Norwegian state broadcaster NRK is rolling out an all-encompassing asset management system as part of its cross-media developments. Implemented by systems integrator TSL, with software input from OmniBus, Programme Bank represents one of the most complex file-based production infrastructure projects in Europe.
The broadcaster believes that there is no longer a separation of radio or television. Productions for television, radio and the Internet all work together, and content goes across all three platforms. The whole of NRK is moving to one production body.
This is the real driver behind the new asset management system. With everyone in the organization potentially interested in every piece of content, it was clear that a new way of sharing material was required. Add to the mix the requirement to serve not just the Oslo headquarters but also 13 regional centers around Norway, and the job became even more demanding.
Arild Hellgren, director of technology at NRK, started looking at this at the beginning of 2005. At that time, many people were talking about file-based production. Indeed, the broadcaster had its own file-based island, the Quantel newsroom. Now staff wanted their content available to all.
The broadcaster set up a task force to devise a case for file-based content sharing and persuaded its board to release €20 million for the investment.
Armed with the requirements and the budget, Hellgren went out to the market. To remain within EU tendering laws, the needs were carefully stated in terms of outcomes, with payment tied to delivery of proven functionality and timescales. In this way, the broadcaster used the market — and in particular the knowledge and experience of the systems integrators — to prove that its asset management concept was right, and that it was now technically possible.
The broadcaster was already familiar with OmniBus because it uses the Columbus automation system in its regional centers. OmniBus demonstrated that its OPUS content management suite was capable of delivering the required functionality and connectivity; about 50 percent of the contract value is in new software development.
The third main partner in the project is NRK itself. As well as being the customer, it is also responsible for delivering the network infrastructure and all the standard IT equipment.
Contracts were signed and the project begun, with the intention of the first handovers taking place in mid-2008 and final sign-off by the end of the year. But the political masters of the broadcaster intervened to add pressure.
Norway was a latecomer to digital terrestrial television, starting broadcasts as recently as 1 September 2007. The broadcaster was asked to help drive digital uptake by launching a new channel — NRK Super, aimed at children — as part of the new multiplex. There was no point in setting up a workflow for the new channel only for it to be completely changed within a few months, so the Programme Bank timescales were pulled back to allow NRK Super to go on-air from a completely file-based environment on 1 December last year.
With the first phase of implementation live and proven, it was a good time to see what the system could achieve. The heart of the new asset management system is a central media store, which uses Omneon MediaGrid disk storage with archiving on a StorageTek tape robot using DIVA software from Front Porch Digital. The tape robot was built to be expanded, so in its present location, it can grow to 360,000 hours of content.
The disk storage system — one of the biggest installed in Europe — currently has 89 servers, with a total of 5000 hours of capacity at Programme Bank's internal standard of 50Mb/s IMX in a QuickTime wrapper. The third resident system in the central server room is an IPV Browse encoding system, running Windows Media 9 at 1.5Mb/s. The server room, incidentally, was built for the project with fully redundant power supplies and cooling systems each rated at 100kW.
Attached to this central archive of material are several domains. Some of these are geographic — the broadcaster's regional centers — but in Oslo, there are also application domains.
The Oslo production domain is a good way of explaining the functionality of the system. This subsystem is responsible for ingest and delivery of content through local Omneon Spectrum servers. In addition to conventional ingest from tapes or feeds, it also provides live isolation recording from the broadcaster's production studios.
Linked to each server are several encoders, which automatically create the WM9 version within 10 seconds of the start of ingest. Should this fail for any reason, when the content gets to the storage system, a watch engine checks for the browse copy. If it cannot find it, it starts a transcode process immediately.
This is the fundamental purpose of the asset management system: Every piece of content that is created or ingested is available on it, in high-resolution format, in the central server or its nearline tape archive. A complete mirror of the whole archive in browse resolution is available.
There are several specialist clients in key areas, particularly for ingest, editing and management. But what makes it genuinely open to all is that every single computer on the network can access at least the browse version, and all the associated metadata, using nothing more than a Web browser and a small client key from OmniBus. Every one of the station's 2500 staff can research content, view it, and at least top and tail material for subsequent editing.
While the asset management project has seen a major investment in new systems, the broadcaster owns several legacy systems that need to be integrated. Most obviously, the Quantel-based news system will remain independent to avoid any impact on newsroom performance.
However, to meet the fundamental principle that all content should be available to everyone, the systems integrator provided links to and from the news system, with transwrapping in each direction, and complete metadata transparency. In the case of a major event, an incoming feed can be simultaneously recorded to Programme Bank and Quantel.
Similarly, the regional centers have Profile-based storage. Again, these are integrated into the asset management system thanks to Telestream FlipFactory transcoding and transwrapping engines that are automated by the OmniBus software. As the regional centers expire, they will be replaced by local MediaGrid-based systems, reducing the need for format flipping.
It's important to note that the asset management system is not directly involved with playout. This is handled by Abit automation in Oslo, and Columbus for regional playout. As all the transmission content is drawn from the asset management system, naturally there are close links to ensure the right material is in the correct place when needed.
The broadcaster is migrating toward Apple Final Cut Pro as its standard editing platform, chiefly because of its compatibility with the QuickTime-based Programme Bank. The editing platform seats can access content on the storage system when necessary.
