A view from the top

Whether they work at a major broadcast network, 24/7 sports channel, TV production facility or a local station in a small market, most senior vice presidents of technology and chief engineers are faced with the same challenges: trying to do more with less (or the same) resources in a highly competitive and tough economic environment.

All of these key players in the engineering community, no matter where they work, revealed a surprisingly similar formula: Implementing an efficient (i.e. file-based), cost-effective production and distribution workflow is critical to long-term survival. To a lesser extent, they are also considering technologies such as 3-D and Mobile DTV.

Therefore, it is clear from the guys we spoke to that the technology and systems designs they are choosing to maintain their facilities have to help navigate these hurdles in the most cost-effective way. Single, dedicated boxes or workgroups are quickly becoming a thing of the past.

The importance of infrastructure

“The biggest technical challenge is not really technical in nature,” said Chuck Pagano, CTO at ESPN. “To me, the challenge is having the right talent pool around you to analyze the pure value of new technical platforms and opportunities in hope that you circumvent the question of ‘Is this a solution in search of a problem?’”

ESPN maintains two major broadcast/production facilities, one in Bristol, CT, and the other in Los Angeles. Roughly 50 percent of its infrastructure — its Los Angeles facility and its satellite/fiber transmission hub — is already 3Gb/s-capable.

“The main advantage [to a 3Gb/s system] in current operations is more reliable handling of the 1.5Gb/s signals and the ability to handle 3Gb/s signals in response to market demand,” Pagano said, adding that ESPN's facilities also have been outfitted with the latest shared-storage production environments in order to produce the voluminous amounts of content necessary.

The all-sports network also launched one of the first 3-D networks in June 2010 and continues to believe in the format's potential for television broadcasting.

“Our research shows that our sports fans are early adopters of new technology, and we are just serving our fans' appetite with this enhanced presentation format,” Pagano said. “I believe that 3-D can become common in living rooms when the glasses-free display technology becomes common and affordable.”

Mark Haden, vice president of engineering and IT at MLB Network (Secaucus, NJ) said his biggest challenge is maintaining the technical infrastructure needed to support the new shows and hundreds of hours of live programming seen on the network throughout the baseball season.

“The challenge for us is enhancing, upgrading and adding systems in a relatively short off-season,” he said. “Another challenge is audio: Since our signature studio show ‘MLB Tonight’ is like a true newscast, we must deploy 5.1 surround, automatically control loudness in a file-based environment and get the overall audio quality up out of our 40-plus post-production rooms that generally have tight delivery deadlines.”

MLB Network will be busy in 2012, purchasing new HD video and audio production systems and upgrading existing equipment, virtually doubling the capability of the network's graphics systems, and adding more storage and record channels to its SAN. It also plans to install an IP-controlled disaster recovery playout server with CG capability at its Level 3 DR earth station in Denver, add a sixth Cisco Ballpark Cam operating station, and install more intercom panels and wireless mics.

Merging IT with broadcast

Although IT-centric infrastructures and file-based workflows quickly are becoming the norm across the industry, the challenges to successfully implementing this type of collaborative work environment can be daunting if not carefully deployed.

“I'd say that managers should focus on the people,” Haden said. “Traditional IT professionals and traditional broadcast engineers have the same DNA; they just learned their trades on separate islands. We are a ‘merged’ department, and emphasizing collaboration must come from the top. It sounds easy; it's not.

“That said, there is not enough happening on the assembly line — the college and university level,” he added. “The broadcast IT profession is a hybrid, and we are seeing a few more graduates that understand this. The schools need to do a better job exposing their students to this emerging need. Right now, we are doing the cross training, and it's worth the investment.”

At CBS in New York, two of the largest projects in 2011 included the rollout of the CBS Media Distribution Center, which converted the network's master control facility into an entirely file-based HD workflow, including not only commercials but also all program content. The other major rollout was the Pitch Blue system CBS Worldwide Distribution uses for syndicated programming, which distributes content to ABC, CBS, NBC, CW, FOX, MyNetwork and independent stations.

The signal is distributed to more than 850 real-time servers that automatically record the syndicated programming for more than 1350 television stations. Bob Seidel, vice president of engineering and advanced technology at CBS, said, “[This distributed process network is] a self-healing network. Each of the 850 servers report their status to CBS and our partners, GDMX (Warner Brothers) and Deluxe, and request repair packets to correct any transmission errors.

In addition, many of the network's local owned-and-operated stations have migrated to newsroom automation to improve their news control room efficiencies. The newsroom automation is fully HD and based on a file-based workflow.

