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Taking Seven into the future

Master control at the Broadcast Centre overlooks all five presentation suites as well as news control.

From centralizing its country-wide operations around server technology to switching over to an integrated news production environment, The Seven Network, a leading Australian commercial broadcaster, is fast becoming one of the world's truly 21st century networks.

Situated just alongside Melbourne's Telstra Dome, home of the Australian Football League and innumerable high-profile sporting events and live concerts, The Seven Network's new Broadcast Centre represents the cutting edge of broadcast facility design. It is open and airy, with high ceilings, lots of glass and ergonomically designed galleries.

It's under the skin, though, where the real revolution lies. In the late 1990s, Seven took advantage of the Australian government's aggressive timetable for implementing digital television, and the inevitable re-equipping that entailed, to take a long, hard look at the way it managed its operations across Australia. The network had been operating from playout centers in the five major cities: Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide. The question it faced was whether to carry on with the decentralized model or centralize. Looking at the media landscape in years to come, the broadcaster knew it had to be quick on its feet, and cost efficient, because of all of the different players that were now coming into the field. So, it was decided to centralize.

The Seven Network has installed a news editing operation in each of its markets. It generates all of the stories and transmits them to Melbourne.

Centralization was a radical decision for Seven. It became one of the first channels in the world to ditch tape-based playout and totally rely on server technology. It also became one of the first to structure its operations completely around the new server-based paradigm, rather than simply replacing banks of tape machines with disc drives. In many ways Seven entirely rethought, from the ground up, the way a broadcast network should and could operate. It required ignoring legacy systems and starting again with a blank sheet and current technology rather than simply grafting new equipment on top of decades-old workflows.

Due to its sheer scope and reliance on cutting-edge technology, the centralization project has, by necessity, been divided into stages. The first stage saw the abandonment of regional playout.

The central line

Playout and presentation moved wholesale to a centralized server system based in the new Melbourne building and powered by four, eight-port, 75-hour servers. Five presentation suites were built in Melbourne for the metropolitan areas. During regular programming played from the server, they run with one or two operators but can run up to five operators during live sport, giving a flexible and efficient system.

The Seven Network uses Quantel generationQ news systems, including eight sQservers, 72 QCut journalist and 14 QEdit Pro craft edit stations at its main news gathering locations across Australia.

Seven faced the choice between a central or distributed server system. The central server does potentially put all the eggs in one basket, but this can be mitigated against by mirroring. In practice, Seven found that once the servers were bedded down, it has had pretty remarkable service out of them. The broadcaster had also considered servers from non-broadcast, but it opted for a simple server solution with a broadcast background.

The second phase of the project is currently under way and involves installing Quantel generationQ news systems, including eight sQ servers, 72 QCut journalist and 14 QEdit Pro craft edit stations at the main news gathering locations across the country.

Initially, the plan was for the news to be read locally and backhauled to Melbourne, where non-program content would be inserted and then sent out again. However, in the company's ongoing quest for further efficiencies, Seven decided to take things to the next step. Now, four streams — one for each studio camera, plus a spare for a live weather forecast, for example — are transmitted from the local studios across to Melbourne using MPEG-2 and switched remotely in the Broadcast Centre.

In Seven’s Sydney facility, 50Mbit MPEG-2 servers from Quantel with 75 hours’ storage provide an extra level of back-up to the entire program and commercials output, ready to come online in an instant should the entire Melbourne facility fail.

The broadcaster has installed a news editing operation in each of its markets. It generates all of the stories and transmits them to Melbourne. Then the news editing operation sets up the rundown in the server in Melbourne and generates the Autocue for the reader in Perth, for example. Someone sits in the remote control room and switches the news in Melbourne.

The galleries are run with four people: a producer, a production coordinator, a director who switches and an audio operator.

Up and running in all markets, Seven is currently doing about 12,000 switches a day out of Melbourne. Perhaps yet more startling, though, are the savings that the network is achieving. The broadcaster has not restricted the news operations at all. It has the same flexibility as it had when it switched locally, but it's saved a lot of people and a lot of money. At the end of the day, it has made significant operational staff savings by centralizing presentation and remote switching news. The financial benefit to the company is substantial. The system provides significant savings ongoing from an operation point of view, and it also provides significant savings from an ongoing capital expenditure point of view. The broadcaster is not going to need to upgrade, rebuild, digitize or enhance three or four control rooms around the network year after year, so there are as-yet unquantifiable savings there too.

Seven has pushed both equipment and people to the limit to get the current system up and running. The hard graft is largely behind it now, however, and the company can start to reap the benefits of its technology leap. Its media management system means that once a program has been ingested, prepared and put into the archive, then every time that it needs to go to air during its rights period, all that is involved is simply a file move to the transmission server.

Continual evolution

In each of its five markets, the broadcaster has servers for programs and commercials. This provides access to immediate and flexible programming changes on a city-by-city basis without being tied to a network feed. And there has been a notable increase in picture quality as playout has switched from tape to the server system.

The paradox of the design route that the broadcaster has gone down is that it has increased flexibility by centralizing. For instance, in a live program, all the commercial breaks in all five markets roll with a one-second pre-roll, with one person pressing the button.

It's not in the broadcaster's nature to stand still. Centralized presentation suites for its seven Queensland markets were implemented in Melbourne last August. Also, an 8500-hour archive is currently being tested.

Andy Stout is a broadcast journalist based in the UK.