A New Day at the Weather Channel

One year and $60 million dollars after the official groundbreaking ceremony, The Weather Channel’s state-of-the-art HD facility set a new benchmark for hi-def weather programming 26 years after it pioneered the first 24x7 weather cable network in 1982.
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(click thumbnail)ATLANTA
Monday, June 2, as the sun rose over Miami’s South Beach, the moment was broadcast live in 1080i HD to mark the launch of The Weather Channel’s new HDTV channel. One year and $60 million dollars after the official groundbreaking ceremony, The Weather Channel’s state-of-the-art HD facility set a new benchmark for hi-def weather programming 26 years after it pioneered the first 24x7 weather cable network in 1982.

“This has been a massive undertaking because we’ve essentially reinvented The Weather Channel,” said Ray Ban, executive vice president of programming and meteorology for The Weather Channel (TWC), which is owned by Landmark Communications, in Norfolk, Va. (Editor’s note: Since this article was printed, NBC Universal has agreed to acquire TWC.) “All of the processes and procedures that have been inculcated here over our 26 year history were impacted by this dramatic change.”

The transformation involved building a new, significantly larger HD studio with a fiber-based 3-Gbps/IT broadcast infrastructure; upgrading weather graphics; changing the entire workflow and implementing innovative live presentation technology, according to Ban.

“Since our talent had to learn a whole new ‘choreography’ in the studio and our personnel had to become familiar with completely different systems, we actually transitioned to hi-def in phases, and the success of this implementation has exceeded our expectations,” he said. Ascent Media Systems and Technology Services in Northvale, N.J. was the systems integrator for the project.

Last September, TWC began dabbling in HDTV by presenting three of its original long-form series—“Epic Conditions,” “Weather Ventures,” and “When Weather Makes History”—in native hi-def. But on the first Monday in June, TWC began broadcasting live weather reports from its new HD studio, with each subsequent week bringing more HD day parts. By July 9, 15 of its 19 live studio hours per day will have transitioned to HD, according to Ban who conservatively projected that everything would be HD by October 2008.


(click thumbnail)As part of its $60 million upgrade to HD, TWC built three new master control rooms.TWC’s new HD broadcast center, which was actually built adjacent to its existing facility, was designed to be “Leeds certified” at a Silver level, meaning that construction was done in an environmentally friendly way that also resulted in a 25-percent reduction in operating costs due to energy conservation measures.

INNOVATIVE VIDEO WALL

The facility houses a 5,000 square-foot HD studio with a 15-foot set capable of rotating 359-degrees to vary the backgrounds. The set sports an impressive 37-foot wide by nine-foot high rear projection video wall behind the anchor desk.

The wall is actually fed by three Christie 8K digital projectors that double-bounce the signals off of two sets of strategically placed mirrors that help get seamless alignment of the images on the screens. A Vista Spider manages the composition of multiple images that fill the screen.

“It took three or four weeks of rehearsals to get the images on this immense video wall properly framed for 16:9 and 4:3 audiences,” said Nathan Smith, TWC’s vice president of production. “During that time, our weather talent had to become accustomed to standing six feet away from screen, and glancing at two [off-camera] 56-inch reference monitors to determine where to place their hands when pointing out details on the HD weather maps—a big change from standing in front of the green chromakey wall we used to use.”

The video wall is fed weather maps and graphics produced by a WSI Titan 3D HD weather graphics system, as well as a Ross SoftMetal clip server. TWC also creates all its HD graphics using Vizrt systems, including Viz Weather Graphics, which Vizrt spent two years modifying for TWC’s unique requirements. These Vizrt systems allow production staffers to fill in pertinent information into pre-built graphics templates, and place them into the program rundown, which-saves time. The Weather Channel HD utilizes the full 16:9 widescreen canvas but keeps the most valuable content in the 4:3 safe area.

THREE GIGABIT FIBER BACKBONE

The entire HD facility has been built on an infrastructure designed to carry 3-gigabit video signals, using a Thomson Grass Valley Trinix 3-Gigabit 1024x1024 HD router. A complement of Teranex signal converters help manage multiple formats in use.

