Pinellas 18 and Public Access Channel 96

In March 2001, Pinellas County, FL, came of age - the digital age. The county was introduced to new state-of-the-art facilities for its public access and government television channels. These two channels now share a new home, with advanced equipment and a world of possibilities. However, a closer look finds their history just as intriguing as their future.

Until the launch of the new facilities, Pinellas 18, the county’s channel offices and studios were run in modest quarters on property located adjacent to the Pinellas County courthouse in Clearwater, FL, with the county’s production studio just 192 feet away. The county commission chamber’s television production control, master control, post-production, dub/multiformat equipment and nonlinear suites were being run out of a half dozen small rooms on the sixth floor of the courthouse building.

Weekly, Channel 18 broadcasts live closed-captioned coverage of county commissioner board meetings and work sessions, and at least a dozen programs that provide information on current affairs, veteran services and local emergency information.

While Pinellas 18 programs are a valuable asset to more than one million residents, it was seriously lacking in studio space and equipment needed to produce the programs at broadcast quality. In fact, the modest accommodations had minimal room for producers to maneuver cameras, and broadcast time was limited due to inadequate programming equipment.

In January 1999, notification was received to move the entire Pinellas 18 operation from the sixth floor to the fifth in the courthouse, just down the hall from the county commissioner’s chambers. While it made sense to move the control room next to the chambers, this area didn’t have adequate square footage for the studio facilities.

Several miles from the courthouse, Time Warner Cable’s Public Access Channel 96 was itself in dire straits. Required legally to designate a channel for government access and public access shows, Time Warner decided it no longer wanted to provide a studio for the public access producers. For years, Channel 96 used their tiny Time Warner studio to tape shows about local politics and religion.

Although Time Warner and Pinellas County held various negotiations over time regarding this dilemma, no plan had been solidified – and, even worse, Pinellas had no place to relocate the Channel 96 operation.

The County Commission and Department of Public Affairs decided on a new facility to house a studio and office complex for both channels. In September 1999, the county commissioners approved funding for a new 25,000- square-foot central production facility on the property that formerly housed the Pinellas 18 studios and offices.

Strict schedule, tight budget

By April 2000, the county had assembled the construction team for the consolidation and update of these two channels. Rees Associates, AIA (American Institute of Architects) would complete building programming, while architect Harvard Jolly Clees Toppe would design the new building. Professional Communications Systems (PCS) was deployed to design the cablecast facilities.

The team’s task was to complete the project and be on air by Feb. 1, 2001. The entire facility would have to be designed, built and online in less than 10 months.

PCS immediately went to work developing a written scope of work for the project and interviewing key personnel. During this interview process, every possible aspect of the facility design was covered and documented. With this done, design goals were set.

It was determined that the facility would be broadcast quality and have an SD video/stereo analog audio infrastructure – while being fiscally responsible with taxpayer money. Both channels would have totally separate control rooms, studios and offices, yet their equipment would be identical with a few exceptions.

Additionally, satellite program acquisition (two 4.5m C/Ku dishes) as well as an automation system would be installed to run program acquisition, with master control for both channels on a 24-hour basis. Most importantly, there would be space for future growth.

Throughout the discovery period, it was also determined that the overall budget would be tight. For that reason, the equipment list would have to be extremely cost-effective without sacrificing quality, giving the county the best value for their money.

Low-cost, high-quality solutions

Installation began at PCS’s 13,000-square-foot Tampa buildout facility with the mounting of the equipment in the racks and cable manufacturing. By December 2000, the county revised the completion and on-air dates to March 1 and March 15, respectively. Even with this added time, it was essential to pre-manufacture cables and check equipment offsite to minimize onsite installation time.

The result: Both studios were equipped with three Ikegami HL-45WBT/2 triax cameras with a studio option package and QTV’s FDP-15 WinQuePro 15" LCD teleprompters. Vinten’s Multi-controller II studio robotic pan/tilt/zoom system was used for Pinellas 18, while Vinten’s HD-1/Petrel heavy-duty tripods were used in the Channel 96 studio. ESC and Brightline fluorescent and quartz lighting fixtures were selected for studio use.

Both production controls were equipped with Echolab 5800 switchers, three Sony DSR-2000 recorders, Clear-Com intercom and IFB, Ikegami monitoring, and custom consoles provided by Harvey Scenic. Audio control for both channels was equipped with a Mackie 24.8 mixing console with monitoring bridge, JBL Control 1 speakers, Tascam audiocassette and DAT machines, and a Panasonic CD/DVD player. The PESA Tiger was selected as the router system and was framed to 144x144 and populated to 96x64. The video was SD and the audio was stereo analog. Grass Valley Group was used for distribution/format conversion and the sync system was Tektronix.

Each MCR output air channel consisted of a 16x2 stand-alone PESA Bobcat manual switcher and was fed by router under pre-select busses under full automation control and other MCR sources. Should either router buss fail, the operator could manually take the other router buss on the 16x2. If the Bobcat manual switcher failed, the second switcher could be patched in its place and still be under full automation control without reconfiguring the automation system.

For automation failure, both channels could be switched manually on the 16x2. Downstream of the MCR switcher is an Evertz 9525DSK with logo, also under automation control. A Pluto AirSpace server with 44.3 hours of storage at 25 Mbits/s and Sundance automation software was used to control the PESA router, Sony VTRs, Pluto servers and Evertz DSK.

A total of three Sony ES-3 nonlinear edit systems with 18 GBytes of storage each were purchased to complement the existing Sony ES-7. Ancillary monitoring, speakers and DVDs were added to complete the design.

Once the equipment was selected and installed at the buildout facilities, new challenges awaited the PCS team. Technical areas of the building were still under construction and reliable power was a problem. PCS utilized temporary lights during the early stages of on-site installation. As planned, the final installation was finished on March 1, 2001, with training completed on March 15. Pinellas County then decided to delay the on-air date another week to allow for more training.

Meeting the deadline

Through the dedicated effort of the entire design team, Pinellas County had created a new broadcast facility from concept to air in less than one year, and under budget. Through diligent work by the Department of Public Affairs staff and the PCS design and installation team, the equipment and integration portion of the project was completed well under the original budget.

The Pinellas 18 studio alone is more than 2300 square feet with 17-foot ceilings, soundproof walls and doors, and interview sets for talk show guests. The new equipment will allow the capacity to air live programming. It will also enable the shows to combine studio shots with remote video, and create longer and more varied programs.

It can now be more of a news show, with digital technology that not only improves the picture quality of the programs, but is more compatible with what other local television stations use – making it easier to share taped programs with other channels. More importantly, the facility is set up so that during emergencies such as hurricanes, local television stations can broadcast easily from the facility, just a short walk from the emergency operations center.

The taxpayers can now watch their government at work at a quality level, comparable to the commercial channels on the cable system. The days of makeshift studios are over for Pinellas 18 and Public Access Channel 96.

Leslie Fox is a freelance writer.