Oct. 22 marked yet one more bit of broadcasting history here at “30 Rock.” At precisely 6 a.m. EDT, the switch was thrown, putting MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program on the air from a sparkling new state-of-the-art facility in this 70-something-year-old building. The NBC Nightly News premiered from an equally new studio located just a few feet away at 6:30 that evening.
These broadcasts were the result of many months of intense planning and construction designed to update both the on-air look and technical operations of the networks’ news programming.
(click thumbnail)To create this new environment, an 8,500 square foot section of the building’s third floor had to be stripped bare and rebuilt from the ground up. Half a year later the space has been completely renovated and transformed into a world class newsgathering and reporting facility, replete with all of the latest technical innovations and a good amount of eye candy as well. Flat screen monitor walls flank the news set, and super-sized rear screens with Barco projectors provide larger than life-sized images.
The left-most studio—3A—hosts continuous MSNBC origination. One of the more striking aspects designed into this facility is an overall “mood ring” lighting effect. It’s produced by translucent panels too numerous to count, along with columns and other structures integrated into the studio. These are illuminated from within by diffused tri-color LED lighting technology. The overall color given off can be varied at will to reflect the seriousness or gravity of news being broadcast. NBC terms it their “news barometer.” At the time of this reporter’s visit, reporting of the widespread California forest fires was being aired and red had been dialed into the “barometer.”
Even the design of the anchor desk and accompanying riser used for MSNBC broadcasts is innovative in that it is X-Y motorized and can move about the studio floor on command to any of 14 different positions. The platform can also be manually turned through 260 degrees of rotation to provide the exact shot and backdrop that the show’s director wants.
In keeping with the “green” concept, NBC elected to use LED fixtures to illuminate all work areas of the new facility. Conventional video monitors and their associated heat and bulk have been eliminated from the newsroom too. IP technology and flat screen computer displays are used throughout for monitoring incoming video feeds.
With television and humans both, beauty is only skin deep, and the nerves, brain and other inner workings of the center go far beyond the two third-floor studios and large cluster of assignment desks—some of these new tentacles even extend as far as Washington, D.C. At last reckoning, more than 200 miles of cable had been pulled in connection with the operation, and the nose count for HD monitors installed hovered somewhere around 300.
In this day and age of diminished staffs and outsourcing of virtually everything, one of the more amazing aspects of the new news facility is that the bricks and mortar aspects were accomplished in just six months and that it was totally “home grown” by NBC engineering personnel.
According to Nick Tzanis, vice president of production operations, and formerly vice president of technical operations for MSNBC, none of the electronic design or installation work had to go to an outside systems house.
“We had a lot of challenges, but we made the deadline,” said Tzanis. “Getting equipment delivered on time was one of the greatest of these. Training of personnel was another. The project involved a lot of changes throughout the building. We really had a lot to do in a short period of time.”
(click thumbnail)OPEN STUDIOS
The MSNBC studio and a second such facility devoted to NBC’s “Nightly News” flank the news operation’s editorial workspace and its ranks of computer workstations. There are no masonry and glass walls between the three entities; air is the only thing that separates editorial operations from on-air production. This “open studio” concept was incorporated into the design of the new facilities, and while this lack of acoustic isolation might be considered a problem in more conventional news operations, Tzanis says that it works to advantage in NBC’s case.
“Our news people have always worked together and now they’re physically together,” Tzanis said. “The background sounds aren’t really a distraction; they provide a sense of immediacy and the feeling that news is a dynamic and evolving process.”
Tzanis admits that, as with most any new facility, a certain period of adjustment within the news space is needed.
“We are continuing to refine our operation,” he said. “And we’re continuing to work on acoustics.”
IN SUPPORT OF THE NEWS
To ensure smooth operations within the new news studios, NBC has also revamped ingest, editing and graphics areas, with the bulk of these operations being carried out on floors above the studios.
Perhaps the most visible of changes in these areas has been in editing operations. “The editors didn’t want us to build traditional editing suites,” said Tzanis.
