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AES-3ID coaxial audio is the plant standard, allowing for future use of both Dolby E and AC-3 compression schemes.

The graphics room would be located near the edit rooms for efficient operational workflow.

Not all 24-hour cable channel start-ups launch with the luxury of a powerful brand name like The National Geographic Society. With over 100 years of successful magazine distribution, an internationally recognized logo and the successful show, Explorer, already in widespread distribution, The National Geographic Channel was poised to take the next logical step.

When setting out to conceive, design and build a 24-hour cable start-up production facility the most important steps occur at the beginning. Identifying top-level goals for the facility, selecting the project team and establishing an on-air deadline frames the structure for the undertaking.

Project planning

Partnering with FOX Broadcasting, the National Geographic Channel assembled a team of consultants, project managers, architects and designers to build their new “base camp” studio in Explorers Hall at NGC headquarters in Washington D.C. Andrew Wilk, executive vice president of Programming, Production and News, established the team and led the effort to bring a state-of-the-art image of The National Geographic Society to air. Janson Design Group Architects, Production Design Group and Lighting Design Group were brought aboard to design the structural, architectural, acoustic and signature on-air look of the glass-enclosed, street-level studio.

The National Geographic Channel identified several key technology requirements for their new facility. They wanted a flexible approach to systems design, a growth-oriented facility based on a digital platform and a backbone that could make the transition to high definition in the future. The Systems Group (TSG) was selected to join the team in early February and began the conceptual design effort to address these goals.

TSG helped to refine NGC's staffing model and budgetary operational costs, as well as investigating choices for playback format, edit platform and facility connectivity. Concurrently, TSG's engineering and planning departments began developing the top-level systems design, signal flow, project timeline and detailed equipment schedule that would be necessary to build the facility.

The effort associated with building a new facility, free of established paradigms and legacy commitments, presents different challenges than an entrenched broadcaster or existing operation. As the National Geographic Channel facility began as a clean sheet of paper, the goal was to implement a design that utilized established technology while taking advantage of newer methods and systems where appropriate.

Several vendors, manufacturers and tape formats were considered during the conceptual design efforts. Price and performance factors, as well as service history and reliability, were integral to the selection process. The resulting equipment and technology complement was based on a proven SDTV core with infrastructure capable of supporting uncompressed HDTV, as well as alternate data-based transfer and interconnect methods.

Technical facilities

The National Geographic Channel facility core operates within the CCIR-601 specification, allowing both SDI video and SDTI data transfers. The infrastructure is based upon Belden 1694A coax and ADC MVJT-series coaxial jackfields. This, in conjunction with stringent adherence to cable management standards providing a 4-inch minimum bend radius, will allow the facility to pass uncompressed SMPTE 292M throughout the core.

AES-3ID coaxial audio is the plant standard, allowing for future use of both Dolby E and AC-3 compression schemes. Digital audio parameters are standardized to 48kHz sampling, 24-bit, -20dBfs reference level.

The facility routing core is based on the Philips Venus 2001 architecture. The Venus 2001 serial video matrix is configured for wideband operation, allowing ASI, 270Mb/s and 1.485Gb/s operation.

As systems design efforts proceeded, The Systems Group worked closely with Janson Design Group to establish all aspects of the room requirements for the facility. Workflow, equipment and personnel heat loads, humidity levels, HVAC requirements, power needs and cable access were evaluated for each of the proposed technical spaces. Fit and finish details for the control room areas were developed to complement the studio look and address the ergonomic needs of the operators. Finally, an overall facility layout including detailed room descriptions was created based on the operations model established earlier.

The team decided that the street-level facilities would include a studio, production control room (PCR), audio control room (ACR), video control room, tape playback room and central equipment room (CER). The 8000-square-foot studio would be separated from PCR by a wall of glass, so that on-camera views could include activities in the control room. The second floor of the new facility would include six nonlinear edit rooms, a media library (which would serve as a duplication and tape storage center, as well as a shared tape source for the edit rooms) and a graphics center (GFX). The graphics room would be located near the edit rooms for efficient operational workflow. Connectivity to support areas on the campus includes the main auditorium and an insert studio in the M Street building.

The project schedule specified construction completion to occur in phases so the integration team would get access to the 27-rack central equipment room and three of the six edit rooms in late August. This allowed TSG technicians to begin work on the core facility router, reference headend, intercom and transmission wiring while general construction continued on the rest of the facility.

The remaining rooms were turned over roughly every two weeks. Subsystems for each area were fabricated, tested and packed at TSG in Hoboken and then delivered to the site for installation. Due to the shared construction environment, a final walkthrough preceded each delivery to confirm room-ready conditions.

The facility began to take form once the studio construction was completed. The construction and systems integration teams worked closely together as set pieces were delivered, lighting elements were hung and focused, and integration of all the set monitoring, wireless microphone and communication systems was completed. The set has five primary shooting spaces, including street-level views for passersby to see live broadcasts. The anchor positions are located in front of a Plexiglas wall so that the production control room is visible as a backdrop. Finally, there are a variety of set elements that reflect the unique and rich history of The National Geographic Society.

The technical specification called for PCR to accommodate 10 to 12 people in three rows of consoles. The non-traditional shape of the consoles designed by Eastboard Consoles allowed the best use of space while maintaining line of sight for each position to view the monitor wall.

