The transition to digital across the Caribbean is interesting to monitor, with various nations studying transitional successes and challenges across North America, South America and Europe. Concerns about signal interference between neighboring countries in the eastern Caribbean persist, while the entire region has its eye on the impending June 17, 2015, “digitalswitchover” date — the current deadline for many international countries to surrender analog spectrum.
Many regional broadcasters prefer the gradual transition model of moving from analog to SD digital, which offers a less aggressive learning curve and a natural progression toward HD. However, with June 2015 approaching in less two years, there are benefits to bypassing SD in favor of a direct-to-HD transition. This is the approach Unified Video Technologies (UNIV) took with ZNS, the Broadcasting Corporation of The Bahamas.
More than 75 years ago, ZNS was launched as a government-funded, non-commercial radio station, broadcasting two hours each day. Since 1950, ZNS has been partially funded by advertising revenues, and ZNS today operates three radio stations, a free-to-air TV station (TV-13) and the cable TV Parliamentary Channel (TV-40). ZNS has remained a significant, unifying force in the Bahamas, keeping the widely dispersed population informed about national developments. However, it has lost audience share in recent years as viewers switched to crisper HD/SD programming offered through cable and satellite services.
The straight-to-HD transition offered a potentially winning strategy to draw viewers back, but it required an internal sea change. This included not only a complete redesign of the technical and operational spaces, but also a professional training program to ease the transition to new technologies and procedures — notably the drastic change to a tapeless, file-based workflow. This was necessary to accelerate the learning curve for ZNS personnel faced with a challenging situation.
Design and implementation
The Government of the Bahamas appointed UNIV to lead the multi-million dollar systems design and integration project. ZNS’ chief goals were to recapture audience share, while also reducing operational costs. The previous facility upgrade came in 1997, and maintenance costs have since skyrocketed as parts for obsolete equipment became elusive. A bevy of manual processing tasks required a large staff, which further increased costs, along with rising tape prices and archiving expenses for physical media.
The project required UNIV to implement upgrades without taking the station off the air — a massive challenge given the large-scale nature of the project. Along with decommissioning analog equipment, UNIV developed and implemented a comprehensive, software-based media workflow solution, updated all broadcast infrastructure and built two production control rooms and master control centers. The team also oversaw design and construction of a modern news set with Sony HXC-100 cameras, an 80in Panasonic videowall and an energy-efficient Litepanels LED lighting grid.
UNIV staff installed more than 20,000ft of Nemo cable to support the new HD system at the backbone. Elsewhere, single points of failure were eliminated through advanced system redundancy.
The entire system was installed parallel to the old infrastructure, transitioning operations phase by phase from embedded analog to HD. The upgrade commenced with wiring and electrical as UNIV staff installed more than 20,000ft of Nemo cable. This wholly supports the new HD system at the backbone.
The technical core offered immediate insight into how inefficient the analog infrastructure had become. Several racks included equipment no longer in use. Ten racks were stripped and rebuilt on site, eliminating half of them in the process. The remaining five racks were populated with core HD infrastructure and workflow equipment, opening up real estate and improving ventilation in the process. This ultimately created a far more space- and energy-efficient operation for the technical core.
A 72 x 72 Harris Broadcast Platinum router is at the heart of the system, with a Harris Broadcast 6800+ platform supporting various signal processing needs (conversion, distribution frame sync, etc.). The router is expandable to accommodate future growth, while embedding all audio routing with video inside the frame. This, of course, removes any need for a separate audio router and eliminates a potential failure point. The audio itself is processed in 2.0 stereo, using Linear Acoustic AERO.one, with 5.1 surround sound upconversion taking place in the final processing stages.
The strategy to eliminate single points of failure through advanced system redundancy is implemented across the infrastructure and workflow. This does not mean installing two of everything; it means planning redundancies into the design so that a secondary process automatically picks up where the primary process fails. It also means choosing equipment that offers simple, manual, onsite reconfiguration and/or remote access.
For example, the Platinum router was selected due to its flexible and easy-to-understand patching system. It is simple to reconfigure the router and patch into another source should a primary signal path deteriorate. This is the first of three redundancy levels across the ZNS system — simple switching to alternative sources. The second level is enabling remote access to any component across the infrastructure workflow, made possible using the Harris Broadcast CCS Navigator control system. The third level is to ensure 100-percent uptime through automatic switchover processes.
Master control and production
All three of these redundant designs are found throughout the new control rooms to maximize on-air and production content protection. Two MC centers, two production control rooms and an ingest station serve the core of ZNS’ on-air and production needs for both channels. The two MC centers monitor all outgoing feeds and can brand each channel independently, with a Harris Broadcast Panacea clean and quiet switch supporting automatic switchover to backup streams and systems.
Simple master control designs with easy-to-use equipment expedited the ZNS staff’s HD workflow learning curve.
Both MC centers feature Harris Broadcast HView Predator II-GX multiviewers for on-air signal monitoring, with multiple, customizable windows providing high-quality, multi-image display for incoming and outgoing feeds. The Harris Broadcast IconLogo supplies on-air branding, allowing both manual and automatic insertion of bugs, logos and squeezebacks downstream from the Harris Broadcast IconMaster master control switchers.
On-air graphics and branding were instrumental to improving the on-air look and feel of ZNS. UNIV brought in Stein Branding (an internationally recognized station branding firm) to create promotional graphics, icons, animations and audio. UNIV and Stein Branding collaborated with station personnel to build an easy-to-use system for integrating graphics with on-air and production content. This involved three levels of graphics including the master control branding stations.
