NBC's “The Today Show” has produced many technical milestones in its 50-year history. The latest was the move to high-definition broadcasting, with its spectacular images and multichannel sound. For the network's systems engineering department, this monumental move required a sophisticated technical backbone that's equally impressive.
Two years ago, NBC began rebuilding the entire infrastructure at the network's New York City headquarters. The company took a three-step approach for its massive transition to broadcasting the 1080i HD format. In 2005, it embarked on converting the studios for “Saturday Night Live” and “Late Night with Conan O'Brien,” as well as building an edit system to support the shows.
This year, the second step included installing new multiformat equipment and cabling, and a massive 1024 × 1024 I/O video router that handles all of the signals and file formats necessary to broadcast the various programs. The flexible infrastructure enabled the network's flagship local station WNBC-DT, which is produced in the same building, to broadcast all of its content in HD as well.
Part of step three — which will complete the migration of the NBC network to HD — was the conversion of “Today.” The aggressive timelines were necessary to ensure a solid base for the future.
The network's strategy was to create a flexible environment that could be used for a variety of programs with studios and control rooms — and even adjacent buildings — securely connected with GigE fiber cabling and network connectivity. Any production area in the building can now be set up and reconfigured quickly. For example, Studio 1A is located at 10 Rockefeller Plaza, across the street from the network's 30 Rock main broadcast facility, but the equipment for “Today” is seamlessly tied in.
The ability to broadcast live HD signals was a key component of the project, but the main goal was to allow all of the network's programs originating out of 30 Rock to be interconnected and share technology resources when required. The equipment is designed to support every show, whether it's news, entertainment or sports. For example, a reporter working on a late-breaking story can broadcast live in HD from anywhere in the building.
The design philosophies and business decisions regarding technology were based on the versatility of the systems and how they meet the needs of all of the shows NBC produces in New York City. This includes both SD and HD programs, which can coexist on the same servers and routers deployed.
The NBC engineering team developed and installed an intelligent tie line management system between the building's separate SD and HD infrastructures so producers, editors and engineers can share signals and switch between the two resolutions when necessary. SD had to be accommodated because NBC's news and other departments will gather, create and broadcast content in SD for quite some time.
HD in stages
HD signals within the building are transferred as uncompressed 1.45Gb/s baseband video files, which helps maintain a high signal quality. Some floor monitoring feeds are multiplexed together.
Live remotes coming into “Today” are brought in as SD signals and then upconverted to HD in a 4:3 aspect ratio before being switched into the live program. Likewise, signals coming into the control room (complete with a Sony MVS-8000 multiformat HD switcher and a virtual monitor wall supported by Evertz Maestro display software and 12 Barco projection cubes) are upconverted prior to being inserted into a program.
Once the live signal leaves the control room, the show is delivered in SD and HD to affiliates and O&O stations in each time zone.
Product engineers from Miranda Technologies worked with NBC to develop and implement a set of aspect ratio format descriptors (SMPTE 2016 Trial Publication) to make the process transparent. A Grass Valley Trinix router communicates with all of the production rooms in the building, and — using a tie line system and more than 1000 Miranda processing cards — signals are automatically converted in the background. Now, as operators work with SD and HD sources, there's no need to worry about aspect ratio or image quality.
Set the stage
A new set was built for “Today” in about six months. It provides a wider look that includes Daktronics LED panels displaying native HD graphics. Variable lighting presents segments in a variety of colors.
The physical move was one of the more challenging aspects of the switch to HD. The cast and crew moved four times between different outside sets (some from the Athens and Torino Olympics telecasts) while construction was completed. The TV audience never noticed a disruption.
With the new HD infrastructure, anything is possible. A second production studio, used for special segments, is located directly above the main studio. It has been reconfigured from existing guest room space and is seamlessly tied into a single overall production system. This enables operators in one control room to access equipment installed in the other.
Using new HD protocols, camera operators working with Sony HDC-1500 HD studio cameras shoot for 4:3 audiences while framing all of the action for HD viewers. The show employs 12 Sony HD cameras in all, six in the main studio and six for ENG shooting. The number of handhelds required fluctuates, so NBC uses special Sony HDLA-1500W camera sleds that allow the cameras to be changed from studio to handheld use quickly and easily.