He explained that all “lightweight” cuts-only type of editing activities have been moved out of dedicated rooms and into open areas. Without this change, Tzanis says that some 92 conventional edit booths would have been necessary to support the operation. The new configuration cut this number by nearly a third. Closed-off editing suites are still available for more involved projects. Some of the news editing capability also is tapped at times by NBC Sports.
“We made the decision to use Avid’s ISIS system,” Tzanis said. “It’s interfaced with Newscutter XP sans Symphony Nitris. There are a total of 25 open air edit seats and 67 traditional edit rooms.”
To support the combined news operations now housed under one roof, NBC’s news ingest capability was doubled to 40 channels.
“We probably have one of the largest ISIS installations in the U.S.,” said Tzanis. “There are 128 terabytes of storage now, and at the end of November we’ll be adding about 64 more terabytes for backup.”
Screening of raw footage and finished news packages is accommodated by ISIS operating in conjunction with Avid’s Interplay media management system.
Even though the overwhelming majority of video recording and play-out is done via server, there are a number of Sony HDCAM decks available for use in the news operation.
Traditional routing chores are performed by six large Thomson Grass Valley frames—four of these are set up for SD operation and the other two handle high-definition video.
Conventional dedicated graphics workstations have given way to 35 Mac G5 platforms running Adobe Creative Suite software. An additional 10 PCs loaded with Studio Max or Maya are also employed for graphics production. Upwards of 100 graphic artists are needed to keep up with the demands of the combined news operations.
Sony MVS-8000s are used for switching live newscasts and Sony flat screen monitors, driven by Evertz MVP muxing, are used for control room monitoring.
Audio mixing is handled with Calrec Alpha consoles equipped with Bluefin processing, while high-end audio sweetening is handled by Digidesign consoles and offline chores are accommodated by internal Avid mixing tools.
The two studio areas are each equipped with three pedestal-mounted Sony HDC-1500 cameras fitted with Canon lenses. There’s also a Steadicam-mounted unit for roaming shots. At the present time, robotic camera control is not being used, but Tzanis says that Vinten equipment has been purchased for this purpose and should be ready to use in the first quarter of 2008.
A long-reaching robotic control of sorts is already in place at the news facility. The dish farm at NBC’s Washington, D.C. O&O, WRC-TV was reworked and that teleport is now remotely controlled from 30 Rockefeller Place, some 200 airline miles distant. Two GigE circuits provide connectivity.
News operations are coordinated through nine RTS intercom matrices and some 1,000 attached stations.
As NBC has been broadcasting in one form or another from the Radio City location since 1934, Tzanis was asked if any surprises were encountered in the demolition and reconstruction process.
“We did find some studio lighting fixtures that dated back to the 1930s when we broke through one wall,” he said.
The Oct. 22 ribbon cutting event also marked the relocation of MSNBC news operations and personnel from across the Hudson River in New Jersey to join their colleagues in Manhattan. The combined NBC/MSNBC editorial operations group now operates as a single unit alongside the new studio origination areas.
“Today, all of NBC News’ home base of operations is finally where it should be—under one roof,” said NBC News President Steve Capus. “Not only do we have the most advanced technology, the finest achievements in design and a dizzying array of visual enhancements, but most importantly, our greatest asset, the men and women of NBC News, are all in one place. This is our true strength, and will be the key to our continued success for many, many years to come.”
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James E. O’Neal has more than 50 years of experience in the broadcast arena, serving for nearly 37 years as a television broadcast engineer and, following his retirement from that field in 2005, moving into journalism as technology editor for TV Technology for almost the next decade. He continues to provide content for this publication, as well as sister publication Radio World, and others. He authored the chapter on HF shortwave radio for the 11th Edition of the NAB Engineering Handbook, and serves as editor-in-chief of the IEEE’s Broadcast Technology publication, and as associate editor of the SMPTE Motion Imaging Journal. He is a SMPTE Life Fellow, and a Life Member of the IEEE and the SBE.