The production control room was designed around a Grass Valley Group 4000-3B 3½- M/E switcher interfaced to a three-channel Pinnacle DVExtreme. A Chyron MAX! and Aprisa 100 form the graphics subsystem for the room. Playback sources include four Panasonic AJ-850/YAC-850 DVCPRO-25 studio VCRs, a Panasonic AJ-D960/YAC-950 DVCPRO-50/25 studio VCR with multispeed SDTI I/O, two Sony DVW-A500 Digital Betacam studio VCRs and a Grass Valley Group PDR-404D DVCPRO-codec Profile disk recorder.

The director's space includes a TSG custom director's utility panel that provides on-air light control, PCR speaker volume control and mode switching to convert the room into an online edit configuration utilizing an ETC Ensemble Gold multilinear edit controller and Graham-Patten Systems D/ESAM-230 edit mixer. The remaining deck space is reserved for the assistant director, remote director and assistant producer.

The character generator position has monitoring and control surfaces for both the Chyron MAX!, running under Chyron Winfinit! remote control software, and Chyron Aprisa 100. The CG operator is provided with FTP software to allow for image format translation and image transfer over the facility 100bT LAN, which includes both Chyron devices, the Pinnacle DVExtreme, a Quantel Paintbox F.A.T., the nonlinear edit room NewsBYTEs and an Avid Symphony system.

Audio control is based on an AMS Neve Libra Live hybrid audio mixing console. Backup to the Libra was through a Mackie CR-1604VLZ bypass mixer. The AMS Neve AES I/O units incorporate SRC on each input, allowing for both off-frequency and unlocked sources. Outboard processing gear includes dbx 166XL stereo compressors, and Yamaha SPX-990 and Lexicon PCM-81 effects processors. A TSG custom mixer changeover panel provides for cutover of main program, main IFB and control room monitoring in addition to studio mute override.

An integrated news voiceover booth adjoins ACR, providing a space for “live” voiceover and dialogue editing in conjunction with the short/cut. ACR serves as the facility audio BSP patching center, with all microphones and dry audio tielines terminating in Audio Accessories WEP-series bantam audio jackfields.

Facility communications are provided through an RTS/Telex ADAM system. Forty intercom keypanels and four TIF-951 telephone interfaces make up the addressable portion of the matrix. The 20 user stations available for powered channels allowed TSG to isolate individual runs to the studio BSPs, in addition to providing a global utility PL channel to all BSPs for coordination. Facility IFB is implemented through an RTS/Telex IFB-828, with four outputs paralleled to individual Lectrosonics IFB-128 field IFB systems for wireless IFB support.

Video Control has four Ikegami HL-45 camera systems. The video control system was prewired for six cameras and is capable of supporting eight with minor infrastructure modification. In addition to camera shading, the video operator is responsible for painting the set monitors. This is accomplished with Videotek SDC-101 color correctors and Vistek V1642 processing amplifiers. Facility triax patching is provided in VCR, using Trompeter JSI-24W triaxial jackfields.

Panasonic DVCPRO represented the best systemic implementation for the facility. Field tapes shot on DVCPRO camcorders are ingested directly into the NewsBYTE edit systems, without a resultant compression path. The finished NewsBYTE element can be transferred directly to a GVG PDR-404 DVCPRO Profile file server, again within the data realm, for playout.

Six identical Panasonic NewsBYTE NLE edit rooms are located on the second floor of the facility. The VTM-190 feeds into a 21-inch SVGA monitor, identical to the main bin monitor for the NewsBYTE, eliminating all color temperature and chromaticity inconsistencies. A Panasonic BTM-series broadcast monitor is included for NTSC confidence.

The Graphics Center is located adjacent to the NewsBYTE edit rooms and is outfitted with a Quantel Paintbox F.A.T., Chyron Maxine, Ross CDK-104 and three Apple PowerMac G4 CPUs with Digital Voodoo's D1 Desktop 64AV uncompressed capture board. The Ross CDK-104 keyer is used for video-based still image compositing.

Also on the second floor, the Media Library serves as the VCR hub for all post-production requirements. A pool of seven source decks and four VHS target decks round out the system. All VCRs within the Media Library are interconnected to a Leitch X-Plus-series router through NTSC and stereo analog audio interfaces, while the digital machines are connected to the core routing system, simultaneously providing SDI and AES signal paths.

The National Geographic Channel launched Jan. 1, 2001, on DirecTV from their new Base Camp Studio. The set elements, core systems technology and facility workflow efficiencies can be seen on the daily NGC broadcasts, the results of a successful project team.

Paul Rogalinski is a project manager at The Systems Group. He was Project Manager for the National Geographic Channel Base Camp studio construction. Adam Semcken is a senior project engineer for The Systems Group and was the project engineer on the National Geographic Channel Base Camp studio construction.

Project Team

National Geographic Channel

Andrew Wilk, Executive V. P., Programming, Production & News

Janson Design Group LLC

Dennis Janson, Architect
Joe Montalbano, Acoustic Designer
Production Design Group
James Fennhagen, Set Design
Lighting Design Group
Steve Brill, Lighting

Systems design and integration

The Systems Group
Paul Rogalinski, Project Manager
Adam Semcken, Project Engineer
Darwin Clermont, Integration Supervisor
Jim Tome, Jr. Project Engineer
Larry DeFazio, Lead Technician

Installation technicians

Alex Blanding
Tashon Boone
Skip Hughes
Will Jimenez
Steve Losquadro
Jose Morales
Bob Schanz
Joseph Kiernan