Food Network spices up production facilities

Like any good recipe that needs adjustements over the years to keep it fresh, the production and post facilities at Food Network in New York City have upgraded from standard-definition digital to high definition with a sprinkling of new cameras, a pinch of an HD production switcher, and a heaping of newly fabricated audio production and post rooms that are fully surround-sound capable. The new facility can now accommodate more production, and the staff feels more at home.

Owned and operated by Scripps Networks Interactive and located above New York City's Chelsea Market, the facility now accommodates many more shows and expanded international agreements to carry Food Network programming in other countries. Over the past three years, it has grown to roughly 99 million subscribers across the United States alone. The facility operations now reflect the network's changing lineup and expanded nature of the shows. To support this increased activity, the engineering staff has grown by three people (for a total of five), and the production staff has nearly doubled in size.

The facility continues to evolve under the supervision of Bill Jarett, vice president of engineering for Scripps Productions in New York, who said the network has taken a meticulous approach to implementing new technology when it makes sense while maintaining existing workflows to keep productivity high. The broadcaster has completely rebuilt the audio, flex and production control rooms and has become HD-compliant in its studio operations. System integrator Azzurro helped with the upgrade — working a frenetic schedule to get it done in approximately four weeks, while Jarett's engineering team did most of the design work internally.

The traditional tape-based workflow in New York is different from other Scripps Networks sites located in Knoxville, TN, and Nashville, TN. Great American Country (GAC) in Nashville, for example, is completely file-based (standard definition only). Jarett said that at this juncture it doesn't make sense for Food Network to completely replace its VTRs because the crew iso records all of its camera sources, which can sometimes amount to six or seven angles for one show. But it will happen in the longer term. Currently, HDCAM tapes are sent via overnight delivery to Knoxville — sometimes two weeks ahead of their airdate.

Adding a new ingredient

As if maintaining a heavy workload wasn't enough, the network has added more to Jarett's plate by rebranding the Fine Living Network as the Cooking Channel, which is scheduled to launch on May 31 with instructional and entertainment programming produced in the revamped NYC studios. The network reformatted more than 400 hours of existing Food Network programming for the new channel, and about 75 hours of new material will be shot and posted by the end of the year.

Producers often suggest new ways of producing their shows, which sometimes means new technology being added or taken away as needed. The Internet and social media are now routinely embraced. Food Network started incorporating the Internet into some of its shows in 2002. The building also includes a large workstation area for the company's Internet group.

Building on the foundation

The continuing HD upgrade culminated in 2008. That's when the network completed the future-looking installation of HD-SDI cabling and a flexible signal routing infrastructure that was HD-ready. A Grass Valley Concerto router was swapped out with a Concerto Plus, which can now handle SD and HD signals.

All show production is live to tape and then posted for several months before it goes to air from master control facilities at the Scripps Networks Media Logistics Center in Knoxville. Food Network's website is managed from the operations facility in Knoxville, although the NYC facilities house a large team of Internet support.

In Knoxville, the shows are also duplicated and stored in a vast tape library on Digital Betacam and HDCAM cassettes at two separate tape storage facilities in Knoxville and New Jersey, and also on a digital nearline StorageTek system in Knoxville. Uplink transmission and master control facilities for all of the broadcaster's networks are also housed at the Knoxville facility. Master control functions are performed in Knoxville, but are backed up by Crawford Communications in Atlanta, GA, so that the network never goes off the air.

The New York facility currently only utilizes one outbound circuit, tied to HD at Azzurro's video switching center in New York City, which can be connected to the Scripps Networks Media Logistics Center via satellite or used for satellite media tours. DS3 and T1 used for broadcast media files and data also interconnect multiple NYC and Knoxville-based operations.

HD post is the main ingredient

At Food Network, virtually every show is completed in post. Once shows are recorded (live to HDCAM videotape) in one of the two in-house production studios (as well as in a state-of-the-art kitchen wired for cameras and special lighting), they are edited in one of several edit suites with Avid Symphony Nitris and Media Composer DX Nitris workstations in post-production, connected to a 64TB Avid ISIS storage array (soon to be expanded to 128TB to accommodate 12 edit rooms).

The network added an Apple Xsan (64TB) and will be adding a Final Cut Server system for graphic and promo production. In the near future, the ISIS and Xsan will be merged, but today they operate almost completely independently of one another. File sharing between the two is not through a direct connection.

Most of the graphics are inserted into the shows while they are edited, and the audio is mixed afterward in a Digidesign digital audio mixing room. Graphics are created using multiple software packages, including: Adobe After Effects, Photoshop and Illustrator software, as well as the Cinema 4D and Maya packages. For on-screen bugs and IDs, Avid Deko is used for SD and Miranda Vertigo templates for HD.

