Oprah Gets Digital

Harpo Productions adopts Sony-DataDirect storage system


The Oprah Winfrey Show has entered the digital age. During the summer, Harpo Productions in Chicago installed Sony's XPRI nonlinear editing system, supported by the backbone of a DataDirect Silicon Storage Appliance (S2A), a scaleable storage network that allows video digitizing at twice real time. This is the second U.S. installation of the Sony-DataDirect system, the first one being at Screen Gems in Burbank, Calif., for daytime soap, "The Guiding Light."

"We did a whole revamp of our post-production operation," said Harpo Senior Editor Mike Mabbott. "In going from the analog '80's to the digital Second Millennium, we jumped two decades."

Working within a $7 million budget for upgrading the largest post facility in the Midwest, he said, Harpo converted 16 edit suites to the Sony nonlinear editing (NLE) system, which now ties into nine Avid suites and a couple of Unity suites. These suites are used by about 50 staff members divided into 10 production teams that put in about 100 staff hours of editing per show, which airs every weekday. Each show is turned around in an average of 2.5 days, he said, half the time it took to edit each show in analog.

"We have people all over the country shooting stuff in advance of each show," Mabbott said, "and you'd be amazed at how much we roll into what we shoot in the studio." The studio shoot is always an hour and 15 minutes, and that gets edited down to less than 50 minutes of airtime, with inserts, so the entire show looks live and seamless.

"The good people we have here are why the show has won six Emmys for editing," he said.

As an example, he described a crew in Los Angeles taping a show with Oprah on the set of the TV series, "Friends."

"We had four days to turn that show around, and we were making changes all the way to airtime," he said. "We never could have done that in analog. Only nonlinear editing gives us the capacity to insert changes as we go and still meet our deadlines."

Selection of the NLE system began in November 2002. As a focus of the advance research, Senior Editors Mabbott and John Strolia, along with Editing Coordinator Dave Logan. toured 22 separate post- and network-production facilities in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago and New York.

"We initially focused on facilities using Avid," he said, "but we were impressed by the XPRI system we saw at Screen Gems. At the 2003 NAB show in Las Vegas, the Sony system became the obvious choice, especially when Sony showed great willingness to work with us in configuring the system to our needs."


The system that Sony proposed for Harpo is built around an XPRI disk-based editor that natively handles the MPEG-4 IMX tape format, according to Christopher Marchitelli, senior product manager of broadcast and production systems for Sony Electronics in Park Ridge, N.J. Because the disk uses the same compression scheme as the videotape, the system can handle streams over the serial digital transfer interface (SDTI) at two times real-time speed, so an hour tape can be transferred to disk in 30 minutes.

"The best part is that because the transfer is from digital to digital," he said, "there is no degradation in the clone, virtually no compression artifacts at all. The exact same thing shot on the camera is what you get on the disk."

The transferred video goes into the shared storage device from DataDirect, like a file server, connected to the various edit suites. The storage system at Harpo, he said, can serve data from the storage device at 3.5 TB per second. In contrast, the system at Screen Gems operates at 1.4 TB per second.

"Think of it as a bunch of broadband drinking straws in the same glass, and they all can pull from the glass at once without any loss of speed," Marchitelli said.

What makes the Sony-DataDirect system so exceptional, he said, is that each edit suite can see what each edit suite on a Shared Area Network (SAN) is doing, almost in real time.

As soon as edits are saved to disk, "you can drag that piece of video onto your timeline and open it, finding out very quickly what's being done in a neighboring suite," he said.

The only limit is that right now only three edit suites can access a SAN at once, but this is usually enough for producing any given segment of a show.

Additionally, he said, each XPRI edit suite can ingest two video streams at once, one at normal speed and one at double speed, This provides the ability to ingest up to six streams in each SAN at the same time, which becomes critical when a importing video for last-minute changes before a show goes to air.

The decisive moment for Mabbott came when he realized the XPRI system would relieve him of the dread he'd always felt getting those last minute phone calls about a change in a show they'd just finished editing.

"When I saw that making changes would be no big deal any more, taking the fear out of those phone calls made a real difference for me."

After NAB, a long series of staff committee meetings within Harpo included the production, engineering and administrative departments.

"It was a tremendous democratic process," he said. However, the final decisions to go nonlinear and to buy the Sony-DataDirect system rested with Oprah herself.

One final point sold Oprah, apparently. Because the XPRI system can handle both standard and high-definition digital video, installation of the Sony-DataDirect NLE system means Harpo is ready for HDTV when analog broadcasting ends. Oprah is always looking ahead.