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Systems Design Showcase: NTL Playout Center

NTL Broadcast, with its long history in transmission, recently has moved into the technologies of program making.

With its roots firmly in the transmission business, the capabilities of NTL’s broadcast networks come as no surprise. What is perhaps less well-known is that, as well as distribution, it also provides comprehensive presentation and playout services. This is a specialist area of increasing interest to program producers as the economics of multi-channel digital TV rely more and more on efficient and cost-effective operations.

NTL Broadcast already had declared an interest in acquisition technology by offering satellite news gathering facilities and then buying its own OB fleet, Scanners TV. With investments in both ends of the business, it was perhaps no surprise when the ‘bit in the middle’ appeared as part of the company’s Digital Media Centre (DMC) at Langley near Heathrow airport. In addition to being a digital super-headend for the cable side of NTL’s business, the DMC offers all the presentation and playout elements required by a modern program maker. British Eurosport was the first customer, adding ITV Select (six pay-per-view channels) by Spring 2000 and the ITN News Channel and TV Job Shop in the following months. The DMC was full, and the next move was fairly obvious: Do the same again, but on a larger scale.

NTL set out to find new premises that would develop long-term relationships and offer long-term facilities to its customers. Looking to the west of London, NTL avoided the cramped and expensive properties of the Soho ‘post land’ and found a modern 15,000-square-meter building in Feltham, West London. The property benefited from close proximity to Heathrow and had road and rail access to central London. For many working in the television industry, the location was within striking distance of their regular commuter routes, and it was also easily connected to the company’s own fibre network.

Acquired in November 2000, work started immediately to convert what had been a warehouse with a small mezzanine floor into an integrated collection of four studios, with attendant galleries and production offices, plus edit suites, graphics, promo and sound facilities. Clients were intended to staff many of these elements.

The detailed planning, however, could only be completed once contracts had been agreed with the first customer, sports specialist Premium TV. While it would have been tempting in the short-term to devise a production system just for PTV, experience with the DMC had proven that a more flexible solution was preferable — one capable of providing for existing and new clients.

Its approach, in essence, was to create two modules: a production system, with its media managed by OmniBus automation; and a transmission system managed by a Thomson control.

The basic architecture of the production system consists of a group of Grass Valley Profile XP servers arranged in a local area network with their input, output and storage resources allocated to serve specific functions. These might include Ingest, News, Edit, Studio or any other arrangement the client may require. Around the server group lies a comprehensive routing matrix, which routes material around the server group and handles all inputs into the station — from lines, edit suites, studios, dubbing rooms and all the outputs to edit, archive and transmission. Within the servers, the drives are arranged as a raid array, which ensures that, should any drive fail, its content is not lost and can be recreated from information held on other disks in the array.

The transmission system has its own matrix and its own servers — albeit the same models from the same suppliers as the production system — but designed for higher availability. It is designed to provide transmission storage and to archive and handle incoming and outgoing lines. It supports and augments the production facilities for its existing clients and also enables provision of transmission facilities for new customers. 24/7 operations and on-site maintenance form the core of the support services. Links to NTL’s cable and satellite networks, servers for program acquisition, playout and lines to newsroom systems are all part of the infrastructure. Following the pattern tried and tested at the Langley DMC, in-house technicians support the complete station. The technicians also operate the lines and transmission facilities.

Forty percent of the space available has been allocated. The largest components are two studios, one full-height studio of around 304 square meters and another studio, which is about 228 square meters. Their sizes indicate that neither studio is intended for large drama productions nor to include an audience. Instead, both are equipped with virtual reality facilities courtesy of Orad, which allow differently formatted shows to be produced without the need for large studios and physical sets.

Orad recently has moved away from the use of OEM processing hardware and has developed its own platform, the DVG-10, which has considerably improved the performance of the system enabling more complex virtual sets to be processed in real-time. The sets can be prepared either on-site, in the graphics suite, or can be imported onto the DVG from external sources.

The four cameras in the larger studio and three in the smaller studio are equipped with Radamec servo pan & tilt heads, which can be remotely controlled from the gallery or, with the control servos switched out, operated manually as conventional heads. Control systems in both galleries include three-axe direction of pan, tilt and zoom, with a separate control for focus, and a touch-panel system that enables the operator to call the selected camera to a number of the pre-set shots.

A bank of Videssence cold lights provides lighting. It features five key lights and 15 fills and is controlled from a 24-channel lighting desk. In virtual sets and in smaller studios, the flat lighting fields of cold lights offers a number of advantages, including softer shadows, and, therefore, easier keying, less pressure on presenters and a considerably reduced demand made of the air-conditioning system.