“Today” shares edit suites located inside the building's digital production center. Facilities are spread between the news, sports and entertainment divisions and include Avid Technology and Apple nonlinear editing systems, EVS HD servers used as playback devices, and graphics and CG systems from Avid.
Going live with HD
The network's mobile and online divisions also receive the SD and HD feeds, from which they produce custom content. The signal is uplinked live from the 30 Rock location to affiliates across the country. Terrestrial WNBC-DT and analog audiences receive their RF signal from an antenna on top of the Empire State Building. Redundant SD and HD transmission facilities are located there, along with Thales digital and Larcan analog transmitters.
The video servers employ a time delay for the different time zones, giving the network the ability to update the Central, Mountain and Pacific times after the East Coast feed has been broadcast in the event of late-breaking news.
Storage is also a concern when producing and broadcasting in HD. NBC uses Avid Unity systems with multiple terabytes of capacity for archival.
A sound plan from the start
When the decision was made to transition “Today” to HD, there was no question that the audio accompanying the 1080i pictures would be in 5.1 channel surround sound.
The challenge was moving the show's sound from its current stereo broadcast. The network carefully considered the differences between the sound of talent in the studio and the live concert series, which is broadcast from outside on the plaza or from inside Studio 1A.
All of “Today's” audio is broadcast in 5.1, including the concert series and studio segments that are mixed discretely for surround. Content originally produced in stereo is processed for 5.1 and integrates seamlessly with other show elements.
A Calrec Sigma digital audio console (with Bluefin DSP technology) has been installed in the new 2K audio control room, which feeds taped segments to Studio 1A. The console at 30 Rock is connected — via a Calrec Hydra system — to a multichannel input on a Calrec Alpha 100 console for Studio 1A. Stereo segments are imported via a Linear Acoustic upMAX or a Dolby DP564 box.
The Alpha console creates the main 5.1 broadcast mix. The console also handles live studio and plaza mics for talent and the crowd, commercial playback in stereo or 5.1, and the multichannel audio from the brand new music room. A 48-channel Digidesign D-Control console produces the surround music mixes of the concert series.
A Dolby LM-100 system fed from the Alpha's center channel assures an accurate dialog level, while several M&K 5.1 speaker systems with bass management provide accurate monitoring in both the broadcast and music mix rooms. A 96-channel Pro Tools system rounds out the show's mixing and recording facility.
The six-channel program output on a Calrec Alpha audio console merges audio signals with the HD video and metadata via Miranda processing equipment, where a downconverted and downmixed feed is made for SD.
A solid foundation for “Today” and tomorrow
With the “Today” transition, NBC created an all-digital, totally redundant production environment that can be conformed to produce and broadcast any type of SD or HD content and is totally agnostic to the particular studio being used. On any given morning, once “Today” is finished taping, technicians can go in and quickly reconfigure the main studio to produce a show that looks and operates differently, such a news show or a sports special.
This comprehensive design strategy ensures that the network gets the most value out of the technology employed and provides it with a great foundation for the future.
Michael Grotticelli regularly reports on the professional video and broadcast technology industries.
NBC UNIVERSAL STAFF
NBC Universal Dave Lazecko, director of studio systems Jim Starzynski, principal engineer, advanced technology Larry Thaler, vice president, engineering “The Today Show” Keith Barbaria, technical manager
Apple Macs with FCP software Avid Technology Deko graphics
Media Composer Adrenaline NLE
Unity storage solution Barco projection cubes Calrec Alpha console
Sigma digital audio console Daktronics LED panels* Digidesign ICON console with D-Control Dolby DP564 surround decoders Evertz Maestro virtual monitor software EVS servers Grass Valley Trinix HD router Linear Acoustic upMAX channel surround-field synthesizer Miranda Technologies signal conversion gear* M&K 5.1 speakers Pro Tools plug-ins Sony HDC-1500 HD studio cameras
MVS-8000 HD production switcher