Next month, NBC NewsChannel will begin installing BitCentral's IP-based satellite distribution system in a move to replace Pathfire's Digital Media Gateway by the end of August. All told, 270 video servers will be replaced across the country.
NBC NewsChannel President Bob Horner was one of the first people in the industry to make a commitment to IP-based satellite delivery, in 1999 when the news service signed on with VNI, which later became Pathfire. Since those early days, Pathfire has won deals with ABC, Warner syndication and CNN Newsource. That growth is part of the reason NBC NewsChannel has turned to BitCentral: Horner says Pathfire and NBC NewsChannel's needs were diverging.
"Pathfire decided to go a different direction and have all of their providers give them content that would be distributed to one box, their Media Gateway," says Horner. "And we're more comfortable in a relationship where we have more control of the rollout of our content. So we needed to find someone who was open to the way we wanted to keep doing things, and that meant BitCentral." BitCentral's technology is also used by CBS NewsPath.
BitCentral is also giving NBC NewsChannel complete control of the development of the interface and system. In the end, it will be a separate system that carries only NBC NewsChannel's content.
One of the aspects of the system that Horner finds attractive is the use of a standard Web browser, in this case Windows Explorer, by NBC NewsChannel clients. Content will be stored on a media-server cluster at NBC NewsChannel's operation in Charlotte, N.C. Users at the station can decide which content to ingest with the use of the desktop Web browser. The content is then sent out via satellite to the BitCentral servers at the stations.
The BitCentral media server is a 3RU video server that can store 48 hours of MPEG-2 video and eight days of MPEG-1 or browse-quality video; it also includes the satellite receiver. The server can be upgraded to store up to 650 hours of MPEG-2 video and four playout channels. NBC NewsChannel will use only one channel.
BitCentral CEO and Chairman Fred Fourcher says the biggest difference between BitCentral and Pathfire's approach is that BitCentral is based on more-open, Web-based technologies. "Because we're only supporting one device at the TV station, it is easier for us to update over satellite, and the user never really knows that the system has a new feature because they didn't have to install it. In terms of features," he adds, "we're pretty similar."
Horner says the use of a browser makes it easier to install the system because the IT folks don't have to adjust anything. "BitCentral also created a cleanly designed and well-laid-out interface that provides easy and quick access for our producers."
Another advantage with the Explorer browser, he adds, is that it's possible for NewsChannel subscribers to access low-resolution copies of the distributed content from any computer. "They'll be able to log on from the field and outside the station, look into the server and see what we're sending out. I think it's going to be a great production tool for personnel that are far from home so they can see what clips they can integrate into their package."
He expects that capability to be particularly helpful for events like next year's political conventions, when reporters will be able to preview a large amount of available video. By previewing the available content, they'll get a better sense of what they should be shooting in the field to make sure that it complements rather than duplicates previous efforts from different crews.
The transition to the new system will be completed quickly, Horner says. NBC NewsChannel clients are already familiar with the concept of IP-based delivery and working with servers, so he expects the learning curve to be a lot shorter than that for the original VNI installation.
The system will arrive in 20 stations next month and then be rolled out in waves to the other stations. Test content will be sent out to make sure the system works. When all the stations are switched over in August, the BitCentral system will be used full-time.
That approach is a bit of a gamble because other services that have signed on for IP-over-satellite changeovers, like CNN Newsource, have taken their time to ensure stations are at a proper comfort level. But Horner feels confident that such experience means the switch can be made much more quickly.
"We're the first organization to move to second-generation store-and-forward technology," he says, "so the learning curve is much shorter."
The deal with NBC NewsChannel marks the second time BitCentral has signed up a major broadcast network's property. CBS NewsPath signed on with the service in July 2001. At that time, CBS NewsPath signed on to use BitCentral's Mediapipe News, which integrates broadcast, IP and MPEG into a desktop application. More than 190 CBS NewsPath affiliates were converted to the system.