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RTL II/CBC's new facility for multichannel playout

The automation system is capable of controlling enough broadcast hardware to handle up to 22 transmission channels.

The Cologne Broadcasting Center (CBC) is one of the leading television broadcasting companies in Germany. It is part of the RTL Group, Europe's largest TV, radio and production company. In Cologne and Munich, CBC supports the stations VOX, Super RTL, RTL II,, TV Travel Shop, VIVA, VIVA plus, Traumpartner TV, tv.gusto and tv.gusto Premium. It also broadcasts Swiss and Austrian commercial inserts for VOX and RTL II, as well as Swiss commercial inserts for Super RTL. As well as its broadcast operations, the broadcaster offers technical services, production, post-production, media services and facilities management.

When its client, RTL II, looked for new facilities to transmit its youth-oriented programming to an audience in three countries, it had several challenges to overcome. These were met by an innovative design based on Abit automation and a new file-based environment using Omneon server systems.

The new RTL II building in Gruen-wald, Germany, is a state-of-the-art broadcast center just outside Munich. The integration of the technology in a streamlined file-based workflow has simplified production of entire programming blocks and the transfer of media across the facility through the many processes from production to playout.

Through the coordinated effort of RTL II and CBC, the facility launched with its first broadcasts on 1 June 2004. CBC was responsible for project consultation, planning, systems integration and implementation. Through a contract with RTL II, CBC is now providing post-production and broadcast services with the support of 15 of its own technicians and engineers.

Among the challenges addressed in the design of the new broadcast center was the need to adapt programming for playout to Austria, Switzerland and Germany. Each country applies its own laws and advertising guidelines to broadcasting, and these regulations specify details down to the duration and positioning of spots and other content during programming.

While regulations in Austria are nearly the same as in Germany (12 minutes of commercials allowed within an hour, and commercial interruptions allowed every 20 minutes during movies, dramas, etc.), the regulations for Switzerland are somewhat different. A program such as a movie may not be interrupted by a commercial break for the first 90 minutes. As a result, commercial breaks are normally played out between programs rather than inserted within programs.

RTL II was looking for a solution to this problem that would be largely automated and would not require extensive operator intervention. Abit has developed a way to use its Present-It automation software in combination with the Omneon Spectrum media server system that solves this problem, thereby complying with the special advertising break formats without extensive pre-production.

Abit’s Present-It automation software controls Thomson Grass Valley M-2100SD digital master control switchers.

The broadcast center uses a file-based workflow. The video server system supports a wide range of formats, including Material eXchange Format (MXF), which allows media to be transferred smoothly from production to post-production and then to playout without changing the file format. The video server and storage infrastructure has been designed specifically for television production, playout and archive applications. It allows CBC staff working in different departments to access files simultaneously and to deliver content directly from storage to the target applications via both real-time connections and over data networks.

This combination of real-time video access and direct file system access facilitates acquisition, management, editing and playout from a single video server. “Edit-in-place” capability further simplifies the workflow by eliminating time-consuming media transfers. Once a spot is stored on the video server system, it can be pulled into the playlist by “drag and drop” right up to a few seconds before playout.

Abit extended the tools within the automation software for the management of regional opt-outs to meet the special needs of the RTL II requirement. The automation system records the main channel — the German feed — to the video server, so that automation has access to any main channel event to play out to the regional channels. These one-to-one time-shifted copies of the main German channel events are labeled “dependent events” in the regional channel playlist. Their content is dependent on the primary channel, and changes made in the primary playlist will affect the breakaway channels.

If dedicated material is inserted for playout on one of the regional channels, then playout of the timeshifted material is interrupted for the duration of the regional insert. To meet playout regulations for all three regions and create a sensible program stream, operators can delete some of the “dependent events” from the breakout channel's playlist. These files are skipped during playback of the timeshifted file from the video servers. Unique streams for every breakout channel may be composed in real time, when playing either the pre-recorded German feed or dedicated material, or while skipping material or even inserting a live feed.

At present, CBC has to use time-shifting because all movie events are played out direct from tape and, therefore, are not available on the server prior to transmission to the main channel feed. In the future, completely tapeless broadcasting will allow CBC to play out longer events on all three channels at different times.

The Omneon Spectrum media server system is configured to provide three input channels, six output channels and 120 hours of storage in 50Mb/s IMX format.

The automation system is capable of controlling enough broadcast hardware to handle up to 22 transmission channels. A completely redundant system with automatic failover, the automation system facilitates:

  • Tape and material ingest.
  • Archive transfer from RTL II's storage system.
  • File transfers to a second Omneon system for server redundancy.
  • Management of signal routes, including mixer and switcher.
  • Logo automation for playout of different corner logos.


The system also features a module to import XML playlists and an SQL interface to CBC's own database.

On-air graphics are generated using Pixel Power Clarity 500 GX graphics and effects workstations controlled using the automation system's newsroom automation interface.

The graphics and effects workstation is a full-featured character generator with an integrated still store, and it gives CBC personnel the graphics tools to create sophisticated, multi-layered graphics — including freehand brushes, image effects, matte creation, rotoscoping with VTR control for image capture and retouch. CG templates allow operators to place text and graphics precisely, while instant recall of font, color, edge and shadow, in a tight integration of paint and character generation, enhances operational speed and efficiency.

The automation system controls Thomson Grass Valley M-2100SD digital master control switchers. Both the automation system and master control switchers give RTL II the flexibility for future growth. The automation system is capable of controlling enough broadcast hardware to handle up to 22 transmission channels, and the master control system supports up to 16 on-air channels from one control panel, and more with the easy addition of another control panel.

The server system also accommodates expansion for playout of additional broadcast channels. As its operations continue to grow, RTL II can independently scale storage, channels, bandwidth and redundancy — all in smart, cost-effective increments — to meet its changing needs.

The highly integrated and automated system at the new RTL II facility offers ideal conditions for on-the-fly production of detailed, enhanced solutions, including innovative special advertising insertions during live TV broadcasts. The centralized master control and broadcasting department features an optimal work environment that allows efficient workflows. Engineering support is situated near the master control room, and the technical director and other key production staff are located in close proximity to improve communications in a more direct and cohesive workflow.

By using the MPEG IMX and MXF file formats, the installation eliminates issues typical of other formats. With full-time code and metadata support, the MXF format serves as a stable, platform-agnostic standard capable of supporting broadcast operations over the long term. The RTL II post-production infrastructure enables efficient use of file-based material, with transfer of RTL II-produced programs moving smoothly — via the MXF format — over the facility's computer network from program development all the way through to playout.

Mido Fayad is head of broadcast operations and engineering for CBC.