Chicago’s Columbia College finds innovative TV solution using IT technology

The television department at Columbia College in Chicago, Ill., has unwittingly become one of American broadcasting’s early pioneers in the use of IT technology for television distribution.

Columbia College is using Sony NSP-100s for television distribution. The NSP-100s can hold 40 gigabytes of data. The devices are each located at parts of the campus normally inaccessible to the TV network, but already connected via Ethernet.

The 10,000 student college, known for its programs in communications, visual and performing arts, is scattered throughout a densely packed urban neighborhood in Chicago’s South Loop area. This unwieldy geographic spread has long been a problem for distributing programming on the school’s closed-circuit TV network.

Many traditional solutions have been examined and tried. Some buildings are connected via fiber optic cable, but it would be prohibitively expensive to cover the entire campus with fiber since it runs through the downtown streets of Chicago. Tall buildings block microwave links. There’s too little urban spectrum for over-the-air broadcasts. And streaming media proved too unreliable. Until last year, the network used a “sneaker-net, dubbing videocassettes and playing programming back on a delayed basis on monitors in various campus buildings.

Then, in the spring of 2002, some creative thinking by several of the college’s staff members led to a unique solution to the problem. The college’s story was featured in an issue of last week’s New York Times.

At NAB2002, the college staffers saw a demonstration of a new Sony product called the NSP-100 network storage player. The Sony device was designed to receive, store and play up to 18 hours of compressed video and graphics sent over a standard Internet-protocol network.

Lightbulbs went off. Although Sony designed the NSP-100 primarily for use in sales booths, video-driven advertising signs and corporate training situations, the Columbia College crew realized that the players could be plugged into the Ethernet network that already connected their campus buildings. Standard information technology (IT) could be the answer to their video distribution problem, they thought.

After some research, the school bought several Sony NSP-100s, which can each hold 40 gigabytes of data. The devices were each located at parts of the campus normally inaccessible to the TV network, but already connected via Ethernet.

Program production on the campus proceeded as normal. However, once the programs are finished, they are copied into a standard Windows computer and arranged in the desired sequence with Sony software on a playlist. The video content and playlists are then sent from the PC over the network to the various NSP-100 machines and TV monitors placed around the campus.

To economize on network bandwidth, the next day’s programming is typically sent out from the television department to the network storage players late the night before. Although the machines cannot be used for live broadcasts, they do allow for a text “crawl” across the bottom portion of the screen, so real-time information can be transmitted from the television department’s control room.

Each Sony NSP-100 has a list price of about $1,995, a bargain compared to more conventional means of broadcast distribution. “What (Sony) had in mind was more of a kiosk kind of thing, where a program was just running constantly—just put some content on this little box and let it run somewhere forever,” said Dave Mason, the college’s chief engineer, in an interview with the Times. “We’re using it more for our transmission purposes. We’re changing it all the time.

“The nice thing about this system is that you don’t have to send everything on the playlist to every box,” Mason continued, explaining that video content relevant to a specific department could be sent just to the NSP-100 located in that department’s building. The college has also developed two channels of programming, one for short announcements and informational displays and another for long-form programming.

“Any urban college or college with infrastructure difficulties, it’s an incredible solution,” said Michael Niederman, chairman of the television department at Columbia. He added that the television department is also working toward the larger goal of having a full-fledged TV station for the college, complete with advertising revenues. “I don't think we ever would have been so ambitious if this box hadn’t landed in our lap,” he said.

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