Looking to digitize, worldwide

MSNBC gets ready for NAB as it undergoes a major overhaul in its operations
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This year, NAB comes just as MSNBC, along with its sister organizations NBC and CNBC, is in the throes of a major overhaul of its operations that includes converting its production to a server-based system.

"From a global perspective, we're looking for any kind of technology that will allow us to do more with less," says MSNBC Vice President of Technical Operations and Engineering Mel Weidner. "We want to digitize as many manual processes as we can."

MSNBC will serve as the pilot site for the new server-based system that will be used across the NBC networks.

"Working closely with [CNBC and NBC], we're searching for technology solutions that meet the individual requirements of each entity, while providing for the seamless exchange of material and resources across all three platforms," Weidner says.

MSNBC already uses video servers for short-form content and commercials under the control of a Drake automation system. The new server system will be used throughout the production process from acquisition to distribution to archives.

"We have already identified a large complement of vendors," adds Chris Lizza, MSNBC director of engineering. "Now we're finding which combination of vendors will offer us the total solution we're looking for." Although still in the early stages of the project, producers and journalists at MSNBC are looking forward to the improved workflow the system will allow.

"There is a lot of excitement about having the ability to move video onto the journalist's desktop," says Lizza.

While MSNBC already uses Drake automation for its commercial playback, it is looking at what all the major vendors are offering this year to integrate with its new system.

MSNBC also has been involved with a nonlinear editing evaluation project over the past eight months with most of the major vendors, including Sony, Vibrint and Avid. It expects to make a final decision before NAB in mid-March.

At NAB, MSNBC also will be looking at digital format standards and metadata formats that would help it and its sister organizations share material without translation.

Although SMPTE and several other standards bodies are working on developing a specification for metadata, there is no standard, yet. NBC, with input from the cable businesses, is carefully evaluating the emerging standards for potential solutions for NBC applications.

As far as content-management software, MSNBC isn't expecting to find a single package that can handle the entire operation. "We'll probably have to have a custom solution from an integrator," Lizza says. "We don't know anyone out there that offers a complete package."

As every year, Lizza is looking forward to NAB as a way to keep in touch with the vendors and to find the latest and greatest that manufacturers have to offer. For example, this year he's looking forward to seeing new products from Avid, given that it acquired Pluto last September. He's also interested in seeing production server and workstation solutions from the strategic alliance of Intergraph and SGI.

MSNBC also will be looking at what traditional computer companies are offering broadcasters in the way of desktop graphics systems and compression technology.

Lizza adds, "A lot of them still have a way to go in understanding the broadcast paradigm. We can never put up [on the screen]: 'The server is busy; try again.'"

Weidner says he expects to find some improvement and says it's just the "nature of technology.

"Newer technology is generally less reliable than 'tried and true' existing equipment," he maintains. "The computer companies are faced with the same thing. If the systems that we're looking at are not 100% reliable, we can't implement them."

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