Production staff also have access to the Headline desktop editor from OmniBus. Complete and transparent metadata transfer means that rough cuts can be made using Headline and then transferred to a specialist in a Final Cut Pro suite for finishing.
A slightly greater challenge, but one that needed to be met for the project, was to extend this metadata transparency to the Quantel system in news. Edits can be shared and modified freely between Quantel's desktop and craft editors, Final Cut Pro and Headline. The integration with Final Cut Pro and Quantel also populate the asset management system's database with clip genealogy information.
Also vital to the philosophy of the project was the ability to integrate all the stories in every domain. Whether using a specialist client or the Web browser, users can configure the user interface to their particular needs. In particular, they can choose to search through content in a particular domain or in all domains. A user in Stavanger can search through the material in TromsØ, for example, in exactly the same way as through local material, with the browse resolution clip playing on-screen virtually instantaneously. If the selected content is needed somewhere else, it is automatically transferred to the local server in the target domain, if necessary passing through the transcoding engine on the way.
The broadcaster wanted to make the most efficient use of its available bandwidth, particularly between Oslo and its regional sites — some of which are very remote. NRK decided not to establish a separate production network that might be underused much of the time, but to establish a high-capacity network infrastructure and lay onto it several virtual LANs to provide the connectivity required.
As a result of that decision, the network was potentially at risk from malware. Therefore, the software all had to either be compatible with standard antivirus software, or demonstrate that it offers adequate protection. The core network, as implemented, offers at least 10Gb/s between sites, with 1Gb/s to any Programme Bank client.
During testing, engineers demonstrated 180 parallel streams of 50Mb/s IMX around the Oslo network without any performance degradation. There is a requirement for such high numbers of simultaneous transfers because the system moves content automatically in response to a number of drivers. Workflows can be set up as templates within the asset management system. For example, the receipt of a completed program from ingest or editing might then push it to quality control then to subtitling.
Multimedia was one of the key drivers of the system, and this too is fully integrated. Web producers will be able to use exactly the same tools as television producers, simply putting the finished packages into drop boxes for Windows Media encoding at 200kb/s, 400kb/s and 1Mb/s. It means that there is no longer a need for specialists in broadcast and Web formats, meeting Hellgren's vision of “one NRK.”
Radio has its own production system with free access to all the content in Programme Bank at either high or browse resolution. Users can strip the audio out of a Final Cut Pro file if necessary. Again, this is changing the way that the broadcaster works.
The 24-hour news channel, for example, uses a large amount of sound originally sourced by television journalists and crews, as much as 80 percent overnight. In turn, this has led to radio producers working with television reporters to tune the way they work, adding more explanation and longer sound bites. This has improved the television coverage as well as the radio news channel.
It is the all-embracing nature of the asset management system that makes it such an exciting project, because it introduces so many layers of complexity. The metadata scheme, for example, introduces as many as 70 or 80 different pieces of information to help researchers track down exactly the right footage.
Metadata can be tied to the timeline; a new OmniBus interface speeds the way sports are logged, for example, with one-button clicks for events such as goals or free kicks. The metadata is automatically transferred to Final Cut Pro, so the highlights are already clipped up before the editor even sits down.
With NRK Super already on-air, the system is rapidly being rolled out across the rest of the operation. How is it being received by its users?
Normally on a project like this, staff are reluctant to be first. Producers told Hellgren that they liked the idea of seeing everyone else's material but wanted to keep their own rushes for themselves. Now staff are fighting to get into the asset management system. No one wants to be the last working the old-fashioned way.
With the end of this phase of the project in sight, it is clear that there are more developments in planning. Inevitably, the subject of high-definition television was raised, and here the broadcaster has an almost unique opportunity.
NRK only started DTT last year and specified MPEG-4 from the start. Set-top boxes have both HDMI and SCART sockets, as well as a built-in downconverter to the SCART. The broadcaster does not need to launch an HD channel; it can just broadcast HD on any channel when it wants to.
Since NRK has control of a complete multiplex, it can offer HD on different channels at different times of day. Its hope is to broadcast the opening and closing ceremonies of this year's Olympics live in HD. Programme Bank is basically HD-ready.
The project successfully met the vision of NRK with a seamlessly integrated, file-based production and content environment. Most important, it is being rolled out without noticeable fear of new technology amongst its users, but with a genuine enthusiasm for the creative possibilities.
Dick Hobbs is a consultant, commentator and writer on broadcast and media technology.
Arild Hellgren, director of technology
Hroar Pettersen, project manager
Egil Johan Damm, project coordinator
Tom Marthinsen, design group
Rune Hagberg, design group
Sverre Reiten, design group
Dag Gulbrandsen, design group
David Phillips, project director
Peter King, project manager
Linda Taylor, project manager
Technology at work
Apple Final Cut Pro NLE
Front Porch Digital DIVArchive content storage management system
IPV Browse server
MediaGeniX WHAT'Son broadcast management system
MediaGrid active storage system
Spectrum media server system
Headline desktop editor
Columbus broadcast automation
OPUS content management
Sun StorageTek 5800 storage system
Telestream FlipFactory transcoding engine