Systems Design Showcase: ASCN's new HD facility

Portland, OR-based Action Sports Cable Network (ASCN) has quietly and quickly built a green-field, high-definition broadcast facility from the ground up.

Begun as an extension of the cable company that televised the NBA’s Portland Trailblazers games, ASCN has grown into a completely digital sports network that provides 24-hour programming to cable-system and satellite-based viewers from northern California to southwest Washington. Its programming is a mix of the region’s professional, collegiate and amateur athletics, including regular-season games.

The network facility actually got its start at a basketball game in 1999. That night, as the Portland Trail Blazers played the Houston Rockets, the contest was shot and recorded in HD. Trail Blazers executives were amazed at the results: Instead of seeing only the offense on either end of the floor, they could see the defenses setting up, action away from the ball and far greater detail in the crowd. The totality of the experience was superior to anything they had seen.

The business case for building an HD facility was straightforward. Despite a proliferation of formats, the quality of HD images is without peer — and sports programming is an unrivaled platform for showcasing that quality. So the network invested for the long haul with a two-pronged strategy for building its audience and its brand: deliver high-quality, standard-definition programming in the near term and promote and showcase its high-definition capabilities for long-term success.

Over the next two years, as the broadcast-equipment market matured, the network honed its HD broadcast center design philosophy. At the heart of that philosophy was a strong belief in flexibility — that to profitably manage its operation, it needed a flexible infrastructure that could get any signal, anywhere, any time.

Flexible infrastructure

High on the network’s list was a high-capacity signal-management infrastructure. Instead of feeding signals into distribution amplifiers and using a small routing switcher to move them around, the network wanted a high-bandwidth solution that could handle everything from SD, HD and analog video signals to AES, embedded and analog audio. If a producer, for example, wanted to take a piece of HD video, move it to an SD nonlinear editing suite for incorporation into a feature package, then send it back to an HD server for playout — perhaps embedding or de-embedding audio along the way — the signal-management infrastructure had to provide that kind of flexibility.

In five months, the network built a fully equipped HD broadcast center that includes a four-camera studio, online HD editing facility, uplink facility and a small mobile truck. The nerve center of this operation is a signal-management and distribution infrastructure that includes six Grass Valley Group Profile XP Media Platform systems for playout and ad insertion, two Grass Valley Group 7500 WB series wideband routing matrices, a 7500 NB series narrowband AES audio router and two Grass Valley Group M-2100 digital master-control systems.

For video signals, the network deployed two 128x128 7500 WB series digital routers, which can manage and distribute digital signal from 10 Mbits/s to 1.5 Gbits/s. The routers offer unrestricted, non-blocking, deterministic switching through a flat crosspoint matrix to ensure that the network’s input and outputs are always available. Scalable to 1024x1024, they can be configured to handle SD and HD signals in the same frame simultaneously, creating workflow and capital-equipment efficiencies as well as a cost-effective HD upgrade path.

For audio signals, the network uses a 256x256 narrowband audio router. Scalable to 1024x512, the router gives the network the infrastructural elasticity necessary to handle a range of signals, including AES/EBU digital audio, Dolby Digital, Dolby E, surround sound, 5.1, AC3 and asynchronous data rate streams.

The network also deployed six Profile XP Media Platform systems: four SD PVS 1000 systems and two HD PVS 2000 systems. There were several advantages to this approach. First, the platforms enable the network to easily expand as its operation grew. Second, the servers interfaced easily with the network’s automation system, tape machines and other systems. Finally, and specific to the high-definition platform, the PVS 2000 system offered the slow-motion performance necessary for the network’s high-quality sports programming.

Controlling the network’s operation are Grass Valley Group master-control systems. The ability of the systems to handle 525- and 625-line, standard-definition digital formats and all leading HD signals gave the network the flexibility it needed. And their ability to interface with the network’s automation system enabled them to mesh smoothly into its infrastructure.

Today and tomorrow

Since going on the air July 1, 2001, the vast majority of the network’s original programming has been produced in HD, and broadcast in both HD and downconverted standard-definition formats. At the same time, the network is assiduously promoting its HD capabilities by striking agreements to place HD receivers and screens in Portland-area sports bars. The network has three screens in place and projects to have seven more by the end of the year.

Today, ASCN is part of a core group of Paul Allen-owned companies including Action Sports Entertainment Mobile and Post Up Productions. By offering high-value, regional programming, ASCN can capture the audience necessary to be cost effective today. And by continuing to promote the quality of HD images and associate its brand with that quality, it increases the chances that these viewers will keep tuning in.

Jon Hazell is chief engineer for the Action Sports Cable Network.