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Working IT - Broadcasting & Cable

Working IT

Broadcast plants are more computer-centric than ever
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LANs, WANs, SANs

More than eight years ago, Sinclair Broadcast Group set a goal: to be the largest TV-station group in the nation. At the time, information technology (IT) was just emerging as an important factor in day-to-day station operations. Sinclair, virtually alone, understood that IT would allow the station group to grow into a giant.

"You can't run 62 stations without a wide-area network [WAN]," says Del Parks, Sinclair vice president, engineering and operations. Today,

Sinclair's WAN is constantly morphing, connecting the stations' local-area networks (LANs) and giving stations the ability to move not only business data but video and audio content around quickly and easily. There are bigger broadcasters in terms of revenue, but nobody owns more stations than Sinclair.

"Some groups may have a WAN," says Parks, "but they might not use it to exchange video and audio."

Discussions of WANs, LANs and SANs (storage area networks) may leave you feeling that you've stumbled into an acronym swamp, but the concepts of networking and IT are beginning to define the future of broadcast.

At its core, IT for broadcast is about moving content and programming off videotape and into computer files. In fact, when tapeless news-acquisition formats from Sony and Panasonic take off, there's a good chance that the only time local-news programming won't be moved around as a file is when it's sent out over the transmitter and seen by the viewer.

But even that is likely to change. As the digital video recorder (or DVR, essentially a computer hard drive) gains acceptance, the allure of blasting content onto the DVR will prove more and more compelling.

That, however, is the future. Today, stations are laying the foundation for implementing those capabilities. Increasingly, content that is most important to a station is stored on a SAN. The LAN, which is already ubiquitous in nearly every station, is the computer network that ties that station's computers and servers together. And the WAN connects computers in different stations, permitting all to tap into the true benefits of the IT environment: sharing content. To ensure that enough bandwidth is available for sending the large files required to distribute audio and, particularly, video, Parks recommends that a WAN use at least two T1 lines.

The challenge for management is to make sure IT is done right. PBS Chief Technology Officer Andre Mendes says cutting costs is a very powerful incentive for moving to an IT-based environment but is also very dangerous. Installing a large number of IT systems will reduce spending, but it can also jeopardize on-air operations and the quality of the audio and video.

"Doing IT poorly is actually very inexpensive," says Mendes. "Doing IT well is very complex and requires the proper amount of both capital and operational investment."

As obvious as it may sound, crucial to the success of any IT system is what the industry has come to call following "best practices." Those aren't hard to understand: "The system has to work all the time and be secure," says Mendes.

That means management must pay close attention to administrative issues like security, firewalls and internal controls. Believe it or not, most IT damage occurs through internal hacking, not outside forces.

Certainly, almost every company has experienced some interruption of service: E-mail came to a screeching halt, or a computer virus spread quickly throughout a company's system, causing it to be taken offline to be cleaned.

The traditional view of IT is not a broadcast-centric approach. The IT personnel whom employees generally come in contact with most are the denizens of the help desk, not necessarily the IT professionals who, Mendes says, can easily match a video engineer's desire to keep systems running all the time. "The IT department," he says, "is just as concerned with uptime and reliability as the engineers."

Moving IT beyond the help desk does require a new skill set in staffers. Pinnacle Systems strategist Al Kovalick says companies must realize that staffers don't need to be experts in both IT and video but do have to know enough about both to make intelligent decisions.

"It's always tough when you have two guys making a decision, especially if one is an IT guy and the other is an audio/video guy and they don't know enough about each other's business," he says. "Sometimes only the hybrid person can make a hybrid decision."

Sinclair's approach, says Parks, is to have IT personnel involved in decision-making and every single meeting with broadcast-equipment vendors. "It's about getting both sides indoctrinated and savvy so there is no fear of the unknown," he says.

When it comes to expanding a skill set, traditional engineers tend to be a quicker study because they're usually early adopters of computer technology. Parks looks for broadcast engineers who have IT skills and an understanding not only of software and networking technologies but of complex issues like routing and switching in an IT environment.

The fact is, TV's move from tape to IT formats is evolving, without a big bang of recognition; most equipment in the broadcast environment already is computer-based. "That ship has sailed, and there is no going back," says Parks. "Now it's a matter of finding good IT people who can think out of the box, and teach them about broadcasting."

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