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Discovery's HD Odyssey

With five hi-def channels comes the need for a special facility 1/04/2008 07:00:00 PM Eastern

Underneath the Sterling, Va., video production facility operated by the non-fiction TV producer Discovery Communications is a marvel of modern technology worthy of a watch-and-learn documentary in its own right.

Following a technology conversion effort orchestrated by the media services company Ascent Media Group, 400 miles of cable now snake through the Sterling center. Their purpose: to shuttle hulking data files constituting a growing number of high-definition video productions. The digital files ricochet from ingest points to editing facilities to quality-control stations, ending up within servers that will ultimately feed the finished programs to any of five Discovery channels now televised in HD.

Discovery and its crews upgraded the operation for HD production over the past six months, finishing in late November. The effort happened more swiftly than Discovery first envisioned, reflecting fast-rising demand for HD content spurred by rapid consumer adoption of HD television sets, and by competition among satellite and cable providers for supremacy in the HD domain. Now, Discovery makes available five national channels in HD. Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, TLC and The Science Channel were upgraded for HD simulcast in the recent conversion. Discovery HD Theater, the company's original HDTV channel, launched in 2001.

In addition to the recent industry dynamics that spurred the HD enhancements, there's some industry pride at stake: Discovery was one of the first national TV programmers to provide an HD channel when it launched Discovery HD Theater, and the company wants to maintain an edge in the category.

“John Hendricks, our founder, has believed in HD for years,” said John Honeycutt, Discovery Communications executive VP and chief technology officer. “This is just the latest incarnation of his vision.”

NETWORK OF NETWORKS

Honeycutt describes the Discovery hi-def production infrastructure as a sort of network of networks, comprising multiple virtual local area networks, or VLANs, that sling files rapidly across the program origination facility. Speed is a big consideration: About a third of the content televised by Discovery is on the air within a week of its receipt. That puts a premium on efficiency and drives the need for a sort of digital plumbing infrastructure that won't bog down under the weight of its digital cargo. “Bandwidth is the single most important factor,” says Honeycutt. “The files are big; moving them rapidly in a predictable nature is a big challenge.”

To help, Honeycutt enlisted Ascent Media Group, a corporate cousin owned by Liberty Media Group's Discovery Holding Co. unit. Ascent engineers helped weave into the Discovery facility HD production and distribution equipment provided by a diverse range of suppliers. The server infrastructure comes from Omneon Video Networks. OmniBus Systems of Denver provides video-automation and content management gear. Video graphics creation relies on a Miranda Technologies platform powered in part by custom-graphics applications written by Video Design Software of Melville, N.Y. Cisco Systems switches sling video files across the network.

Honeycutt describes the HD upgrade of Discovery's origination facility a “massive effort” requiring contributions across the company's technical operations team, and demanding detailed planning. “It starts with sitting down and discussing the plan,” he says, “and then using the integrator's experience to guide us, or more importantly to keep us away from running into situations where you can't execute what you're trying to do.”

Adroit orchestration was especially important for Discovery, which converted the origination operations for four networks while all of them continued to churn out live feeds. Equally important was getting the company's technical staff up to speed. Honeycutt oversaw what he calls a “massive retraining effort” designed to foster expertise in some tricky HD production issues such as working with unfamiliar aspect ratios and handling sensitive audio formats. “Working with [Dolby] 5.1 audio is not for the faint of heart,” he points out. “You have a lot of opportunities to go wrong.”

STRAIGHT TO THE SOURCE

To assess how Discovery's doing in the emerging HD environment, Honeycutt is going straight to the source: TV viewers. He regularly monitors Internet forums including Satelliteguys.us and AVSforum.com, where HD aficionados aren't shy about weighing in with opinions.

Honeycutt made a point of introducing himself to the AVS Forum's moderator at last year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and when Discovery's new HD channels launched on DirecTV and via cable distributors beginning in October, Honeycutt urged viewers to weigh in with comments.

Reaching out to consumers reflects a reality of television's HD migration: It doesn't stop at the edge of the production facility. Producers must be mindful of a range of consumer factors, including brands of monitors and the home-premises equipment that feeds them. Mapping video and audio properly for a range of devices alone requires a deft touch.

Says Honeycutt, “The consumer set-top is the wild card here.”

 

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