HD upgrade requires planning, coordination at The Weather Channel

Nearly two years ago, The Weather Channel began considering its transition to HD, which ultimately saw the construction of a studio facility in Atlanta.

The $60 million HD project touched aspects of The Weather Channel’s operation as diverse as its control rooms, infrastructure, workflow and even technology used at cable headends for inserting local weather updates.

Behind the scenes, planning and executing the HD upgrade, were Ross Kalber, VP of engineering and IT operations, and Michael Smereski, chief engineer, for The Weather Channel. This week, “HD Technology Update” concludes its two-part interview with the pair, focusing on the technology used to make HD a reality at The Weather Channel.

Editor’s note: To read the first part of the interview, see: “The Weather Channel takes on HD.

HD Technology Update: Could you discuss the technology lineup in your HD control rooms and in your studios?

Ross Kalber: We have two full-blown production control rooms that are fully manned systems, and we have a third that we call an automated control room with the Ross Video OverDrive system. We have three control rooms in total involved in the upgrades. We were fortunate enough to model both the full-blown control rooms in the same way; we built them from the ground up.

I think one of the challenges was the coordination of upgrades of our key infrastructure like a control room. We had to take one down and upgrade it to HD and operate the entire network from a single control room 24/7. That was a risk to the network, but we had an aggressive plan to upgrade these things, because we didn’t want to be single-threaded for too long. The logistics of bringing one down and taking the other online was a daunting challenge from a scheduling perspective.

Michael Smereski: The video switching in the control rooms is based on Snell & Wilcox Kahuna switchers. The rooms originally came up during the transition period as SD rooms, and then at the appropriate time, one was switched to an HD node. The Snell & Wilcox switchers made that easy to do because they are truly multiformat switchers.

We use Viz graphics for the broadcast graphics in the control room. The same thing is true with those as well. The Viz engines can be configured for SD, and it’s a fairly easy switch to tell them to become HD. So when we were ready to do that, the configuration change was fairly simple.

We use Wheatstone audio consoles, and then we use a very large (Thomson Grass Valley) Encore Trinix routing switcher here that does all of the monitor switching to the set as well as in the control rooms for the Evertz MVP multiview system. So it is a very dynamic environment, very flexible. It can change very rapidly for the users if they need it to.

We changed our model from being very purpose-built to dynamic, where the operators are no longer restricted by the systems as to what they can do.

Ross Kalber: We’re also using a Ross SoftMetal server for monitor fills and other sorts of things in the studio.

Michael Smereski: We did that, of course, because it’s a file-based workflow, which is a model we like here. We can take our Final Cut systems, create imagery or take the Abode products on the Apple-based graphics creation systems, do a file transfer into the SoftMetal and playout to monitor fills and air.

Ross Kalber: We also have a Vista Spyder system, which is a matrix device. If you are not familiar with the studio, we have a 38ft rear-projection monitor wall that’s really the centerpiece of the studio. You can see it on-air now during our HD shows in the background. It’s used quite extensively both for displaying weather graphics and video and other uses. The device behind the scene is the Vista Spyder providing that technology.

Michael Smereski: Then we added a large Avocent KVM system. We have so many devices that the operators and engineers need to be able to get to that you could just have workstations piled up all over the place. So we changed our philosophy and did a very large KVM system, so they can just log into whatever device they need to control at that time from any position that system is hooked up to.

Ross Kalber: I would say the majority, if not all, of our critical on-air infrastructure is connected to a single KVM switching matrix, which I describe as an audio-video routing system except that it’s for computer keyboard, video and mouse. You can route virtually any production computer to your desktop by flipping a switch on your keyboard, and it’s quite powerful. From an operational and maintenance perspective, it’s just an incredible efficiency tool. It makes things easier to troubleshoot, to change on the fly.

The other thing in the control room is the Building4Media system we’ve installed; it is our production video server. The other big development here during the HD rollout was establishing a centralized storage repository that is linked into a series of editors. Obviously, all of our ingest is feeding the storage repository. It also provides us with playout in the production control room. It allows for desktop browse for producers and also for archiving for our library staff.

We went with Building4Media for that system and an Apple infrastructure. It’s pretty traditional to use Macintosh or Apple-based hardware and creative processes, but when it comes to directly supporting our on-air production, I think it is fairly unique.

We have a centralized repository that’s based on Apple’s Xsan technology. Right now, we have 11 Final Cut Pro editors linked into that system, and we can do browse and editing on the desktop. We also go direct to air from playout of the system as well.

Finally, our Wheatstone audio board and entire audio infrastructure is 5.1 capable. We currently aren’t doing 5.1 programming today, but we are prepared for it and have the ability to grow into it.

HD Technology Update: What are you using in the studio for cameras?

Michael Smereski: We’re using Ikegami HDK-75EXs.

RossKalber: We’re also using robotic systems from Vinten and Telemetrics. We have a couple of robotic pedestals and also a number of Telemetrics robotic systems.

The other interesting thing is that we are trying to go away from the green chromakey wall approach, although we do have Ultimatte HD chromakeyers and green screens in the studio. We planned for that, but they are trying not to use that. We’re going toward the hard displays, as I mentioned rear-projection displays, to show the weather information. It’s a real dramatic change from what we’ve done in the past. We have a number of 65in monitors in there in addition to the rear projection.

HD Technology Update: What are you doing about field acquisition?

Michael Smereski: The cameras out there are P2 based. We’re using the Panasonic 2000 series cameras for both live and P2 field record.

HD Technology Update: Are you sending HD-equipped SNG vehicles into the field during hurricanes and other severe weather events?

Ross Kalber: We have three trucks of our own and lease others. One of the things we are excited about is doing HD field coverage. We outfitted our truck stationed here in Atlanta with a TANDBERG Television HD encoding system.

We were — like most of the industry — interested in making sure the latency was acceptable for live-from-field talkback. We’re really pleased with the performance of that. We were testing it and rolled it out June 2 when we launched the new studio. We had live shots from Miami Beach, and frankly they were stunning. We were pleased with the performance and flexibility of the system.

Some of the core requirements were that it’s MPEG-4, and we wanted to be able to fit an MPEG-4 HD live shot in the same satellite space segment that we had been fitting an SD shot in to manage our expenses. This system allows us to do that.

We’re using a 9MHz segment; although, we can do 6MHz if we wanted to. We have the flexibility to do either, and it looks fantastic in both modes. The latency is very good at 9MHz, and we are encoding at 12Mb/s — a pretty high encode rate for MPEG-4. It looks really good, and we’re very pleased with it.

Michael Smereski: When we tested the system, we were very concerned about the environments it would be in. If you’ve got rain or weather conditions and you set the encoder bit rate too low, it starts turning to mush very quickly. So, because we are in the weather business, you want to see the weather. Part of doing that is pushing it a little bit so we can retain a lot of that detail.

Ross Kalber: We’re anxious to go out and find some severe weather like hurricanes, ideally. Not that we want hurricanes to make landfall, but if they do, we’ll be there to cover it. We’re interested to see how it performs.

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