New kid on the block

MBC is gradually migrating from a ‘hard’, conventional broadcast approach to a softer, more collaborative environment, and its new children’s channel is the beginning of that move. Digital Studio reports.

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By  Vijaya Cherian Published  January 31, 2005

I|~|mbcsoft.jpg|~|MBC takes the semi-soft approach in this control room|~|After having launched news and entertainment channels in the past, MBC has now entered the kids’ realm with the launch of MBC 3, its free-to-air, Arabic-language children’s channel. The launch of the new channel coincides with MBC’s plan to gradually phase out all of its legacy broadcast equipment and adopt a more IT-based, soft approach that will allow for greater flexibility and scalability. In fact, the broadcaster has already put this philosophy into practice in its newly designed mock transmission control room (TCR) that is now being used to play out MBC 3. “This year, we are moving towards a tapeless solution and an integrated workflow,” says Paul Farnsworth, group technical director, MBC. “Our aim is to come out of legacy, come out of island working and go into a more collaborative file transferring system as this will give us huge benefits, increase our productivity and keep down costs,” he adds. The new TCR takes a semi-soft approach and has been created as a prototype for the rest of the control rooms. Although just a third of the size of the control room that currently runs Al Arabiya, MBC’s news channel, the mock centre can easily support four channels and has the flexibility to operate more from it on the fly. “The idea behind such an approach is to ensure that any of our transmission control rooms can handle any channel at any given time. Today, this could be running MBC kids, MBC 1 and Al Arabiya. Tomorrow, I could go into my PC and say, I want to run channels A and B from this TCR and channels C and D from another TCR and it can be done within seconds,” explains Farnsworth. By comparison, Al Arabiya is currently played out from an old, conventional, hard transmission control room, which has a lot more equipment and requires more space. “I cannot go to another TCR and take over the controls of Al Arabiya entirely from anywhere else. I have to be physically present in this room to operate this,” explains Farnsworth. ||**||II|~|mbchard copy.jpg|~|Al Arabiya is played out of this hard room now|~|The flexibility to move channels around becomes important if the people in one TCR are handling too many live events. At such a time, spreading the work and dynamically allocating the channels to different control rooms enables teams to work more efficiently. At other times, when there is only one live event and the rest are pre-recorded, you can contract the whole process and allow all the channels to come out of a single room. This enables one or two people to operate the whole show. A soft environment gives this flexibility and the new solutions that MBC has deployed in its mock room subscribe to this philosophy. For instance, the TCR that controls MBC’s kids channel is equipped with a new Nvision master control router and switcher. “Due to its modular approach, the NV518 is very flexible. It allows you to input route cards in blocks of 16, and it has got eight spaces, which means you can have about 128 inputs altogether,” says Farnsworth. “Likewise, it has eight output slots, which allows you to have up to 128 outputs. Instead of a router output, you can also put four fully equipped MCR switches that are squeeze packed with features such as transitions, internal logo generators etc,” he adds. More importantly, the fact that there are four cards enables MBC to run four channels from this control room. At the same time, because the router is associated in the same frame, it also minimises wiring. Seeing that the solution is both space-saving and expandable, MBC has purchased yet another Nvision system to operate its next channel, details of which are currently under wraps. One other addition to the new TCR is a Miranda Kaleido K2 display system, which enables MBC to display all its feeds onto a single screen. If an extra channel is added, it merely means re-programming the display so that the extra input can be displayed on the monitor. “This is a very flexible system in that if tomorrow, we want to add more feeds, we can slot it into an existing card or add more cards,” says Farnsworth. “But we don’t require more metal frames to accommodate more monitors or any extra equipment. This means we save money on extra monitors or other plug-in equipment that we’d need if we used a conventional system. This is quick, easy, cost efficient, cuts installation time and is fully programmable,” he adds. One look at the studio designed for MBC 3 is also evidence that budget was a crucial issue and space had to be carved out to accommodate the new channel in the broadcaster’s current premises. ||**||III|~|mbc2.jpg|~|Paul Farnsworth, group technical director, MBC|~|The 35sq.m studio can only be used as a presentation studio, from where MBC can run links of a maximum of 15 minutes. “It’s just down and dirty functional. There’s not much space here so we can’t use it as a production studio,” says Amanda Hartford, deputy channel manager, MBC 3. “But this is the one time that we are potentially benefiting from the compactness of the space because it creates a kind of intimacy with our audience. For children, this is a massive benefit,” she defends. The studio is equipped with three Hitachi cameras — two on the ground and one, mounted on the ceiling with a robotic head. The latter enables MBC 3 to get wide shots of the studio and can be controlled remotely. Farnsworth recalls how MBC acquired them. “When we did Big Brother a year ago, we required five studio cameras — cameras that could look through a one way glass into the Big Brother house, CCD cameras mounted on robotics to track the participants, and infrared and lipstick cameras that could be hidden behind mirrors. We required a range of cameras and did a lot of analysis to see if any one supplier could provide us with all the solutions we wanted. “We found that only Hitachi had the potential to deliver a complete solution for all our camera requirements. Most others could give us only some of the cameras we required. But now that Big Brother has ceased, we had this extra equipment. So, when the kids’ channel came up, I took three of the cameras from there and deployed them in this studio,” he explains. ||**|||~||~||~|Adjacent to the presentation studio is a tiny control room, where a team of six sits and plans the production of the program-mes for the channel. This room includes among other quipment, Thomson’s single ME Kayak mixer and a Yamaha MT1000. “This Yamaha model is incredibly cost efficient and it has a lot of the functionality built into it that conventionally, you put on the outside for your processing. So, each channel has a limiter, dynamic effects, dynamic routers and is appropriate for a presentation studio. It allows you to do a lot of things that you’d normally not have a budget for,” explains Farnsworth. Likewise, the lighting for the studio was done from existing equipment within the company and includes a mix of cold and hot lights. As MBC has used solutions from Strand Lighting in the past, the broadcaster preferred to