TMZ pioneers instant TV production

The syndicated TMZ TV program (currently airing on FOX affiliates across the country) is a prime example of the new generation of television newsgathering that borrows heavily from the Internet culture. The entertainment news show — which was created as an extension of the Web site — uses all of the latest technology to get a celebrity story simultaneously on the air and online with amazing speed. In an age when news comes fast and from a variety of sources and viewers' attention spans are shorter than ever, segments on the TMZ show are 90 seconds or less. The show's producers, who are used to working on short items for the Web, jokingly refer to a two-minute clip as a documentary.

The same team that produces content for the Web site is now feeding the broadcast show as well, so stories might wind up on the Web, TV or both places in the same day.

Chuck Dages, executive vice president of emerging technology for Warner Bros. technical operations, said one of the challenges of designing and installing the system to produce the TV show was to leverage the same fast, flexible production processes used to gather content for the Web site. The team wanted to make sure the TV show had the look, feel and immediacy of the Web site, but with the enhanced broadcast production values of HD to give viewers a sense of being on the celebrity scene.

The system design goal was to implement a newsgathering environment that could not only get content to air quickly, but also accommodate high volumes of content and an increased number of stories on a half-hour show. To do this, TMZ needed to seamlessly share content between the television program and automatic low-resolution proxy generation for the Web site.

Cutting-edge ENG and tapeless production

Even the systems integration was fast-paced, with veteran systems integrator National TeleConsultants (NTC) overseeing the buildout. In addition to its traditional role of handling the engineering and integration of the many hardware components, NTC also coordinated the IT and software systems implementation. This included development of custom software by the systems integrator's staff. The facility was built in four months after NAB2007, where the equipment was purchased. The staff did several weeks of practice shows in August and went on-air on Sept. 10.

Working with TMZ staff, NTC installed a Dalet NewsPlus News Suite newsroom computer system (NRCS) that supports ingest control, media asset management, desktop proxy editing, scripting, tight integration with craft editing and rundown driven play-to-air with a completely tapeless HD workflow. There are 89 workstations, including 69 desktop edit seats, integration with Apple Final Cut Studio, newswire services, MOS prompter integration, automated ingest control, FIFO recording and rundown control of play-to-air servers. With it, the staff can reorder its rundown to accommodate late-breaking stories and regional updates.

TMZ uses cutting-edge news-gathering techniques to air segments, sometimes within minutes of an event actually happening. A group of young new media professionals serve as producer, camera operator and editor, while adhering to fierce deadlines that lead right up to show time.

These one-man-band shooters, who formerly worked on the Web site, went through several weeks of training on how to use the video equipment. Some currently roam the field using backpacks holding a MacBook laptop and a lightweight Sony Z1U camcorder with camera-mounted Focus Enhancements FireStore hard drive recorders. This enables material to be immediately ingested as a QuickTime file and processed for both TV and the Internet. It also allows the producers to use the HDV tape for backup and as an archive media.

The TMZ franchise has made a name for itself by breaking scoops on celebrity mishaps, and the IT infrastructure at the main production facility in Hollywood, CA, enables it to do just that. All of the production systems, and its staff of 120 people, are installed on a single floor.

Flexible, rapid-fire workflow

Once content comes into the building, usually between the hours of 12 a.m. and 3 a.m., it's ingested, and metadata is assigned to it. Rough edits are then instantly created by the producers and editors working on the shared storage NRCS. Early the next morning, show executive producer Harvey Levin holds a meeting with the producers to select stories for that night's broadcast. This meeting, with Levin at a transparent white board, is so lively that it is sometimes taped, and parts are inserted into the show so that viewers can see how the show is put together.

Once a story has been approved for air, the EDL is sent to a group of eight editors, who finish the pieces from the full-resolution material and send them along for insertion into the main show. Some of these finished segments are also immediately posted on the Web site, complete with still frame grabs and short videos.

