On June 15, New England Sports Network (NESN) launched the 25-year-old regional sports network's sixth market segmenting channel to distribute select NESN programs throughout the country. What makes this channel different from the other five channels that distribute the network's programming to various New England markets is that for the first time in network history, it will not be human-controlled. The plans for this day were laid out back in 2006 when the NESN HD Television Center was designed and installed. The network's rollout of this new automated channel was such a success that plans to automate the entire six-channel network were moved up ahead of schedule and rolled out in early August.
The need for automation
The original intent of switching to an automated master control was to better manage a growing number of market areas that were becoming awkward to switch by conventional master control methods. It was also putting an increased demand on personnel and resources, especially during the network's live Major League Baseball programming.
The ad sales department was also demanding more from NESN's master control operation due to incremental sales opportunities that required the placement of snipes, bugs and bottom line insertions into network programming. This put a strain on the master control operation workflow and made it difficult to keep track of which products were placed where.
Choosing a system
A task force auditioned automation systems big and small. Over the span of six months, the task force evaluated each quote on the merits of functionality and ability to integrate with the current system, as well as ease of use.
Some of the evaluated systems did not have the functionality or the advanced features the network required for dealing with live programming. It was discovered that some automation systems treat live programming as segmented programming; they do not operate well in live programming for extended lengths of time without knowing the specific time ranges. The network's specific challenge was to deal with live programming with no determined end time, such as a MLB baseball game, where one inning could last anywhere from three to 45 minutes.
Ultimately, NESN chose Harris ADC automation because it met key requirements, including ease of integration with both the pre-existing Harris infrastructure and non-Harris systems. Prior to the installation, the network's Harris infrastructure consisted of six NEXIO servers, 16 X75 frame synchronizers, 10 6800+ upconverters, 10 6800+ downconverters and 23 6800+ frames filled with conversion gear, mux/demux modules, and distribution amplifiers. The automation system also uses different “lists” that allow more manipulation of the system for specific instances of live programming.
The installation of the system took roughly two weeks from racking the servers to adding the final connector. Because of the size of the current master control system, RS-232 cables were connected to each device controlled by the system. The automation system would control the following components: NVISION master control switcher, NVISION video and audio router, Harris NEXIO servers, a Sony MAV, and satellite tuners and receivers. The system would also control a GPI device for the triggering of Q-tones.
The ADC system includes three device servers, two database servers, one transcode server and one application server. Operators interface with the system using one of the six client machines that program the on-air lists or ingest and edit video. This was all strung together with a closed TCP/IP network.
A Harris representative conducted system training, which was completed in approximately one week. It featured specific details on how the network would use the system in its unique way of dealing with MLB programming. Upon first review of the system, new users found that the list system was tough to manage. The lists tend to offer advanced users greater flexibility to program. After further training from Harris, operators were able to manage the transmissions list with ease and were able to manipulate the system at an advanced level.
Flexibility in operational workflow
When asked about which aspect of the automation workflow has the most dramatic effect on day-to-day operations, efficient use of time was the resounding answer. For instance, now operators can multitask in longer intervals than three-minute segments while still keeping an eye on the network and transmission list. In addition, small things like adding bugs and bottom lines during live events are more precise because they are on timers or automatically inserted during specific breaks or programming.
Another time-saver has been the automated ingest of commercial spots. Direct transfer of spots from the network's DG Systems component into automation allows direct ingestion without generation loss or having to reingest media.
Outside taped productions are also easier to ingest. Setting in-points and out-points, logging the metadata and letting automation ingest the tapes minimizes operational workflow. Operators no longer need to sit in front of the logging stations while the show plays out.
When asked about future improvements due to the flexibility of integration, David Desrochers, NESN vice president of engineering, said the facility will soon realize additional improvements from its planned Avid edit suites upgrade that will push shows through Telestream's FlipFactory and directly into ADC automation.
A translation program specifically designed for the network will also allow its traffic department's Wide Orbit traffic management software to talk directly to the automation transmission lists for programming the network. Operators currently program the transmission lists by hand.
Finally, NESN's satellite uplink and downlink will also be controlled by ADC automation when the network completes its uplink and downlink upgrade. The automation system will time events for ingest, move the satellite dish, program the receiver and record events directly to ADC.
A final byproduct of the switch to a fully automated master control was the freeing up of additional resources that have allowed NESN to grow even in the current tough economic climate. The ability for master control operators to concentrate efforts on tasks other than manually switching the six network channels increased productivity overnight following the launch of the new automation system.
Mike Testa is broadcast maintenance engineer for NESN.