go with the same for this channel as well. “As this is a small studio, we have used more cold lights but we have also included some warm lighting to give a model effect,” explains Farnsworth. For this channel, MBC has also installed the VikinX SDI 32x32 fixed frame routers and used advanced TCP/IP-based programmable control panels CP44MEC with ET-CON Ethernet converter from Network Electronics. Used in conjunction with this, are Flashlink fibre optical transceivers for 10 full bandwidth SDI channel links from MBC’s top floor to its edit rooms on the ground floor. The whole children’s channel, however, is part of MBC’s bigger plan to break out into further channels, one of which is expected to be announced within the next couple of months. To make this front-end possible, however, Farnsworth and his team have been working closely to revamp the whole of MBC’s infrastructure so that it has in place equipment that will improve both its productivity as well as efficiency. ||**|||~||~||~|“The broadcast industry is going through a big seachange at the moment. Our workflow hasn’t really changed much since the introduction of VTRs in the 1950s. It is essentially the same sort of workflow that we have had for nearly 50 years but the use of IT-based technology is changing that radically,” says Farnsworth. “Previously, improvements in technology meant they became more reliable and cheaper but it was still one machine per operation. But now, we are living in a new era where projects exist in cyberspace. They don’t necessarily exist on tape anymore. You may never know physically, where your programme is at any given time and you don’t need to. If I am a programme maker, I am not really interested in where my tape is in the library. I just want to get on with my work and free production people to do what they do best, which is the creative, programme-making side of their job. “Today, instead of a promotion director sitting in a room, working on a project and putting it on tape, adding audio to it and putting it on a machine, the material will go into a centralised server system. This will then be available to everybody so that the sound man, the picture cutters and the special effects people can all work on it together. And when they are finished, it’s ready for transmission because it is all on the server,” adds Farnsworth. As part of MBC’s efforts to make this possible, it is swapping out its existing Seachange equipment and moving to a whole new generation of Seachange solutions that will support networking, file transfers and so on. “The new generation supports MSF, enables us to transfer files rather than just audio and video throughout the system; it enables us to work on Final Cut Pro and allows several users to work simultaneously on the same piece of material. It is on the server at all times, so when it is finished, it can be sent to automation and be ready for playout,” explains Farnsworth. The new Seachange system has a special algorithm, which allows the end user to keep just one copy of the data unlike its competitors, says Marcello Dellepiane, vice president EMEA of Seachange, who was in Dubai recently. “In most other vendor solutions, you have to have two servers which means you have to retain two copies of a data. But we have developed a unique RAID system,” he says. “A core feature of this is our RAID-square fault tolerance. In the same way that RAID-5 stripes data across disks in a node, our RAID-square innovation stripes a single copy of the media across all of the nodes in a cluster. Cluster-level parity packs up any piece of data in a MediaCluster. If a block of data is lost, it can be regenerated using the parity data. This technique is performed in real time, so if a node or link fails, media data is still available. Therefore RAID-square MediaCluster reduces your storage requirements by nearly half of what competitive systems require,” explains Dellepiane. Also, on the previous systems, each node of the server would have a decoder and an encoder, while in the new machines, the encoder and the decoder sit in a separate box outside of the server and they are connected by TCP/IP through CIFS (common internet file sever) networking. These encoders and decoders are no longer hardware based; they are software based. “This gives us a lot of flexibility because as new formats and other innovations come up, it is easier for us to make the changes in the software and offer upgrades to our clients,” he says. The new systems have several new functionalities including support for both standard and high definition, which means that MBC has the option of switching to HD broadcast in future, when its viewers begin to demand it. Several other plans are also in the offing. For one, MBC is designing a solution that will always give N+1 redundancy. This means that there will always be one spare control room and a spare channel. The team is also simultaneously evaluating potential media asset management solutions and disaster recovery options and looking at how it can generate more revenue. “As MBC is one of the leading stations, we will be one of the first customers to deploy new technology here. We are putting quite a lot of equipment in here to kick start this process and a good budget has gone into this,” says Farnsworth. “Often, I have to say, hold on. We must have a five-year plan in front of us to ensure that we do this properly. It is very difficult to see beyond a five-year period. Some of the projects that we are looking at will run on the back of this project such as disaster recovery,” he adds. Farnsworth wants to be prepared for a situation in which staff might not get access to its DMC building for some reason. “As a broadcaster, that can be pretty disastrous. Building another complete TV station elsewhere is not cost-effective. But what we can do is to ensure that all the material we use in the transmission can be file transferred to another storage and playout area in a totally different location. So the odds of both locations not being available are very low. One of the good things about migrating from tape and an audio/video-type based approach to a more IT-based environment is that it becomes more possible and affordable for material that is residing in storage online to be present at another location,” he says. MBC’s bottom line, however, is to be more profitable and it believes that its new approach will speed that process. As a news organisation, it already has a lot of historical material. Right now, all of this is on tape but plans are in place to put this onto a system, where it can be fed out to other broadcasters as well, for a fee. “As we transfer our assets from tape to an archival system, people can web browse our data electronically, and choose what they want for a small fee. Today, we can deliver it either on tape or satellite link to them. But in future, it will be a standard file transfer,” explains Farnsworth. Where MBC is headed is clear testimony of how broadcasters in the region are thinking today. Many are rethinking conventional approaches and looking to deploy equipment that will improve their productivity while also keeping down costs. One issue, however, that MBC will need to address sooner or later is how it can make its channels, which it is launching rather rapidly, more profitable.||**||

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