Voice of America Leaps To Server Workflow
David Dillard, senior IT specialist for Voice of America, checks the operation of Omneon MediaGrid servers. Each server unit is given the name of a bird (e.g., Chicken, Owl, Woodpecker) to make it easier to track the large number of devices. Photo by Bob Kovacs
Like many media organizations, Voice of America needed to come up with a plan to convert a busy tape-based facility to the new digital world.
Voice of America is chartered by the federal government to represent the United States with a consistently reliable source of news and cultural information. Today, the VoA employs nearly 1,200 people, delivering news and cultural programs to an audience of 125 million people in 44 different languages.
To do this, VoA has 20 radio broadcast studios, four television studios, 32 video editing suites, a bustling master control room and a 30,000 squarefoot newsroom staffed 24/7, every day of the year. Voice of America provides about 150 news reports per day across all its supported languages and services, as well as talk shows and feature segments.
VoA’s television service has grown considerably over the past three decades, but it has been nearly all videotape systems with an occasional server here and there. The organization now finds itself nearing the end of a major upgrade to its core infrastructure.
“We’re essentially in the transition from analog to digital,” said John Johnson, deputy for information technology for VoA.
With a big operation that spans the globe and operates in dozens of languages, VoA has unique needs that set it apart from other large news operations. After creating a videotape-based workflow in the 1980s to handle the demands of round-theclock broadcasts in multiple languages, officials at VoA decided it was time to move to a server-based workflow. At the heart of this upgrade are a variety of Omneon servers, controlled by Dalet media asset management.
“What this is all about is modernizing our TV foundation, which is Omneon,” said Michael Serafini, director of the digital management division and technical director of the digital video project for VoA.
MEDIAGRID AND SPECTRUM
There are two levels of servers from Omneon: MediaGrid devices are used for ingest and storage, while Spectrum units provide on-air playout. VoA currently has 140 TB of storage in the MediaGrid system and 20 TB of space in the Spectrum server, but both those numbers can grow for future needs.
Since it is all digital bits, both systems can handle either standard-definition or high-definition signals, and VoA uses a mix of both as of today. Although parts of the Omneon and Dalet systems are working now, full integration of the systems is expected to be complete by the end of summer.
Producer Tetiana Koprowicz (left) and editor Sara Brownlee work on a story for VoA’s Ukrainian-language service. Although there still are VCRs in the rack, almost all video is brought into the Final Cut Pro system. Photo by Bob Kovacs VoA uses DaletPlus media asset management to provide the user interface to the new server system. The Dalet controller knows when something is ingested into the Omneon MediaGrid and it handles tagging the file for storage or moving it to the Spectrum server to be available for playout.
If the file needs to be transcoded to a more VoAfriendly format, a Rhozet (now owned by Harmonic) Carbon Coder transcoder is used to convert the file. As part of the transcode process, Carbon Coder handles an array of technical operations that include SD-to-HD conversion, PAL-to-NTSC conversion, logo insertion, color space conversion, color correction and closed caption extraction.
“The Carbon Coder is our Swiss Army knife for interchanging formats,” Serafini said.
Five blocks from the U.S. Capitol, the pre-World War II building that houses the Voice of America has more than 150 Final Cut Pro editing workstations and seven control rooms currently connected to the Omneon and Dalet systems. In addition to its large television complex, VoA also has extensive radio facilities.
For programs that are moved to the long-term archive, VoA uses Front Porch Digital’s DIVArchive to manage that process. Only items that will be used in reasonable future remain on the MediaGrid server—the long-term archive is on tape.
The DaletPlus automation does more than just provide an interface between the users and the servers. It also gives VoA an instantaneous look at system utilization, including amount of storage used (on both the MediaGrid and Spectrum servers), alarms and bandwidth demands, as well as the location and number of users accessing the server system. This is viewable on the internal LAN at VoA, so engineers can check from their desks to make sure the technology is running smoothly.
On Final Cut Pro workstations, locally based producers and editors can edit any material that resides on the MediaGrid server. VoA is testing DaletPlus InterWeb for remote editing, which uses low-resolution proxy files saved in Windows Media Video (WMV) format. Using DaletPlus InterWeb, a VoA reporter in a distant country can edit a story on the proxy files and have that story be ready for broadcast on the Omneon server.
“We now have 1,000 users of the DaletPlus system,” Serafini said. “I’m surprised at how well it’s been accepted.”
VoA worked extensively with Omneon to architect the system and is relying on IBB for the physical integration of the equipment.
“We’ve been through enterprise deployments before,” Serafini said. “You have a committee focused on workflow, one on training, one for design/technical issues and one for project management.”
There are always things that never get addressed by the best planners, but VoA’s engineers, management, Omneon and IBB seem to have pulled this one together with few headaches. As of today, Voice of America has 42 services in 14 different languages operating off the Dalet/Omneon system, and the implementation is not yet complete.
“The number one challenge for us was the integration between Dalet and the Omneon MediaGrid,” Serafini said. “I’m extremely happy with where we are today.”
It’s not an easy task for one of the world’s largest and most complex media organizations to make the leap from tape-based to server-based workflow. However, Voice of America seems to have found a groove with its carefully planned rollout of its new server and media asset management system.
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Bob Kovacs is the former Technology Editor for TV Tech and editor of Government Video. He is a long-time video engineer and writer, who now works as a video producer for a government agency. In 2020, Kovacs won several awards as the editor and co-producer of the short film "Rendezvous."