A Harris Broadcast Inscriber G8 supports the second graphics package serving both production control rooms. These systems generate graphics for on-air programming to further enhance the viewing experience. They are used along with Ross Vision 3 production switchers.
The most complex of three graphics packages is for live news programming, switched in the second production control room using a Ross Carbonite production switcher with built-in multiviewers. Here, the Inscriber G8 production graphics system connects to a NEXIO MOS Gateway and the environment. Graphics are delivered through the Gateway to an Associated Press ENPS, along with live news video that is field-captured using Panasonic P2 cameras.
The MOS Gateway is one element of the software-based media workflow that permeates the updated ZNS facility. This essentially connects all production and news elements, including Harris Broadcast NEXIO AMP servers for ingest. Overall, UNIV implemented a software-centric workflow to increase operating efficiency and lower long-term capital investment. This covers all activities from ingest and editing through playout and archiving. Ultimately, it increases speed to air.
News stories are ingested and cached to allow for immediate editing — well before the complete file finishes loading onto the server. Production personnel can browse low-resolution versions for rough file editing from any connected computer; content is then delivered to three specific news editing stations for story composition, powered by Harris Broadcast Velocity nonlinear editing systems. Editors can then choose graphics from a library of templates that serve specific news segments, such as sports, weather or lead stories. Stories are delivered as single files to the Carbonite switcher, properly positioned in the program rundown.
The analog-to-HD transition eliminated half of the existing racks.
The facility was upgraded to support the DVCPRO HD 50 file format for all production content, including news and long-form programming. This allows ZNS to maintain high quality while consuming the minimum amount of real estate within the server domain.
ZNS still receives plenty of content in physical media form from outside providers, including production houses. Therefore, UNIV established a separate media ingest station for QC and automated file ingest. Harris Broadcast Videotek TVM9000 scopes are used to monitor quality as physical media is digitized and transferred to the workflow — achieved automatically via the Harris Broadcast Ingest Control Manager software.
The NEXIO AMP domain incorporates four online servers, each with three outputs (12 channels) and cross-server redundancy to maximize content protection. In addition to the three news editing stations, the servers connect to five Apple Mac Pro editing stations that use Final Cut Pro for long-form production content. This content is either sent to product for immediate or near-immediate playout, or delivered to nearline or long-term storage. Primestream’s FORK manages the promised 16TB storage that comprises the nearline solution for short-term storage, arranged in a simple array.
Long-term archives include approximately 25,000 hours of digitized tape. A Qualstar RLS-8000 LTO-5 system houses all long-term storage, and eliminates any need to burn and store physical media. A Primestream B4M media asset management system sits on top of all online/nearline/offline storage, enabling file movement from one server to another. ZNS operators can also browse low-resolution versions of offline content on the Primestream solution, and move part of the file to the online servers for editing.
The significance of the tapeless, file-based workflow comes with being able to reduce costs through efficient operations and elimination of physical media during production. The return on investment is easy to measure: ZNS now spends about 25 cents for each dollar of prior operating costs.
Flight pack system
The Bahamas cover an enormous amount of territory, with about 70 populated islands spread over 100,000sq mi of ocean. This required a large VISLINK microwave solution — two incoming video streams and one return stream — for bringing content into the ZNS plant. These systems are strategically located on various islands to enable remote live feeds, and also connect to customized, outside production flight pack systems built and designed by the UNIV team.
The flight packs are pertinent for production flexibility. Reporters and associated production personnel may find themselves doing live or recorded shoots on any Bahamian island, many of which are not accessible by truck. The flight packs incorporate Ross switchers with built-in multiviewers to accommodate remote shoots, and are easily transported by boat or air.
ZNS remains an essential unifying force for the Bahamian nation of islands, and the straight-to-HD transition from analog has made noticeable leaps in on-air quality and production efficiency, while minimizing real estate usage in the plant. Beyond lower costs and increased quality and productivity, ZNS is now a modern multimedia corporation committed to fostering production of quality local programming based on the work of Bahamian writers, directors, artists, musicians, producers and technicians. Viewers, meanwhile, are returning to ZNS, enjoying up-to-date, on-the-spot local coverage; more locally-produced programming; high-quality video; and attractive news sets and on-air graphics.
Unified Video Technologies:
- Adrian Santa Maria, project mgr.
- Luis Mesa, installation lead
- Dimitri Ramirez, design eng.
- Julio Defrancesco, design/installation asst.
- Keith Gomez, eng.
Technology at work
- Apple: Mac Pro editing stations
- Associated Press: ENPS
- Harris Broadcast: CCS Navigator control system, HView Predator II-GX multiviewers, IconLogo, IconMaster switchers, Inscriber G8, NEXIO AMP servers, NEXIO MOS Gateway, Panacea switcher, Platinum router, 6800+ platform, Velocity nonlinear editing systems, Videotek TVM9000 scopes
- Linear Acoustic: AERO.one audio processor
- Litepanels: LED lighting grid
- Nemo: Cable
- Panasonic: P2HD cameras; video wall
- Primestream/B4M: FORK MAM system
- Ross Video: Carbonite production switcher; Vision 3 production switcher
- Sony: HXC-100 cameras
- Qualstar: RLS-8000 LTO-5 system
- Vislink: Microwave system
—Ariel Matzkin is CTO of Unified Video Technologies.