The studio is equipped with nine Ikegami HD studio cameras (with Canon HD lenses and Autoscript teleprompters), two of which are mounted on Vinten Radamec Fusion robotic pedestals; six of which run off Telemetrics robotic platforms; with one running as a manual camera on a jib.


(click thumbnail)Ross Kalber, vice president of engineering and IT operations at TWC checks out FORK, a unique core asset system developed by Building4Media especially for the Weather Channel.The two HD production control rooms feature a Snell and Wilcox Kahuna SD/HD multiformat production switcher, which switch and output signals for both on-air and on-set displays. A third HD production room is equipped with Ross OverDrive, an integrated system which automates production processes.

The capability to mix 5.1 channel surround sound audio is supported by the facility’s design but not yet implemented. The Wheatstone audio boards are 5.1 channel-capable as well.

MAC-BASED IT INFRASTRUCTURE

The entire core production infrastructure at TWC-HD is Apple Macintosh-based, including Apple Final Cut nonlinear editing workstations, and fully redundant Apple X-SAN centralized shared storage systems that support editing as well as play-out to air.

“We’ve been using the X-SAN’s for editing and near line storage, and since we had such good success with them, we chose to use them for production play-out to air in this new facility,” said Ross Kalber, vice president of engineering and IT operations for TWC.

“The broadcast industry has always relied upon purpose-built video servers for play-out to air,” Kalber added. “But I feel that it’s inevitable that the more mainstream IT infrastructure will one day replace today’s video server technology, and these off-the-shelf IT systems will be partnered with very sophisticated software designed for video server support for air.”

To manage content TWC chose the Building4Media FORK system, a Mac-based digital asset management that manages assets from ingest to editing to play-out and archive. Building-4Media also modified the system to interface with TWC’s Avid iNEWS newsroom computer systems. By carefully entering metadata at ingest, TWC can search and retrieve media assets and repurpose them for air, broadband distribution via its Web site: weather.com; and mobile video services.

TWC’s Mac-based/X-SAN infrastructure can support more than 50 simultaneous HD ingest or play-out streams, as well as over 20 working clients directly via fiber. It also has more than 80 non-fiber clients, and is scalable to meet future needs. The IT infrastructure also supports and feeds all production areas and HD control rooms. Each SAN, with 60 TB of storage, is mirrored to protect data.

“Another innovative technology we’ve employed here is a keyboard/video/mouse [KVM] matrix that serves as an audio/video routing control system,” said Kalber. “While it’s independent of the Trinix router, it allows our personnel to access and configure any key production system effortlessly from any of the workstations throughout our facility that are running this solution by Avocent.”

STORM CHASING IN HD

While backhauling live HD shots from the field has always presented a problem for broadcasters, TWC is among the first networks to use MPEG-4 AVC encoding to relay live HD video (at a 9 MHz/17 Mbps rate) from field to studio with less than a second of delay. TWC has three SNG trucks; the Atlanta-based truck, a Dodge Sprinter built by Frontline Communications of Tampa Fla. and serving the southeast U.S. region, sports Tandberg MPEG-4 AVC encoders.

The network’s other two SNG trucks—one in Chicago and another in New York—will be upgraded to MPEG-4 AVC encoding in 2009. Since the rest of the SNG trucks TWC uses are leased, their adoption of MPEG-4 AVC gear is up to their respective vendors.

According to Smith, TWC fully intends to take the SNG trucks, and the Panasonic AJ-HPX2000 model P2 cameras into severe storms and weather conditions. “If the winds are excessive, we may need to take down the satellite dish and rely on low bitrate satellite services like BGAN [Broadcast Global Area Networks] or Streambox for video over IP transmission,” he said.

“We’re protecting our equipment with thousands of dollars of rain and cold weather protective gear,” said Smith. “One of the reasons we went with the Panasonic P2 cameras is that there are no moving parts and they perform reliably in extreme weather conditions. Our field crews are also in constant contact with our meteorologists who are helping them determine the best and safest vantage points for capturing severe weather, like blizzards and hurricanes, in native HD.”