New HD production and control

The decision to complete the migration to HD in the production studios came to fruition in 2008. That's when the last of the facility's existing Grass Valley 5000 SD cameras (with Fujinon HD lenses) were upgraded to 6000 Worldcam HD cameras with a simple board swap. In addition to the upgraded cameras, the main production studio “A” also now features four broadcast service panels with new fiber-optics connections. A smaller studio “B” has undergone some refinements as well.

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The main control room (which can be used for either studio or both simultaneously) now boasts a new Sony 8000G HD production switcher. The most impressive upgrade, however, is the virtual monitor wall, designed by Jarett. The front wall of the room was completely redone to go from 35 various-sized CRT monitors to a mere six NEC 46in HD LCD displays hung side by side in portrait style. Hung on special brackets that facilitate easy maintenance, each flat panel can be tilted for better viewing from all sides of the room. This unique arrangement of the panels allows the room's Evertz VIP-X/VIP-A multiviewer software to display a wide variety of configurations that closely replicate the sources displayed with the old wall, in a relatively small space. (Mobile truck builders should take notice of the space-saving design).

Five separate video feeds — also generated by the multiviewer system and transferred via fiber — are used on some shows (like “Iron Chef America”) to drive different sized monitors on-set. Two additional 40in displays have been installed at the back row, replacing smaller screens where the producers sit, to give them a better view of the camera feeds and what's going on in the studio. Forecast Consoles designed new desks to accommodate the extra monitors. The producers still have line of sight to the front monitor wall if required. An Evertz X-Link HD router has been installed as well.

Expanding waistline

To accommodate the increased workload of the Food Network and the new Cooking Channel — and having outgrown its current environments — the facility added more audio and video post rooms. Some shows are shot in an outside studio in either New York City (Horvath Studios) or in Los Angeles. Outside shows are shot handheld with Panasonic Varicam and HDX900 cameras, as well as in a studio on pedestals and jibs.

Improved audio surroundings

Most shows are currently recorded and posted in stereo, but the plan is to move to 5.1 in the future. To support this move to multichannel sound, the facility's existing audio control room, built in 2004 and tied to the main production studio, was upgraded to a surround-sound audio control room. The Walters Storyk Design Group (WSDG) in New York helped retrofit the room with specialized acoustic ceiling tiles, and hung speakers that surround the console operator and acoustic wall treatments to accommodate surround-sound production.

An existing audio post-production room on the second floor, designed and built by WSDG, features a Digidesign digital audio workstation. Here original music is composed and mixed. The music is then blended with voice and effects to produce a finished promo or long-form production. A temporary audio post-production room also utilizing a Digidesign digital audio workstation is housed on the third floor and will eventually move to a new production area yet to be completed.

Ongoing upgrade

Going forward, the facility's overall system architecture must remain flexible because the shows themselves are always being changed and updated. The facility has to grow with the times, but must avoid technology that will soon become obsolete. That's why refinements will continue. In the future, an integrated, multiple system, file-based repository will be deployed to support unlimited file sharing between systems. At some point, the facility's production workflows will also become entirely file-based.

The network plans to convert to all file-based, and Tom Killoy, senior vice president of operations in New York, has spearheaded the most recent collaboration between the Knoxville- (HGTV, DIY Network, Fine Living Network), Nashville- (Great American Country), and NYC- (Food Network) based technology teams, in order to develop a consistent integrated file-based technology strategy that supports all the brands.

“Predicting technological trends years in the future is difficult at best,” Jarett said. “What you try to accomplish is matching your workflow with the appropriate technology, keeping in mind the flexibility and upgradability of the systems and the longevity of the manufacturers. The end result should support both the productivity and creativity of the users and the technological and corporate goals of the company, while also maintaining cost effectiveness.”

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

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Technology at work

Adobe After Effects, Photoshop and Illustrator software

Apple Xsan storage

Autodesk Maya 3D animation software

Deko 3000 HD CG
Digidesign mixer
ISIS storage
Media Composer DX Nitris editor
Symphony Nitris finishing system
Thunder HD still store

MVP-VIP mutliviewer system
X-Link router

Genelec speakers

Grass Valley
6000 Worldcam HD cameras
Concerto HD routers

Harris modular A/D, D/A converters

Maxon Cinema 4D modeling, animation and rendering package

Miranda Vertigo graphics processor

NEC LCD monitors

Panasonic Varicam and HDX900 cameras

Solid State Logic C100 digital audio console

Sony MVS 8000G production switcher

Design team

Scripps Productions NYC

Thomas Killoy, senior vice president of operations

Bill Jarett, vice president of engineering

Joe Bruno, director of engineering

Azzurro Systems Integration

Marc Bressack, executive vice president

William McKnight, vice president/general manager

Scott Buckholtz, director of engineering

Steve Regina, design engineer

Walter Storyk Design Group

John Storyk, principle

Nancy Flannery, CFO

Joshua Morris, designer