The staff produces one TV show per day, but content is continually updated before, during and after airtime. Editors fix or update the second segment of the show while the first segment is playing out. Using their laptops, producers in the field file breaking stories directly to the facility via wireless hotspots. That's an example of today's ENG professional in action, and it's exactly what the TMZ franchise is all about.

The producers work with low-res proxies on PC workstations connected to a GigE network. The full-res (25Mb/s) HDV material is edited and finished on Apple Final Cut Pro HD systems connected via fiber to a Hewlett-Packard SAN with 32TB of capacity. The NRCS is also used to manage the playout of segments from an Omneon Spectrum server storing the content assets, making them available as low-res proxies and full-res files to anyone in the facility.

Avoiding bottlenecks in a cross-platform environment

Spencer Stephens, vice president and general manager of Warner Bros. motion picture imaging, technical operations, said implementing this cross-platform environment was not easy, but it worked seamlessly for the production staff. It is fully HD-capable, with 25Mb/s files being passed around without bottlenecks on the network. Cell phone videos, which sometimes have to be cleaned up using tools within Final Cut Pro, are also regularly added to the show when appropriate.

The syndicated show, with all of its finished HDV pieces — complete with stereo audio elements mixed on a Yamaha 01V96V2 console — are downconverted to SD resolution before being sent via satellite to the participating FOX stations. Other smaller affiliates pick up the show as well.

The entire program is shot in the newsroom, making the facility not only tapeless but also one without a traditional control room. All of the stand-ups are shot from desks situated on a platform in the middle of the newsroom, with Levin overlooking the numerous cubicles while serving as the central figure in the situation room. Using an IFB headset system, a director instructs two Panasonic AJ-HDX900 camera operators sitcom-style on what angles to shoot. A box-style camera, or flash cam, is set up in the newsroom and used for live interview segments. “Anderson Cooper 360°” and other programs have interviewed Levin from there. An NVISION 5128 64?x?64 SD/HD video router with an NV5218-MC master control system helps move signals around the facility.

In keeping with the show's nontraditional TV production workflow, the flash cam does not go through a control room or video production switcher. Instead, it is connected directly to the facility's AT&T switch, where a live feed can be broadcast at a moment's notice.

The future of TV production

With TMZ, what you see on the air reflects a new design style and production values that are sure to infiltrate other shows, if they haven't already. The production system responsible is tailored to meet the various needs of the production staff while remaining flexible by leveraging an open IT infrastructure that's scalable and virtually future-proof.

Michael Grotticelli regularly reports on professional video and broadcast technology industries.

Technology at work

AJA Kona video cards

Final Cut Studio
Mac Pro workstations

Bittree video and audio jack bay

Dalet NewsPlus News Suite NRCS

5600 master sync
7700 series distribution and downconversion

DL-860 video legalizer
X75 up/down/crossconverters

EML data tape library
EVA 6000 32TB SAN with Fibre Channel switching
Proliant DL140, DL 320, DL360 and DL585 servers
xw4400 workstations
Junger b46 audio leveler

Mackie HR624 audio monitors

5128 64 × 64 SD/HD video router
NV5218-MC master control

Mediaport 5300 HD encoders
Multiport 4100 series playback
Optibase MGW 400 IPTV encoders
Spectrum server

AJ-HDX900 cameras
LH1700 LCD video monitors

Panorama LCD SD/HD video monitors

Quantum StorNext file system manager

RTS two-wire intercom

HVR-Z1U HDV camcorder
MSW-M2100 multiformat VTR

TASCAM FW-1082 edit room MIDI controller

Tektronix WFM-7000 waveform monitor

Wohler audio monitors

Xendata archive management

Yamaha 01V96V2 digital audio mixer

Design team

National TeleConsultants

Ethan Bush, senior project director

David Potter, director of software systems engineering

Peter Mason, principal consultant and lead engineer

Warner Bros.

Chuck Dages, executive VP of emerging technologies, technical operations

Spencer Stephens, VP and GM of motion picture imaging, technical operations