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Solent TV pioneers satellite distribution for community channel

The lean operating budgets of small broadcasters and boutique channels could become harder pressed as the analog spectrum is auctioned off around Europe. Cost-efficient infrastructure upgrades, such as advanced automation solutions and digital satellite carriage, may provide some relief.

Solent TV, a UK community station and not-for-profit broadcaster, has done just that. Not only did it make the leap to HD with a new studio and playout center at its Newport facility, but it also became the first community station in Europe to use digital satellite broadcasting.

The station airs 24/7, with three to five hours of original content daily. Station offerings include local news programming, chat shows and filmed radio phone-ins. The shows are accessible on the station's Web site, and “Solent Tonight,” a 30-minute live nightly news program, can be viewed via mobile phone as well.

The broadcaster has delivered local programming to the 750,000 people in the Isle of Wight region via the Rowridge analog terrestrial transmitter since its launch in October 2002. Unfortunately, 1000 homes can't receive the station's terrestrial or cable signal. The 240km-sq coverage area features hilly terrain and sheer cliffs, preventing reception to towns located at their base. This was the key motivator to attain digital satellite carriage.

Goals

The station is operated by the charity Island Volunteers, and all advertising profits go back into the charity. And like other community stations, Solent TV operates on a skeleton staff of eight to 12 people with no engineering department. This made it vital to achieve a solution that could be operated and supported with minimum disruption. And this made the station more reliant on its supplier in guiding the installation to meet these needs.

The station's head of broadcasting, Paul Topping, searched for help to create a system for the station that would:

  • Minimize costThe solution needed to fit within the broadcaster's restrictive budget in terms of initial outlay for equipment and installation, as well as for keeping long-term operational costs manageable.
  • Maximize valueEssentially, the station wanted a solution that would look far more expensive than it would actually cost.
  • Run leanEverything had to be designed to minimize the number of people required in production and to get programs to air quickly. There were no plans to increase staff levels, so the system needed to be automated and as simple to use as possible. Just two or three people managed the existing live news gallery.
  • Plan aheadThere was an opportunity to future-proof the center to delay the need for replacement costs as far as possible.

Choice of delivery

Since day one, the station had been in discussion with British broadcasting regulator Ofcom and government media department DCMS about securing spectrum over free-to-air digital terrestrial platform Freeview. It soon became clear that this would be impractical. In addition to the cost of securing a license — estimated at several million pounds, which was well outside the operation's small budget — Freeview would also have required the expensive installation of additional relays.

Instead, Solent TV chose to install an uplink to the Sky DTH platform. Sky's footprint covers the UK and parts of Western Europe, including Spain, Ireland and France. This presented the commercial opportunity to reach a far wider audience.

However, attracting a larger audience would dilute the station's identity. Also, the broadcaster did not want to try to duplicate nationally available programming. Instead, the broadcaster strived to adhere to its core principals: to empower the community with local news and information.

Planning an upgrade

To make the service transition a success, Topping researched several firms and selected systems integrator Broadcast Networks in September 2006. Taking Solent's criteria, Broadcast Networks devised a turnkey package that used the latest technology rather than older — albeit potentially cheaper — equipment. For example, a DV workflow would have been an easy, tried and trusted response, but a key early decision was to provide HD capability.

Acquisition

After settling on HD, Solent TV decided to acquire material on the Sony XDCAM HD. The system was chosen for its affordability and its random-access disc-based recording, which makes the technology particularly amenable to fast-paced productions.

A news editor, three journalists and a camera operator split the use of three XDCAM PDW-330 cameras. Most content is shot and stored in DV25 for Sky's SD broadcast, though special events, such as yachting extravaganza Cowes Week and the Isle of Wight Festival, are acquired in HD both for commercial sales and for building a library of HD material that can be used in future HD transmissions.

When the station's news crew shoots on the mainland, its members use the proxy data function and short-circuit the delay to send MPEG-4 clips by e-mail or ftp to the station. They can even play straight out of the back of the camera by sending proxies by wireless IP to the newsroom where media is played back live. Journalists plan to use the camera to perform rough edits while traveling back to the studio to speed time to air.

Media management

The station was keen to transition to a tapeless workflow. Fast turnaround news footage is ingested via one of four XDCAM PDW-F70 decks (and edited via Avid Xpress Pro HD as necessary) into a scalable 3TB Suitcase TV MediaStor server and management system. Clips are ingested as a QuickTime reference file with metadata. The server makes these clips instantly available across the network. Content is then ready to air and can be pushed automatically or manually in a drag-and-drop fashion.

For long form sources, such as prerecorded news events, chat shows or archive material, Suitcase TV implemented a FireWire solution to accommodate tape, disc or FireWire device ingest. Clips are selected and again wrapped in QuickTime.

The system uses Suitcase TV's Aqua as a common interface to repurpose legacy and future content without production having to learn several different approaches to ingest. The system can interface with multiple file formats (MXF, for example) and provide a unified view of where content is stored.

