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Embracing IT

Discovery's new facility exemplifies the industry's move to information technology 7/29/2005 08:00:00 PM Eastern

In the industry's latest example of how information technology (IT) is
radically improving workflow, this week Discovery Communications takes the
wraps off a 53,000-square-foot facility in Sterling, Va. The spanking-new
Discovery Television and Technology Center signals the end of one era and the
dawning of a new one. Since the launch of the first Discovery Network 20 years
ago, the company has relied on third-party facilities to handle on-air playback
of its 17 networks. But by the end of August, Discovery will handle the
playback: Instead of being stored on videotapes, each network's content will
be stored and archived as data files that contain audio, video and other
information.

Relying on outsiders to handle on-air playback meant that every change
brought on a new negotiation for transmission and production services. “Now
we'll be able to repurpose and reorganize our staff to best react to our
business,” says John Honeycutt, senior VP, Discovery Television Operations
Group.

With 80 new employees on board, content is now ingested as files, giving
Discovery greater flexibility when it comes to producing and distributing
content. The new facility, built by systems integrator Ascent Media, is only
the first step. Discovery and Ascent are also working on new playout centers in
London and Singapore. The three will be file-based and, with the help of fiber
connections, will quickly send content back and forth with the use of File
Transfer Protocol (FTP).

“Since April, we've encoded 1,200 program master tapes to files that
are viewable by our networks all around the globe,” says Honeycutt. “If
they want to see the latest episode, they can have digital files pushed to
them, as opposed to waiting for changes on tape to arrive via airplane.”

More companies going high-tech

Whether they're using PC-based editing systems to create content,
utilizing video servers to store commercials and programs for playout, or even
employing tapeless formats, more facilities are moving to IT-based workflows.
“A lot of our infrastructure is now IT,” says Ardell Hill, Media General
senior VP, broadcast operations. “Just three years ago, we were scratching
our heads over how to do it, and now we move content around as much as a data
file as we do as audio and video.”

Discovery's new home features a state-of-the-art infrastructure. Two
Cisco data switches will move files throughout the facility, and 14 virtual
local area networks will give each network dedicated storage and networking so
that each has greater control of its own content. An OmniBus automation system
will handle on-air playout and commercial insertion, pulling content from
Omneon video servers, while a StorageTek archive system and Front Porch
Digital's digital archive-management system can pull up older material via
keyword searches.

“Content arrives one of two ways: either as a file or on tape,” says
Honeycutt. “Everything is then placed onto the Omneon server, and, at the
same time, a copy is sent to the archive.” The advantage, he says, is the
ability to simply flush a file off the Omneon server without having to first
encode it and send it to the archive.

Relying on servers

It is because of such capability that servers like those from Omneon are
increasingly important to broadcast facilities—particularly those with
hundreds of program hours passing through the system each week. “One benefit
is the ability to move content more easily from one workstation to the next for
editing,” says Geoff Stedman, Omneon VP, worldwide marketing, “and to
introduce transfer processes that are faster than real time.”

IT begins, however, with being able to easily turn video into data
files. Omneon unveil servers compatible with the new HDV format next month at
the International Broadcasting Convention in Amsterdam. Video servers like
those from Omneon, Avid and Leitch have replaced about half the videotape
recorders in the market.

Yet despite the servers' technological advantages, some users miss the
ability to move content around in a physical form, such as on a tape or DVD. If
IT is going to spread beyond the station facility and into the field, stations
need a simple way to acquire content in file form, not to simply dub over a
tape. That's where products like Sony's XDCAM and Panasonic's P2 formats
are helping the industry move further toward IT—and how Grass Valley's deal
with Iomega will move it ahead even more.

The two companies recently signed a deal that will allow users of Grass
Valley's Turbo digital disk recorder to move content to and from the 35-GB
REV disk cartridge, a portable storage disk from Iomega. For $1,000, Turbo iDDR
users can add a REV drive to the recorder, allowing content to be copied to and
from removable REV cartridges. The cartridges cost $400 and can hold 35 GB of
data—enough for 45 minutes of high-definition material at 75 megabits per
second (Mbps) or two hours of standard-definition material at 25 Mbps.

“It weighs about the same as a floppy disk, but its write speeds can
be up to 200 Mbps,” says Mike Cronk, Grass Valley VP/general manager, servers
and digital news production. “Someone can take an entire program, put it on
the drive and dump it off somewhere else much quicker than with a DVD
burner.”

Grass Valley's use of the REV drive aligns the company with
others—such as Panasonic, Ikegami and Sony—that have products designed to
acquire video in file format. Grass Valley won't comment on plans to create a
REV-based camcorder or camera, but such an offering would add another serious
competitor to the battle between XDCAM, which records on Blu-ray optical disks,
and P2, which records on solid-state Flash memory.

There are other hurdles en route to successful IT integration, such as
incompatibility between one vendor's file format and another's. “A lot of
the solutions traditional broadcast suppliers are trying to move are still
based on a closed-loop architecture,” says Steve Canepa, IBM VP, media and
entertainment industry. “For those vendors, the challenge is using open
standards.”

Nine different versions

And sometimes standards are, unfortunately, anything but standard.
Introduced two years ago, Material Exchange Format (MXF) is a transport
standard that makes it possible to send a content file between different
vendors. The only problem is that there are nine different versions of it.
“Think of MXF as the envelope to send the letter,” says Hugo Gaggioni, Sony
Broadcast chief technology officer. “But it doesn't mean anything if the
letter's in Chinese and you can't read Chinese.”

Sony's version of MXF is called OP1a and is designed to help send
files recorded using Sony devices over iLink high-speed transfer connections.
So far, two-dozen vendors have signed on, meaning that products from such
vendors as Leitch, Pinnacle and Avid are compatible.

It's certainly not the first time a technological advance has raised
problems. Switching from analog to digital tape a few decades ago was anything
but seamless, and a cultural rift between IT and video professionals is
apparent as well. But Discovery, for one, seems to have it sorted out.

“We merged those two groups last November,” says Diane Duggan,
Discovery executive VP, technology and media services. “Hardware used to put
a wall up between those two groups, but now everyone works together. And the
end result has been phenomenal.”

 

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