Both studios are supported by galleries, each arranged in a conventional form with two banks of desks facing the monitor wall — with all monitors switchable from 4:3 to 16:9. The source of each picture is identified by a TSL under-monitor display, which derives its information as different sources are selected across the router.

The galleries are designed with two rows of seats set parallel to the monitor wall and a sound desk, in its own booth, set to one side. The front row of seats is given to the more critical aspects of production, and the rear areas are available for the preparation and management of supplementary information. The Grass Valley 2M/E Kalypso is center stage on the front desk, reflecting the high standard of equipment NTL has chosen and, with dual DVEs and dual chroma keyers, the levels of creativity, which Premium TV requires for its programs.

In Premium TV’s arrangement, the rear desks are given to the preparation of information for scoreboards and league tables, through a pair of Aston character generators — one Ethos dual-channel system and one Motto. The cameras in both studios are fitted with BDL prompter units, with prompt operators working either from the gallery or from the studio floor.

The separate, sound areas have a clear view over the monitor wall, as well as its own bank of monitors, which are equipped with 28-channel C2 series desks. It includes a range of audio recording/replay and processing equipment. A pair of voice-over booths also is available to both galleries, and offline audio facilities include a ProTools system.

Geoffrey Hamilton Fairley, chief executive of Premium TV, says the new facility is a showcase for modern multimedia production techniques.

“This will be an ideal base for our dedicated sports output on the Internet and TV platforms,” he explains. “The facilities offered are right up-to-date and will allow us to introduce really compelling new services for British sports fans. We’re proud to be the anchor tenant at such a prestigious new center.”

Although 40 percent of the Feltham site has been occupied by Premium TV, there still remains more than half of the total space, which can be developed to meet the needs of future clients. This includes capacity for three additional studios, of similar size to the existing examples, and their galleries on the ground floor. An 8-room stand could also be ready on the first floor to accept graphics, editing, news or whatever facilities the next customer might require.

The center can accommodate two or three more production clients, and there is space for an additional 120 production staff on-site. The lines and transmission area can handle up to 30 simple playout channels. This is similar to the service provided to the ITN News Channel, which Drew Hosie, NTL’s product manager for playout, describes as “… both parties doing what they’re best at.” While ITN is able to concentrate on making good news bulletins, NTL accepts the direct news feed and handles the interstitials and adverts against running orders scheduled by ITN. The result is a seamless stream, which maintains the broad-caster’s corporate style while outsourc-ing the all-important transmission elements.

In operation, all material played is into the matrix, whether from tape or from an incoming line. It can be recorded onto the StorageTek Powder-horn archive. With a capacity for 6000 tapes and with dual robotic arms the Powderhorn ultimately offers access to some 100 TB of information. Depending on the level of compression used, this could amount to in excess of 8000 hours of material on near-line access, the equivalent of nearly a year’s worth of continuous playout.

While typical access times are thought to be around 90 seconds, material scheduled for use within the three days also will be stored on the playout servers. By archiving most material on the Powderhorn, NTL ensures that everything is loaded, logged and verified just once, which, by minimizing handling, reduced the burden on both staff and resources. NTL is dedicated to long-term material rather than to tapes, which are needed, in the everyday activity of the station.

Although the profiles in the production system could support editing, the current arrangement is for all edit decisions to be made on distributed platforms. There currently are about half a dozen in the Feltham facility.

A single Vibrint NewsEdit is available for fast turnaround edits, particularly on sports feeds where little is required in the way of effects. Here, its high-speed access to the production servers over a Fibre Channel link enables editing to start while the material is still being loaded. Three Avid Media Composers provide the main bulk of edit work in the preparation of program elements, continuity pieces, and some of the less demanding promos.

More complex work is passed to the Discreet suite, which includes flint and smoke software running on a pair of Octane SE platforms. A couple of Avid iNEWS EditStars and NewStars also are available for cuts-only edits and for script preparation.

“The Feltham playout center is designed for the efficent playout of multiple channels and for meeting the demand for on-site production capability. By combining state-of-the-art technology with efficient operations, we expect to deliver cost effective yet highly reliable services to our customers,” concludes Steve Holebrook, business director for media solutions at NTL Broadcast, “It’s a model that works in the multi-channel digital world and it adds tremendously to our capability in end-to-end media solutions.”

Peter Powell is a freelance technical journalist. He can be reached via e-mail at