Fox News Goes Tapeless

While the network could have chosen to go tapeless in a piecemeal manner as other networks had done, it decided to go tapeless end-to-end.
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NEW YORK
As Fox News Channel approached its 10th anniversary in 2005, the broadcast facility looked to replace its tape-based news story workflow. While the network could have chosen to go tapeless in a piecemeal manner as other networks had done, it decided to go tapeless end-to-end.


(click thumbnail)Fox News will complete its conversion to a tapeless workflow next month.“We’re kind of aggressive here,” said Greg Ahlquist, senior director of Digital Media Production at Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network. With such a radical change from tape to tapeless, stretching from camera and feed acquisition to play-out and deep archive, the network sought help from Media Strategy Partners, a Cos Cob, Conn.-based company that began its life doing digital workflows for sports.

Paul Gudelis, co-founder of MSP, pointed out a number of similarities between news and sports broadcasting, such as their focus on real-time, fast turnaround, and the need for logging and metadata to retrieve material. “Where news is different is that it relies on a very deep archive for background material,” he said.

FOX BUSINESS GOES FIRST

MSP’s first job was to observe FNC’s video tape-based operation, to understand that workflow. “How do you determine that you have enough capacity to duplicate a lot of what you’re doing?” asked Ahlquist. “And how do you change your management enough within the organization so that they all know what they need to know in order to create an efficient workflow and not duplicate efforts?”

MSP reported back to Fox group heads about how a tapeless workflow would accomplish what was currently being done at the network, and what it would add. Then MSP wrote the capital budget requirements and a request for purchase (RFP) for the project.

“Just as the RFP went out and we started receiving responses from the various vendors and integrators, Roger Ailes [president of FNC] announced the launch of the business channel,” said Gudelis. So the RFP was scaled back to a size that would serve only the FBN at the beginning, with the ability to scale up to include the news channel as well.

The complete Fox News end-to-end digital workflow system is to go online in July. One requirement of that ultimate system: 100 different workstations must be able to view the same piece of video at the same time.

IBM was chosen as architect of the new tapeless system, giving them responsibility for system integration, storage, servers and software infrastructure. Other individual vendors included Panasonic’s P2 for field acquisition; Omneon for acquisition and play-out; Ardendo/Vizrt for media asset management system (desktop editing); Apple Final Cut Pro for craft editing; Pebble Beach Systems for play-out automation; and Quantum’s open file system.

Non-proprietary systems were key, according to Bill Baer, chief technical officer of Media & Entertainment for IBM. “Each of the vendors, to have a shot at this, had to have a system that was open enough for us to leverage them in various ways into the solution.”

Where some facility builders would choose to go with a single supplier for most of their infrastructure so that responsibility for equipment interface falls on one company, the advantages of a multi-vendor system “overshadow the potential risks in integration,” according to Fox’s Ahlquist.

“If one of the vendors or one of the aspects of our system, play-out, archive, media asset management or whatever, doesn’t fit our needs anymore, or becomes obsolete, we only have to replace that part and reintegrate that portion, instead of having to forklift an entire new system back in again.”

IBM’s Baer pointed to yet another advantage: the buyer enjoys the fruits of the research and development budgets of each of the different vendors. “We open up a Pandora’s box and say ‘Take your pick. Which software vendors do you want, which features?’”

One legacy system that remains at FNC is its Avid iNews newsroom computer system. “Their MOS gateway system allows the Pebble Beach play-out system to communicate between the two,” said Ahlquist. “When it comes to scripting and wire services and those things, they’ll remain on iNEWS.”

Some non-equipment changes had to be made, including changing duties at the Tape Desk, where field tapes were checked in, to those of the Media Desk, where the Panasonic P2 cards are ingested. “Twenty seconds after ingest begins, a producer or a logger can begin working with that video, organize that video,” Ahlquist said.

MSP’s duties extended to staff training sessions for 800 Fox employees. From their work evaluating Fox’s existing videotape workflow and their knowledge of the new system, “we have a very keen understanding of how the groups within Fox operate and how they’re going to use the system,” said Gudelis.

FAST FOOTWORK

From Ailes’ announcement to FBN’s debut last October was 180 days, requiring some fast footwork on the training side. “You want to train people on the system they will use,” Gudelis said. Meanwhile, “IBM and the developers are cranking out features or functionality, and we can’t [train on them], but the system’s got to go live in 30 days.”

But he said the time delay between the FBN system launch and the full FNC system has had its advantages. “With the business network up and running, we have a little more of a runway for training.”

Ahlquist saw a bright side in the split-launch as well. “It was an opportunity to work some of the bugs out, and to understand every system. When you design them on paper, there are challenges and difficulties when it’s connected online. But most of it was as we expected.”

In calling its new system the first end-to-end tapeless digital workflow, FNC pointed out there were no digital islands in the system. From material brought in-house on P2 cards, to storage, editing, play-out and archive, “nowhere along the line does that material end up on videotape,” said Ahlquist.

Both FNC and FBN produce high-definition versions for cable and satellite distribution. “[But] most contribution content out there, APTN, Reuters and those services, is standard-def right now,” said Ahlquist. The control rooms produce in 16:9 HD, incorporating both SD feed video and material shot on P2 in DVCPRO50 into the newscasts. Specials and documentaries are done, to the greatest extent possible, in HD.

When the decision is made to take the step to HD contribution material, in addition to replacing the Panasonic cameras there will only be a few components to replace or modify in the new tapeless infrastructure.

“The system, as built, will be able to take advantage of better storage, better quality, better codecs as they arrive,” Ahlquist said.