Technology

Pitch Blue Makes Progress

New system delivering HD syndicated fare to stations 7/26/2010 01:51:00 AM Eastern

Pitch Blue, the new server-based system
from Warner Bros., CBS and Ascent
Media aimed at automating the process
of delivering high-definition syndicated content,
is now fully deployed at local stations, and its
partners are starting to ramp up the delivery of
high-definition shows. At the same time, a competing
HD delivery system from DG FastChannel
has also made its way to market.

While many stations still need to buy transcoding
gear and upgrade their playout servers
to support HD playout, the Pitch Blue and DG
FastChannel rollouts go a long way toward eliminating
a labor-intensive, often manual workflow
where stations record linear satellite feeds onto
HD tape decks or servers because their existing
file-based syndicated delivery systems can’t
handle large HD files.

After announcing the Pitch Blue venture in
May 2009 as a replacement for DG FastChannel’s
Pathfi re server platform, which had been used
to deliver the bulk of standard-definition syndicated
content, Warner Bros., CBS and Ascent set about to create their own satellite-based HD/SD
delivery system. The system is designed to record
shows as MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 files at a data
rate of 15 megabits per
second, and use an Internet
connection to
confirm receipt and
fix data errors.

While the rollout
has had some technical
hurdles, 830 to
850 Pitch Blue “edge
servers” supporting
more than 1,350 stations
have now been
deployed, according
to Derek Powell, senior
VP and general
manager of GDMX,
Warner Bros.’ content
delivery arm.

“We’ve been able to
deploy all the boxes
we needed to the field,” Powell says. “We’ve had
some challenges around that at the stations, in
educating them how to use the box, how to manage
content on the box, in terms of managing the
files, as well as ways to integrate with automation
systems on the back end. We’ve been engaged
with that for the past 12 months.”

The Pitch Blue box records satellite feeds in
real time but stores them as files; a 30-minute
show takes 30 minutes to record. It can output
uncompressed SD or HD video (SD or HD-SDI)
and also deliver compressed files, including HD
MPEG-4 and SD MPEG-2, through a Gigabit
Ethernet output.

To replicate the syndicated workflow stations
enjoyed in the standard-definition world with the
old Pathfire boxes, the MPEG-4 HD files need to
be converted to MPEG-2 and transferred to playto-
air servers from Omneon, Harris and others,
including placing them in the unique file “wrappers” used by different vendors. Metadata about
the shows also needs to be extracted and passed
along to master-control automation software to
automatically populate the on-air schedule.

While a number of vendors including
Telestream, Masstech, Rhozet and NVerzion
provide the necessary transcoding gear, those
systems can cost up to $20,000. And that’s not
counting the cost of upgrading or replacing
a playout server to support high-definition, a
much bigger expense.

Matt Heffernan, GM of central broadcast operations
for Media General, says that only a couple
of Media General stations have HD playout
capability today, though more are upgrading. “I
think that would be the case for most groups,”
says Heffernan, who is also evaluating new transcoding
gear.

Some stations that do have HD playout capability
say they received the Pitch Blue box last
fall or over the winter and tested it to make sure
it was operational, but then didn’t receive any
content to the box this spring. “We got all the
equipment in and operational, and I expect later
this summer we’ll have content come in for it,”
says Berry Pinney, director of engineering and
operations for Scripps’ WEWS Cleveland.

Improved flow

Powell says that GDMX held off on delivering
shows through Pitch Blue as it tested the system’s
hardware and software to make sure everything
was working properly, and that the flow of HD
content is now picking up. Warner Bros. stopped
delivering shows through the Pathfi re box in late
May, and Ascent pulled off Pathfi re in late June.
CBS, which has been delivering syndicated shows
like Jeopardy as linear HD satellite feeds since
September 2007, is moving at a slower pace; it
just began delivering shows including CSI: Miami
to the Pitch Blue box last week.

While Warner Bros. and Ascent are still providing
standard-def syndicated shows as linear
satellite feeds (a process GDMX calls “digital linear”),
they have shifted the delivery of a number
of high-definition shows, and some standard-def
fare, to Pitch Blue. “With digital linear, most of it
is SD,” Powell explains. “Most of the HD content
is being delivered over Pitch Blue.”

For Warner Bros., the HD shows delivered
through Pitch Blue include Cold Case, The Ellen
DeGeneres Show, George Lopez, Two and a Half
Men
and Without a Trace. For Ascent, the HD shows include King of Queens, Laura McKenzie,
Seinfeld
and Stargate Atlantis.

Station group News-Press & Gazette is one of
the early adopters. According to Jim DeChant,
the company’s director of technical operations,
stations like KTVZ Bend, Ore., and KIFI Idaho
Falls, Idaho, installed the system a couple of
months ago and are now taking close to 14 hours
of syndicated content daily from Pitch Blue (both
stations use digital multicasting to support multiple
affiliations). “We’re just now shutting off all
of the analog and digital feeds from the syndicators,”
DeChant says.

KTVZ, for example, is using Pitch Blue to receive
Warner Bros. shows like Ellen. The station
is using a new transcoding system from Elemental
Technologies, a Portland, Ore.-based company
that specializes in video processing using
graphical processing units (GPUs), to prepare the
content in faster-than-real time.

DeChant says the Elemental product is much
faster than the Rhozet system KTVZ was previously
using. “When the thing is up and running
at full power, you can run a half-hour show
through it in five minutes,” he says.

While KIFI has a new IP-based HD master control
system from Digital Broadcast and airs Ellen in
HD, KTVZ’s Omneon server is still only capable
of SD operation. But to deliver the best picture
quality, the station is taking the HD MPEG-4 file
of Ellen from Pitch Blue and using the Elemental
Server product to convert it to MPEG-2 SD for
playout on the Omneon unit. KTVZ is still refining the final interface between the Elemental
transcoder and its Sundance automation software,
according to DeChant, but expects to finally drop
the linear feed of Ellen this week.

News-Press & Gazette’s stations have also
received and installed the new HD DMG 1500
server from DG FastChannel, though DeChant
says most of the programming he used to receive
through Pathfi re has now shifted to Pitch Blue.
The new DG FastChannel system delivers pro-
Stations are
now using Pitch
Blue to receive
shows like Ellen.
grams as MPEG-2 files through a mix of satellite
and Internet transmission.

“What they’re doing in our case is multicast
delivery,” DeChant says. “It’s an IP stream into
the box, and it’s a store-and-forward system with
packetized files.”

DG FastChannel has rolled out more than 500
units of its new HD delivery platform, says DG
FastChannel President and COO Neil Nguyen.
It is delivering several syndicated shows in HD,
including Dr. Oz from Sony Pictures Television.

WEWS has had the new DG Pathfire 1500
system online since early May, says Mike Sulzman,
the station’s assistant chief engineer. The
station began receiving Dr. Oz as HD files by late
May. Before that, WEWS was recording linear
HD feeds of the show onto its Grass Valley K2
playout servers. “We’ve been doing nothing but
HD for a long time,” he says.

WEWS is using Telestream’s FlipFactory transcoding
tool to rewrap the DG files into the GFX
format used by K2. The station initially had some
issues flipping material from the DG device into
the Grass Valley servers, Sulzman says, but these
have since been corrected.

“It was working, but an hour show would
take an hour and a half to flip over until recently,”
he says. “Now, it’s about 45 minutes to do an
hour’s program, and that’s much better.”

Clarification:

According to updated numbers from DG FastChannel, there have been a total of 720-750 HD DMG units deployed to date, serving 1340 stations.

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