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Starz Encore Group

Starz Encore Group was founded in 1991 with a single channel and has grown to 13 channels with over 500 employees. Recognizing the need to accommodate this growth, the company decided to consolidate the business and post-production operations of the company in one building and create a new broadcast operations center for on-air playback and transmission.

Operators work in the master control room at Starz Encore Group headquarters in Denver, monitoring the primary, backup and return signals for 13 channels each on a virtual monitor wall from Barco. A supervisor has the ability to monitor and control any of the signals if required.

Starz Encore currently broadcasts 13 channels, each with separate digital feeds for east and west coast time zones and a full backup playout. Five analog channel feeds are provided for the backyard C-band dish market.

Starz’s technical facility utilizes most of the second floor of its new 300,000-square-foot Denver headquarters. A decision was also made to upgrade the on-air operation from a semi-automated tape-based playout system to a fully automated, server-based playback and transmission center. The project team chose Omnibus Systems for automation, servers from Pinnacle Systems, Sony Broadcast for archive and Pinzone Engineering for uplink facility design. Beck Associates was chosen as the systems integrator. Infrastructure for the facility was critically important. The technical center has backup power capabilities including two 1500KVA generators and two 625KVA UPS systems. HVAC is provided by redundant Liebert units in all the equipment rooms. All broadcast equipment wiring, routing and patching is HDTV compliant.

Kent Wallace, broadcast media manager for Starz, works at an encoding station in the ingest/encode room.

The broadcast operations center is an all-digital, server-based facility. Starz selected Pinnacle Systems MediaStream 700 servers for playback. Each playout server is configured with six ports for channel/feed playback and one for preview of material. The playout servers contain approximately 200 hours of storage per channel, and backup servers contain about half that amount. A server can handle up to three channels. Channels were assigned among the servers based on priority, so that no two high-subscriber-count channels share the same server. The backup servers mirror the content and outputs of the primary servers but, as a cost-saving measure, have less disk storage capacity.

Thirty-six feeds are uplinked from the new facility.

Two MediaStream 1600 servers were selected for ingest/encoding. These servers are configured with three input ports for ingest of material and three output ports for preview/QC of material. They are fed from the encoding/ingest room.

Movies and promotional spots are encoded into MPEG-2 files at 15Mb/s into the Pinnacle 1600 server. The MPEG-2 movie files are then transferred to the Sony Petasite robotic data tape archive. Promo files are transferred directly to the playout servers. When a movie file is needed for playback, the automation system transfers the file into the appropriate Pinnacle 700 server.

Video processing

Signal flow for the plant is focused on keeping the failure points to a minimum in the playback and transmission chain. So most of the processing of the video and audio takes place during the ingest/encode step. Video is pre-processed and cleaned; V-chip, WebTV and XDS data are encoded; and audio is switched and encoded/decoded to provide the three pairs required.

The tape console in Starz’s tape dubbing center is used to dub “cross channel” Starz promotions into a variety of formats for playback on other services’ channels.

Starz broadcasts Dolby Digital 5.1 on six channels. Spanish SAP is broadcast along with standard English stereo on all channels. Consequently, all movies stored on the servers and archive are encoded with three audio pairs. This permits storage of a single copy of the movie with an audio configuration that will work for any of the channels. All of this signal manipulation takes place during the ingest/encode operation so that fewer boxes reside in the output chain. This provides the ability to compensate for a failure in any of these areas without affecting air.

An Omnibus Colossus automation system controls ingest and playout of material on all 26 primary feeds and playout on the mirrored backup servers. A total of 52 automation playlists run 24 hours a day to handle all of these feeds. Omnibus’ Cache Manager handles the management of material on the servers. It sends commands and requests to the Omnibus Transfer Manager and Avalon software, which handle movement of MPEG-2 files from the archive to the playout servers. The system also provides the ability to preview material on any of the primary or backup servers via a preview port assigned to each server. Starz has two Colossus engines, a primary and a backup, each running its own independent set of channels and servers.

Master control

In the master control room, two operators each control and monitor 13 channels (13 primary, 13 backup and 13 return signals). A supervisor at a back console has the ability to monitor and control any of the primary and backup channels. The supervisor also has a workstation showing status of the Cache Manager and the file transfer operations. A workstation illustrating status of the satellite encoders and uplink transmitters is located nearby.

Canal+ has a 24-hour domestic news channel that uses 29 satellite news gathering vans, which are entirely journalist operated.

Barco provided the virtual monitor wall in the master control room. The wall consists of nine 50-inch projection cubes. Users can define the size and number of windows on the wall. The wall also displays audio monitoring meters for the English and SAP channels in each window, and alarms for loss of audio, closed captioning or video. Each channel is set up with a three-monitor window display: a large window for primary server output, and small windows for backup server output and monitoring of the satellite return signal.

Transmission chain

The transmission signal flow is fairly simple. The material is played out of the server port. Effects are added by a Pinnacle DekoCast box when triggered by automation, and the signal then goes directly into the satellite encoder. There it is compressed and fed to the transmitter for uplink to the satellite. The backup path of each channel does not contain any graphics or voice-over capability but goes straight to the transmission router to be switched to the encoder in case of a failure.

The satellite uplink facility contains four nine-meter uplink antennas – three for uplink of the digital and analog feeds, and one as a backup. A one-for-one redundant transmitter is provided for each digital satellite service. A single backup transmitter covers the five analog services for the backyard C-band dish market. In case of a tube failure or other transmitter malfunction, the service is automatically switched to the backup unit. A total of 36 feeds are uplinked from the new facility.

Throughout the project, a high level of cooperation was required and exhibited by all involved in order to meet an extremely tight deadline. The first equipment rack went into the facility in August 2001, and the facility went on air in January 2002. Since the on-air date, the company has logged fewer operational and equipment-related outages than with the previous tape-based system.

Ray Milius is vice president of technology for the Starz Encore Group.

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