NECN's streamlined digital addition

When NECN launched as a cable news channel in 1992, the mission was clear: Provide original local and regional news, as well as national news from a regional perspective, fast. The station produces 11 hours of live programming on weekdays and seven hours on weekends from a 19,600sq-ft facility in Newton, MA.

Since its inception, the station acquired field video on Betacam SP tape and edited in a tape-based “cuts only” workflow (along with a single Sony BVE-600 system for A-B roll editing). A few Fast Forward Video editing workstations and Autodesk Discreet Edit 6.0 and 6.5 systems provided craft editing capability for longer-format programming and weekly shows that were preproduced.

The idea was to use this basic technology to deliver a local perspective into viewers' homes throughout the New England region in a timely fashion. Thirteen years later, the response from viewers and critics alike has been phenomenal. NECN currently reaches 3.2 million homes with a zoned distribution system that serves the Boston DMA and the New England region (i.e., Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont).

In 2004, NECN made the leap into digital news production in an effort to take advantage of file transfers, nonlinear flexibility and fast news package turnaround times. The station chose the Grass Valley Digital News Production system to optimize its workflow. Everything but the switchers is connected to a dual-chassis Grass Valley NAS, allowing the station's news editors to share material and producers and journalists access to stories from anywhere in the building.

Taking a phased, multistage approach to full digital production over the past two years, NECN's chief engineer, Greg Roehr, said the biggest challenge was migrating while keeping the channel on the air. There could be no downtime, and space limitations didn't allow for prebuilding work areas. Another major challenge was to create a new, collaborative way of working, and train operators on the new systems as they simultaneously put out the day's newscasts.

The facility now maintains 10 NLE suites with Grass Valley NewsEdit SC systems, several with 2-D DVE and CG capability. Three additional NLE systems are on board SNG and ENG production trucks covering news in the field.

All field material is ingested using FireWire connectivity. And the functionality of the NLEs allows editors to begin their work before the file is completely uploaded onto the network. Once a package has aired, it's copied to Sony XDCAM disks or Betacam SP tape and archived in a tape library for long-term storage.

Tapeless acquisition

In 2005, NECN made its second major leap into digital news production by purchasing 11 Sony XDCAM camcorders and source players for edit systems and viewing stations. The XDCAM's optical media discs are compatible with the NewsEdit systems and have helped the station produce news packages in a third of the time it took with the previous tape-based workflow.

In tandem with the move to optical disc acquisition, the station also changed the way it handles media for news production. Where previously it sneakernetted tapes between editors and played out programs to air from tape, the station implemented a segmented Gigabit Ethernet backbone to support a file-based network. This includes a Grass Valley NAS system, Telestream FlipFactory for externally produced content and dual two-channel M-Series iVDR servers for each of the two on-air control rooms. The iVDRs are mirrored to provide redundancy and online security.

Edited material is fed to the M-Series units using a Gigabit Ethernet pipeline. The units then play stories directly to air via the production control room with a Grass Valley Kalypso or Kayak switcher. Two 1.21TB (110 hours at 25Mb/s) of in-house storage support the centralized NAS system. And by using metadata generated by the Associated Press newsroom ENPS and Grass Valley NewsQ Pro systems, the NAS allows all editors, producers and journalists to have access to the same content.

While NECN video is distributed with analog (mono) audio throughout the region, its audio production is handled by a Wheatstone D-9 audio console from its main control room and a 56-input Mackie audio board in its secondary room, which also includes a Kayak HD switcher. The lack of multichannel audio is due to prior distribution arrangements with the station's transport provider.

NECN is carried on most of the multiple system operators (MSOs) in the region, including Comcast, Charter Communications, Metrocast and Time Warner Cable. The station's two outbound program channels are carried to the cable headends via a terrestrial fiber and microwave distribution network.

Automated playout and tape archiving

The facility includes two similar production control rooms. Control Room A includes a Kalypso switcher, while Control Room B features a Kayak HD switcher. Room A is used for the main newscasts and some other segments, while Room B handles breaking news, a zoned newscast and other programs that air throughout a typical news day. Grass Valley Profile servers, which store prebuilt animations and other stock elements, support both control rooms.

Added to this mix is the NewsQ Pro system, which manages identical playout facilities for NECN's two production control rooms. It enables producers and journalists to quickly and easily search, locate and retrieve material associated with a particular story.

Producers use the system via their MOS-connected Associated Press ENPS desktops to slug each story and leverage any additional metadata generated by the cameras, Pathfire media servers, wire services, reporter info and so on. This metadata stays with a story from when it enters the building until it is dumped off to tape for archiving.

Internal training was key. News employees had to modify their old tape-based processes and embrace the new file-based workflow. Grass Valley is modifying the “Archive-To-Tape” function within the NewsQ Pro software to accommodate XDCAM equipment interfacing and will provide NECN with an update soon. The goal is to eliminate videotape from as many areas of the operation as possible.

Completed programming content is sent from the production control rooms in serial digital video with embedded AES audio to the station's network operations center. From here, commercials are inserted for the two regions served by the news station and then sent to the cable provider and into consumers' homes. A Sundance Digital NXT provides automation control for NECN's Utah Scientific MCP-2020 MC switcher at the heart of its network operations center and manages three channels of SeaChange MediaCluster servers for playback of prerecorded programs and commercials. The system design now in place is flexible and fast, allowing the news station to go live at a moment's notice. As material is ingested, it can be aired immediately.

Where previously the newsroom automation system was used to find tapes on a shelf, material can now be retrieved much faster and more efficiently from the NAS system and married with live signals sent via fiber, microwave or satellite connection. NECN also maintains four news bureaus throughout the region that contribute news on a daily basis, with some stories sent via a Telestream ClipMail system.

This process has been used on several late-breaking occasions, such as the recent flooding in New England, and has helped the station scoop its much more established competition. NECN has to be prepared for any and all news stories as they break. The system as implemented allows the station to go live from two different control rooms and expand coverage of important stories at a moment's notice.

Rather than go for a high story count, there are times when the station will expand upon a single story. On Sept. 11, 2001, two of the troubled flights originated from Boston and Maine. NECN went live for six-and-a-half days, commercial-free. Throughout the current Middle East crisis, the station has been able to easily break away from planned stories as needed.

NECN's technology and systems have been designed for a maximum workload, yet the systems are flexible and ready to adjust to a different workflow. The station's approach to the news business is the reason NECN has remained an award-winning news source in the region.

Michael Grotticelli regularly reports on the professional video and broadcast technology industries.

Associated Press ENPS newsroom computer system

Grass Valley
Kalypso SD switcher
Kayak HD switcher
M-Series iVDRs
NewsEdit SC NLE systems
NewsQ Pro
Profile servers

Harris Letich Panacea router

Mackie 56-input audio board

Pathfire media servers

SeaChange MediaCluster servers

Betacam SP VTRs
XDCAM cameras and player/recorders

Sundance Digital NXT automation

ClipMail encoder
FlipFactory automation system

Utah Scientific MCP-2020 MC switcher

Wheatstone D-9 audio console

Greg Roehr, chief engineer
Dave Beauvais, director of operations
John Mehrtens, IT manager
Kris Kalanderi, assistant chief engineer