Showtime completes relocation to Dubai

The second major development phase of Showtime involves bringing virtually all of its post production and playout operations in house to Dubai Media City and closing the London bureau. Digital Studio takes an indepth look at phase II.

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By  Vijaya Cherian Published  March 3, 2005

I|~|showtimebig.jpg|~|Charlie Waterworth, chief engineer, Showtime.|~|In January, Showtime began broadcasting the first of a series of documentaries on Arabia’s land and ocean life. Last month, the pay TV operator announced that it would be the exclusive home to BBC Food, as part of an agreement with BBC to broadcast the latter’s programmes on its new Style UK channel. Showtime is launching these new programmes even as it is still undertaking the final phase of its relocation to Dubai Media City. “We are doubling the number of channels we broadcast from Dubai to 24,” says Charlie Waterworth, chief engineer, Showtime. “Relocating the operation to Dubai from London means that we have to handle our own post production needs here, like preparing the trailers and promos for our owned as well as operated channels,” he adds. With phase two, which is being project managed by Sony, Showtime will ensure that it moves to a completely tapeless environment. Phase two is based around a core architecture of two large Omneon servers and a Sony Petasite S series tape library. The Petasite library uses S-AIT tape drives, and is configured to offer Showtime an archive capacity equivalent to 30,000 hours. The PetaSite S series can continue to be scaled to offer three times this capacity in its maximum configuration. The two Omneon servers fulfil different roles. The first is called the production server, and supports ingest, quality control and post production. The second server is dedicated to transmission. Perhaps what makes this installation advanced is the fact that the whole system — ingest, edit support, playout automation and data tape archiving — is under the direct control of an automation system called Neptune from Pebble Beach Systems. “The usual practice is for broadcast automation specialists to bring in third party software to manage the archiving,” says Peter Hajittofi, managing director, Pebble Beach. “Our approach is to integrate the archive into our own structure. This makes the system more responsive and the architecture more logical and reliable, and it offers real cost benefits to the customer,” he adds. In the workflow, the content is first ingested into the production server and at this point, the Neptune automation system creates a browse resolution copy. This browse version is then made available to every user on the Showtime network. Producers use this to divide the programme into parts to meet the commercial break patterns, and to prepare the promos and trailers. Desktop editing is the first line for all these tasks, using Razorfish, an editing software from Pebble Beach. Where there is the need for further finishing, the Razorfish EDL (Edit Design List) is passed to one of six Apple Final Cut Pro seats, which are connected directly to the production server. The relevant metadata is also incorporated immediately and automatically into the automation system: precise timings of each programme part, for example, update the schedule. As the promos and trailers are completed, these become new items in their own right, and so are added to the database. Because they have been created within the server itself there is no ingest process, saving time and manual effort. ||**||II|~||~||~|Without an ingest activity, though, there is no parallel creation of a browse resolution copy, and so this has to be automatically created. “Video browsing only emerged as a viable technology less than ten years ago, but already we are seeing a dramatic change in the way that broadcasters want to use it,” says Hajittofi. “There are new formats like Windows Media alongside the original MPEG-1, and new requirements like accessing the browse server remotely over the internet. There are also big workflow changes, like the creation of content within the automation system and servers, so there is no ingest as we used to know it,” he continues. “Transcoding the browse copy from the high resolution version is a good answer, and for Showtime, we developed a very elegant solution in partnership with Telestream.” Telestream’s FlipFactory is a media transcoding software application designed for this very purpose. “We call it the universal format translator,” explains George Boath of Telestream. “It automates the process of exchanging media. Once content is submitted to FlipFactory, pre-defined tasks are automatically executed, which could include metadata extraction, indexing of video, transcoding to other formats, and delivery of media and metadata. Whatever the exchange requirements, FlipFactory executes digital file transfers in the required formats without any operator intervention,” he adds. Waterworth of Showtime explains what that means in the Showtime system. “The Telestream FlipFactory is looking for stuff which has not been conventionally ingested by Pebble Beach. When it finds something new — a new promo, say — then it automatically creates a Windows Media version for the browse server, immediately and invisibly to the operator. That way, the browse server is maintained in complete synchronisation with the online server, and our users can access all of that content from any of our workstations.” There is another area in which Waterworth hopes that FlipFactory will be increasingly used. At the moment, most of the material to be ingested arrives on tape, but Showtime is keen to eliminate even this stage. “We are very keen on services like SmartJog, which distribute ‘pre-ingested’ content as data,” he says. “We use FlipFactory to get it into the Omneon internal format, as well as create the browse copy. I would like us to be completely tapeless within five years — it is up to the distributors to get onto this.” Showtime broadcasts its English language content in the original language with subtitles. “We have contracts with a number of subtitling houses across the Middle East,” Waterworth continues. “The automatic creation of Windows Media versions of all the content we possess, either on ingest or by FlipFactory, means we can e-mail material to subtitlers, as well as deliver it on disk.” Not least because of the requirement for subtitling, Showtime aims to have all material ingested, quality checked and post produced at least three weeks in advance of transmission. Once work is complete, it is transferred from the production server to the Petasite archive, under the direct control of the Neptune automation system. From there, it is cached onto the transmission server ahead of its playout time. Playout is fully automatic and controlled by Neptune. This includes 23 units of new G3500 dedicated subtitle character generators from Screen Subtitling Systems. The systems will support the 21 channels of burnt-in Arabic subtitles due to launch in the first quarter of this year. As well as adding in-vision subtitles live on air, these add channel logos and branding content. “The Polistream system’s flexibility allows us to easily expand the system as our channel count grows and will allow us to switch to DVB subtitles in the future with very little change in hardware,” says Waterworth. “The addition of logo insertion on the G3500 unit gives us the added financial benefit of not having to purchase a separate logo insertion system; over 21 channel that amounts to a significant saving. The single subtitle and logo solution with the G3500 significantly simplifies the transmission chains reducing integration costs and improving reliability,” he adds. Two spare playout chains are included in the architecture to provide cover should any piece of hardware fail on air. “The Pebble Beach system handles redundancy switching well, automatically switching to a spare channel if there is a problem. This is virtually seamless — all the viewer would see would be a second or so of freeze frame,” says Waterworth. “Showtime is a busy, dynamic and developing environment. Our channel line-up is continually evolving and that drives the way we have chosen our technology. Flexibility is vital for us.” ||**||

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