Network News Service launches

The biggest challenge of the NNS installation was achieving the required data transmission rates.

Each news organization plays its selected news packages out to affiliate stations, which make independent decisions about their use.

NNS faced its first acid test when the Concorde supersonic jet crashed outside Paris in early July.

Network News Service (NNS) is a pioneering news organization formed by ABC News One, CBS Newspath and FOX News Edge. Launched in June 2000, its subscriber list already includes more than 500 ABC, CBS and FOX affiliates throughout the United States. The three news distributors created NNS to cost-effectively pool resources for developing and delivering second tier news stories and b-roll footage. The goal was to realize cost savings in the creation and distribution of these news images, while news organizations and member TV stations continued to independently develop and deliver their own signature coverage of top news stories.

To build a cost-effective news organization from the ground up, NNS needed an end-to-end digital solution that would streamline the workflow for media ingestion, editing, browsing, storage, playout and archiving. All editing tasks are handled on personal computers, while the use of satellite feeds and servers all but eliminate the use of VTRs and videotape for content acquisition, playout or storage.

Design criteria

Reliability was a crucial requirement for the 24-hour news operation. High volume and fast turnaround were to be hallmarks of NNS, which aimed to reduce the time needed to get breaking news on the air.

Another design imperative was transparent, high-speed connectivity between the NNS facility and the offices of its three partner news organizations. All three required high-speed access to the full-resolution media being ingested and stored on the drive arrays of the NNS server. This was an ambitious requirement because of the distances involved. While CBS Newspath and NNS were both located in the CBS Building in New York, ABC News and FOX News Edge were headquartered in separate locations a few miles away, adding to the challenge of delivering fast access to full-resolution media.

The networked NNS operation also needed to provide multiple users at multiple sites with simultaneous access to ingested media — with user access beginning just two seconds after the system began to ingest a satellite feed or other media. Simultaneous record and edit functions were a key requirement, allowing for on-the-fly editing of late-breaking news feeds — even as the media was being ingested into the system.

The main NNS installation was designed to work closely with regional NNS offices around the United States, which gather footage and stories from member stations, type details into the central VorteXNews information management system and transmit the selected footage to NNS headquarters via satellite. The NNS regional offices are networked together with the New York operation via DSL, giving them access to low-resolution proxy copies of the downlinked media being stored on the NNS servers.

In the NNS newsroom, staff members create news packages by editing stored clips together with added text. News staff at ABC News One, CBS Newspath and FOX News Edge use VorteX stations to view the edited packages at full resolution and select stories. Each news organization plays its selected news packages out to satellite, to be downlinked by affiliate stations that subscribe to the service. Each station then makes independent decisions about the use or further adaptation of NNS stories.

To implement the all-digital plant, NNS chose Pinnacle Systems of Mountain View, CA, to design and install a custom configuration of its VorteXNews end-to-end newsroom solution, configured with 10 SDI inputs for ingesting satellite feeds or other media. NNS is snugly housed in two compact spaces within the CBS Building. The NNS newsroom contains the workstations and staff needed to acquire, create and manage news content; and the NNS machine room area holds rack upon rack of CPUs, drive arrays, routers, hubs, switches, proxy encoders and other gear.

The VorteXNews application runs on Windows NT, allowing for cost-effective, modular system expansion through the addition of off-the-shelf CPUs, drive arrays, networking technologies and other components. Client PC workstations are connected via 100base-T Ethernet to a BroadNeT network switch, linked by Gigabit Ethernet to BroadNeT servers with RAID3 Fibre Channel disk arrays, which provide central data storage. The central network switch is connected via 100base-T Ethernet to proxy encoders, which generate low-resolution proxy copies of media stored on the disk arrays.

A mixture of fiber and 100base-T Ethernet links NNS with the Manhattan offices of ABC News One, CBS Newspath and FOX News Edge, which are each outfitted with two VorteXNews editing stations and proxy encoders. Within each of the four New York footprints, 100base-T Ethernet is converted to fiber for transmission between locations. To deliver the bandwidth needed to link these locations, NNS chose to partner with TVTX, which provides data lines for broadcasters.

Editorial and engineering representatives from all three news organizations and Pinnacle began meeting during 1999 to set forth the technical and operational parameters of their proposed venture — an unprecedented partnership among long-time competitors. By February 2000, the build-out of the NNS space in the CBS Building was underway, and engineers in Pinnacle's Florida offices, where VorteX products are systemized, were configuring and testing the equipment destined for NNS.

Data rating

The biggest challenge of the NNS installation was not building an all-new facility from the ground up — it was achieving the required data transmission rates between NNS headquarters and its satellite installations at ABC and FOX. Pinnacle Systems and NNS had contracted with TVTX to deliver 100Mb/s connectivity from the CBS Building to ABC and FOX, to support remote access to full-resolution media on the NNS servers. While bandwidth testing showed that 100Mb/s was theoretically available, the actual data rates were too slow to transmit video successfully.

To address this, TVTX investigated its lines, determining that there were 17 exchanges in the links between the three buildings and that some of these links had minor inconsistencies in their packet handling protocols. While each of the links might introduce only a few milliseconds of delay, the cumulative effect was significant for the NNS operation. TVTX responded by fine-tuning its infrastructure. After replacing several switch units and reconfiguring about a dozen devices, video was successfully streamed to ABC and FOX, and NNS went online in mid-June.

Within a month, NNS had faced its first acid test. When the Concorde supersonic jet crashed outside Paris in early July, NNS supplied ABC, CBS and FOX with a constant stream of footage from the crash site. Rather than sending complete crews from all three networks to gather b-roll footage of the disaster and investigation site, the news organizations were able to cost-effectively acquire these images from NNS and combine the b-roll with signature coverage from network reporters.

The Concorde disaster enabled NNS to prove itself, but the sheer volume of crash and investigation footage also demonstrated that NNS needed to expand its input capabilities. In the space of a few weeks, the system grew from 10 to 22 inputs. At NNS headquarters, the 10-input system was expanded with six additional inputs, and each satellite office also added two inputs to its VorteX system; the remote systems can record input material onto the central servers at NNS headquarters.

With NNS up and running, Pinnacle Systems continues to partner with the news organization to provide operator training and technical support, including 24-hour telephone support. Through NNS, three major news organizations have realized their ambitious vision to provide member stations with a cost-effective resource for news images.

Dave Engelke is vice president of the Networked Solutions Group, and Pam Egan is director of software QA, training and documentation.

Design team

Jeff Stonier, development manager

Arnold J. Scher, manager of system installation

Enrico Blatt, Carsten Kroll and Steven Lubowski, senior software architects

Sari Sapon, graphic design

John Footen, director of projects

Bala Iyer, director of research and development

Pamela V. Egan, director of software QA, training and documentation

Dave Engelke, vice president of Networked Solutions Group

Equipment list

Pinnacle VorteXNews editing, producer and media loading workstations

Pinnacle Media Pumps

Ciprico 7000 RAID3 Fibre Channel storage arrays

Qlogic SanBox16 Fibre Channel switch

Alcatel 100 6×80 network switch

Pinnacle BroadNeT encoders

Pinnacle proxy server with RAID storage

Pinnacle proxy encoders

Pinnacle playout decoder

Pinnacle proxy playout encoder