convergence in two senses: IT and media, plus television and the Web.

Data flow

The project presented a number of challenges, including:

  • sharing media between editors, journalists and archivists;
  • ingesting from multiple source formats and distributing multiple formats;
  • running multiple sites with remote access;
  • operating in multiple languages (French, English and Arabic); and/li>
  • having a flexible workflow that can adapt to news events.

To meet these challenges, France 24 opted for a tapeless workflow. From the point of ingest, all video is handled in an OP1a MXF wrapper using the DV25 codec.

France 24's 3000sq-m broadcast facility is located in Moulineux, the media sector of Paris. The time scale for the project was short, as the request for proposal was written in January 2006, Avid was appointed the following May, and the on-air date was 6 December 2006. To meet the date, the technical cabling had to be carried out in parallel with interior fitting. Staff training occurred in parallel with commissioning.

Timeline

One-third of the content is acquired from press agencies, one-third from staff correspondents and one-third from the shareholders, TF1 and France Televisions. Over time, the balance will shift away from the shareholders to France 24's own correspondents. Journalists also have access to the past 25 years of the TF1 archive.

Acquisition

The station runs 36 special correspondents that can produce news reports, including live two-ways. Reporters shoot stories with Panasonic AJ-HPX200 P2 camcorders and then edit locally with Avid Xpress on a laptop. Stories are filed using ClipWay over BGAN and ClipMail. Another 200 correspondents provide general reporting.

In the newsroom, video feeds are recorded to 15 Avid AirSpeeds controlled with CaptureManager. A Telestream FlipFactory cluster automatically ingests files. The station acquires about 150 hours of material each day. The acquisition operators can set locaters in clips using Avid Interplay Assist and add preliminary metadata about each clip. They can then share the media with other journalists using the Interplay hierarchy.

Newsroom

The same editorial team creates stories for television and the Web. One version of the video is cut, and then two or three voice-overs are prepared in French, English and Arabic, if needed. The broadcast version is also used for the Web after suitable coding.

The newsroom system uses Avid iNEWS for story creation, Interplay for browsing, NewsCutter for editing and a 96TB ISIS for storage — about 3000 hours of video. The broadcaster plans to add an ADIC LTO3 robot to provide the facility with 300TB of capacity, enough for a 10-year archive.

Journalists edit and voice stories using one of 30 NewsCutter-equipped workstations. The workstations were designed like a Swiss Army knife, with a full set of tools. A story can start with a text report or pictures. The journalist cuts the pictures, and then voices the captions in French and English.

The edit for one language may require revising for the second language, which is something that the journalists are learning as they gain experience. A separate team handles the Arabic reports. Compiling each story takes about two-and-a-half hours from start to finish. No craft editing is used, so stories are ready for transmission.

Text is edited in iNEWS and Deko graphics templates loaded with an ActiveX component. Editing and voice-over are performed with NewsCutter XP, which can also send to playback and post to the Web. A RAMI PJO550 USB audio interface provides voice-over facilities for the workstations. Another 67 journalist stations have terminals equipped with iNEWS and Interplay Assist, and are used for general editorial functions, including pre-editing.

One perennial problem for newsrooms and post houses is separating the media network and the office network. The latter runs e-mail and Web browsing applications that present potential threats to the media data from viruses. A common solution is to run two networks and give each user two workstations.

France 24 has adopted a different approach. Avid used VMware to run the office applications in a virtual machine on the edit hardware. Two network cards are used, one for media and one for the virtual machine. This design means that potential sources of viruses cannot contaminate the media network.

Playout

For cost savings, a single video edit of a story is used with different voice-overs. Newscasts are aired simultaneously in French and English, with the two production galleries working back to back (with some acoustic separation). The rundowns are created for each language with each anchor using scripts in French or English as appropriate.

Standing in the doorway between the French and English newscasts, one can watch both going to air, with the same reports in different languages airing asynchronously. The pace is set by the anchor. Sometimes one of the newscasts gets ahead, but they both finish together. Each report gets the appropriate language audio track and captions.

The broadcaster uses a Harris H-Class ADC playout automation system to control the playout, with a Deko graphics system managing secondary events under cues from the ADC system. Omneon Spectrum servers using Avid Deko and Thunder stations add in on-air graphics.

The ADC system interfaces with iNEWS via NewsClient over MOS. The Harris H-Class Broadcast Master sends the schedules.

Clips are played to air from a fully mirrored Spectrum server system with media stored as MXF files. Using the Omneon ConformTool software plug-in installed on two transfer managers, the file editor sends content to playback, allowing the edited sequence to be transferred automatically to the broadcast server. When the Harris MAM detects the content's arrival on the primary server, it sends a duplicate to the backup.

Three 30sq-m news sets, one for each language, are located in the center of the newsroom. Each is equipped with four cameras on robotic heads, with lighting from high-frequency fluorescents. The ground floor of the building houses two larger 100sq-m five-camera studios for general studio programming.

Between newscasts, the station airs a mix of current affairs, documentaries, sport and weather. A department creates promotions for upcoming programs and general interstitials material. A small post-production area provides craft editing, audio dubbing (with Digidesign Pro Tools HD and D-Command systems) and graphics creation.

Staffing and training

Journalists from 30 different nationalities were recruited to form a cohesive editorial team that could deliver the multilingual and multiplatform product. The station has 200 newsroom journalists and 200 technical staff backed by 50 administrators. The maintenance staff has a hybrid set of TV and IT skills.

Avid provided operational training and change management right up to the launch in parallel with the technical installation. Training sessions ran simultaneously in four rooms over a period of five weeks before the launch.

Future plans

The station launched on time, with two languages broadcast on TV and three languages on the Web. An Arabic TV channel launched April 2, 2007. After four months of operation, France 24 had 5 million Internet users (1 million in the United States) and 8 million to 10 million TV viewers.

France 24 is now working with two European cable operators on a VOD launch, with mobile TV transmissions possible in the future. The broadcaster also wants to launch other languages in the future. A Spanish service is a possibility for 2008.

Technology at work

Avid
AirSpeed ingest server
CaptureManager server
iNEWS newsroom computer system
Interplay media management
NewCutter NLE
ISIS storage
Pinnacle Deko graphics systems
Pinnacle Thunder animation server
Xpress field NLE

Digidesign
Cisco 6500 network switch

Pro Tools HD DAW
D-Command work surface

Harris
Broadcast Master, planning and traffic
H-Class ADC playout automation

Omneon Spectrum playout server

Panasonic AJ-HPX200 P2 camcorders

RAMI PJO550 audio interface

Telestream FlipFactory transcoding

Design team

France 24
Jean-Yves Bonsergeat, COO
Frederick Brochard, technology director

Avid
Marc Le Dain, project director
Francois Semin, general manager, Southern Europe
Cyril Lamarque, project manager