Solent TV's database of its existing tape library was ported to Suitcase TV's Purple logging system with tape numbers captured for physical retrieval and additional metadata added on ingest for textural search. Retrieved clips can then be exported back to Avid for the compilation of additional programs or for content sales, which is important from a commercial perspective. Final programming is stored on the server as DV25 (increasingly HD going forward), or backed up on XDCAM, with a rolling schedule in place to digitize tapes.

Playout in a box

An HD/SD playout, scheduling and graphics automation system connects directly to MediaStor through a TCP/IP SAN-based structure and is set to scan the server (at a prescribed frequency) to regularly grab new material. The device can create a log or playlist manually or automatically on ingest from external traffic management systems, as in this case from Suitcase TV's playout schedule. The playlist and a list of secondary events, such as the position of branding and logos, are exported in log format. Upon ingest, the Xstation confirms links to the assets and compiles a priority list for ingest of any missing content.

The media server takes raw RSS feeds straight to the channel's online site, automatically repositioning the clip and reworking graphics and typefaces. It does this by connecting databases, such as XML or Web-based SMS, to a data manager, which enables editorial pages to be created. This process includes assigning font color, animation and graphics, and crawl data content.

The station's gallery was previously fitted with a bank of CRT monitors. Now an installation of a 10-input multi-image display processor allows multiple outputs to be displayed and monitored on a single Clarity Baycat screen, helping production to visually prioritize displays by changing size, positioning and resolution of each. The processor is controlled by its built-in GUI with predefined presets, which enable layouts to be modified, and is fed with embedded audio and the time code taken from the in-house time code generator to display clocks.

The station also deploys a four-channel Sony AWS-G500 Anycast Station, which bundles a video switcher, audio mixer and LCD display into a laptop-sized module for mobile productions. It can, for example, enable a single operator to film an hour-long broadcast in a radio station with a couple of pan-and-tilt cameras so when footage is returned to the studio, the time and cost of post production is minimal.

STL

Another limitation for community stations is the cost of the studio-to-transmitter link. Broadcast Networks wanted a solution that would not require fiber to the station. It arranged for a private IP connection between the station and uplink provider Globecast in London with 2 × 2Mb/s copper pairs at the local end.

The signal is encoded as H.264 and routed by a Suitcase TV Purple media encoder with a bandwidth of less than 4Mb/s. A parallel decoder at Globecast turns the signal back to SDI for contribution to Sky. It also has 4Mb/s of reverse data capacity, which the station can use as a contribution circuit. The link completes the broadcaster's new independence, allowing it to offer studio, camera and transmission facilities to other production companies.

The system integration

The first phase of the installation put media management in place. This was followed by integration of a channel management system to automate EPG information to and from Sky. The station now employs an external sales house for advertising sales. Metadata about changes in the advertising or program schedule needs to be automatically swapped.

Suitcase TV has a range of tools and planning templates to manage this. The tools can all be operated over IP to allow remote management by virtual private network (VPN). Suitcase TV is already helping the broadcaster to manage its program schedule from its Ipswich base. With both ingest and channel management using the same software platform, it's conceivable that both functions could be accomplished from home, providing further flexibility and cost control if ever needed.

Installation of the new center took just 10 weeks from November to its Sky launch on 15 January, following two weeks of testing, during which time the channel stayed on-air. Keeping in mind that the station lacks a permanent engineering department, Broadcast Networks supplied an on-site engineer during the install and test.

Going forward, transmission will be discreetly and remotely monitored by Suitcase TV. Because all logging, storage and automation is IP-based, any issues including those in the transmission link, can be diagnosed by Suitcase TV.

Airing repeat

According to Broadcast Networks director Tom Haye, many small broadcasters, particularly in Eastern Europe, want to operate in a similar way to Solent TV. Partly because of its proximity to the firm's headquarters, the station had an ideal opportunity to put the technology into action. Once up and running, the technology will be packaged as a road show for demonstration around Europe.

Many community channels use low-power analog UHF channels, plus cable TV, to reach their audience, so they face the threat of analog switch-off and potentially having to bid for a frequency slot. Broadcast Networks is confident it has found a solution that minimizes manpower yet provides robust automation and quality production values for this growing market.

Adrian Pennington is a freelance writer specializing in film and TV production.

Design team

Island Volunteers
Paul Topping, head of broadcasting

Broadcast Networks
Tom Haye, director

Technology at work

Avid Xpress Pro HD editor

Clarity Baycat screen

Globecast uplink

Sony
AWS-G500 Anycast Station mobile production
PDW-330 XDCAM cameras
PDW-F70 XDCAM decks

Suitcase TV
Aqua ingest interface
Purple media encoder
MediaStor asset management

Adrian Pennington is a journalist specialising in film and TV production. His work has appeared in The Guardian, RTS Television, Variety, British Cinematographer, Premiere and The Hollywood Reporter. Adrian has edited several publications, co-written a book on stereoscopic 3D and is copywriter of marketing materials for the industry. Follow him @pennington1