Washington D.C. public broadcaster maps step-by-step move to digital

WETA is modernizing its production center and master control playout facility with digital technology.

With limited budgets compared to commercial broadcasters, public television stations struggle to keep pace with back-end technology and make progress in converting from analog to digital. However, WETA-TV, the public broadcaster serving Washington DC and the Virginia-Maryland parts of the capital’s metropolitan area, has found a way to make a fiscally and physically sensible transition, without interruption of service.

WETA has mapped out a long-range plan with Communications Engineering (CEI) to support the analog-to digital transition at the station’s production center in Shirlington, VA, as well as the modernization of the channel’s master control playout facility. Beyond budget constraints, CEI’s senior project manager Joe Strobel said project planning addressed “the real-world scenario of their production cycle — they’re servicing a live news show every night and have no opportunity to go dark.”

The scope of the project includes consulting, planning, systems design, installation and testing. CEI engineers have worked with WETA to prepare the comprehensive specification and multi-phased project plan that will serve as the blueprint for the conversion of WETA to an all-digital HD/SD broadcast center.

Strobel said the project is shaping up as a textbook example of three core principles of an effective HD/SD transition strategy:

  • Make the most of a digital upgrade. If necessary, the company should ignore existing processes and get back to first principles. At the same time it should not be too aggressive when bringing in change, because that will increase risk during the transition process.
  • Avoid the ‘big-bang’ approach. A big-bang deployment is difficult in a large-scale modernization effort — especially when the station remains in operation. By the time the company develops a new system from the ground up, the target will have moved. Incremental development and deployment makes more sense.
  • Take an architecture-centric approach. With few stand-alone components and increasing integration between component systems and people, the quality, flexibility, and robustness of the foundation architecture will drive the evolution of a system.

The first phase of the WETA-CEI technology transition is underway. It includes:

  • Grass Valley Trinix/Apex digital routing switcher upgrade
  • Evertz analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog conversion equipment; and SNMP monitoring and control system
  • RTS digital intercom matrix upgrade
  • Evertz sync and reference generation upgrade
  • Ortonics category 6 certified structured cabling infrastructure
  • Physical renovations and additions to the overhead cable tray system
  • Abandoned cable removal
  • Power and lighting modifications
  • Isolated technical ground upgrade

WETA is taking a highly collaborative approach to its digital transition, Strobel said. This is in contrast to the “tells us what you need and we’ll let you know when we’re done” approach to engaging the systems integrator. “The decisions for every significant element within the system — both its design and the path for implementation — included the correct team players from WETA,” he said, reflecting WETA’s dedication to the this project in spite of the broadcaster’s daily production demands.

For more information, visit www.weta.org and www.commeng.com.

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