“A number of our owned-and-operated stations have deployed 3G as well as 4G cellular newsgathering equipment to supplement their traditional microwave, ENG and satellite newsgathering vehicles,” Seidel said. “For example, WCBS' Mobile2 Cellular sport utility vehicles have proved very effective in blizzard conditions [including during this fall's Hurricane Irene on the East Coast]. Many satellite dishes needed to be stowed due to high wind issues, while the cellular vehicles continued to transmit stable reliable picture and sound. We plan to roll out additional 4G cellular newsgathering vehicles in 2012.”

Reducing costs

Ken Michel, vice president of content systems and engineering services for the Disney/ABC Television Group, said improved efficiency and reduced operating costs are his main concerns.

“We will be investing in technologies, systems and products that have the potential to reduce costs, streamline and/or simplify our operations, improve the quality of the product we put on the air, or can extend our product to new platforms,” he said. “As part of our normal course of capital investments, we will continue to invest in infrastructure terminal equipment, monitor-wall systems, data networking components, camera robotics, video servers and power monitoring systems. As we head into a presidential election year, ABC News will be looking at new graphics systems, digital journalist tools, small-format cameras, large-format HD cameras for field acquisition, field editing systems, field-acquisition support equipment, cell phone bonding technology, BGAN-type terminals and remote-controlled cameras.”

For ABC (New York), the past year has been filled with technical projects that helped improve the news production workflow.

“We actually had a few big challenges this year. The first was building an automated control room for our News division,” Michel said. “Transitioning all of the network news programs to an automated scripted process using the existing NRCS and completely new technologies for the control room, graphics and server playback was quite a challenge for the entire organization. I believe this effort is the first for a major network news organization to use automation to assemble and produce all of its programs.

“The second big challenge for the network was transitioning to file-based delivery for program commercial and promo content. With the sunset of the D-5 HD tape format, we needed to replace our decades-old tape-based infrastructure and associated workflows (sneakernet) with a new file-based infrastructure for electronic program delivery. Building our own internal fully redundant infrastructure with sufficient bandwidth and security to accommodate the ingest, transport, tracking and storage of very large media files across diverse geographic locations has been a bit of challenge as well.”

Challenges for independent stations

At the local level, the challenges for independent stations have been equally daunting. Moving from SD to HD in all facets of their operations has been costly and resource-intensive.

“The primary technical challenge during 2011 was to complete our transition to HD,” said Dan Billings, director of engineering and technology at Waterman Broadcasting in Fort Myers, FL, a station group that oversees ABC (WZVN-TV) and NBC (WBBH-TV) affiliates, as well as WVIR-TV, an NBC/CW duopoly in Charlottesville, VA. “Our studios, master control and infrastructure had already been upgraded to HD; however, we were still acquiring and editing our field video in SD. However, now that we have made the move to HD, we are very pleased with the performance and quality of our video from the field and, to this date, are still the only ones in the market to be live reporting in HD.”

An HD MPEG-2/H.264 upgrade of its fixed satellite uplink and ENG satellite vehicle is all that remains to make the broadcaster's plant 100 percent HD compatible.

“We will also be downsizing and upgrading our satellite uplink truck to a new, more manageable, HD-equipped Sprinter,” Billings said. “We're also planning to upgrade our radar and weather systems.”

He added that terrestrial Mobile DTV is on Waterman's radar for 2012, but it is proceeding with caution.

“We plan to look at the state of mobile television development at NAB in the spring,” he said. “If manufacturers are widely implementing receivers in their devices by then, and if we determine a solid business plan is possible, we will move forward with an implementation plan for 2012.”

Bill Jarett, vice president of engineering at Scripps Networks (which maintains a large production facility in New York that produces the majority of programs for the Food Network and another in Nashville, TN, which produces the Great American Country channel), said his company is involved in a multiyear effort to migrate to file-based workflows across all of Scripps Networks Interactive properties.

The company considered file-based workflows as early as 2004 at its New York City location, but it backed off due to concerns about the maturity of the technology and interoperability issues.

“[In 2004] the state of the software and hardware necessary to make that transition [to a file-based workflow] and provide essential centralized control of media workflow management across storage, editing and transcoding platforms was also not as robust as we would have desired, which confirmed our decision to delay that project,” he added. “We are, however, continuing our ongoing research with evaluation of software and hardware from the major manufacturers in each applicable area that supports our goal of an all file-based workflow.”

The right technology

At the end of the day, broadcasters are preparing for every possibility in order to develop alternate business models and generate new revenue whenever and wherever possible.

“Broadcasters are being called upon to distribute their content on a wide variety of platforms using a plethora of video compression formats and data rates,” said CBS' Seidel. “One piece of content may need to be encoded and stored in 37 or more different flavors. Technologies that can monitor and quality control this wide variety of content-distribution formats will be invaluable to broadcasters for maintaining their cost base for producing and distributing this content.”

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