Inside Al Jazeera

Al Jazeera has been expanding its broadcast facilities to accommodate the growing requirements of its Arabic channel and in preparation for the launch of its English channel. Digital Studio had the exclusive opportunity to look at the Qatari broadcaster’s new newsroom automation and broadcast project.

  • E-Mail
By  Vijaya Cherian Published  March 4, 2005

I|~|alaindemay.jpg|~|Alain Demay, business development & consulting director, Media & Server Solutions, Systems Group, Thomson. |~|When the first Gulf war began, CNN literally stormed into the Middle East with its war coverage. However, the second Gulf war brought in its wake an alternative opinion — an insider’s point of view. Qatari broadcaster, Al Jazeera, did not simply bring a different perspective on the war; it also compelled other regional broadcasters to wake up from their stupor and scout for hardcore news. Previously, however, Al Jazeera’s point of view was limited to the Arab populace. But now, the Arab network is planning a massive offensive with an English-language news channel, which is due to be launched early next year. The new station will be called Al Jazeera International and will operate out of four regional centres, including its headquarters in Qatar. Although the channel will be launched only next year, the Qatar network is already investing millions of dollars into putting in place the technology that will be required to take that channel to air. Even as this magazine goes to press, tenders have been released by the Qatari broadcaster inviting bids for the construction of a new building, and the supply and integration of new equipment for the English channel. In the meanwhile, a surge in the content on its Arabic channel has meant more expansion for Al Jazeera on that front and this has resulted in hiring more Arab journalists, putting in place more sophisticated equipment, more control rooms, studios and more departments. “We now have more programmes on the Arabic channel,” says Hussain Jaffer, member of the board of directors and manager of the engineering department of Al Jazeera channel. “This meant we had to hire more people, have more new departments and so on. We needed more space and this expansion is meant to help us cope with these new demands.” The supply, installation and systems integration for this project was undertaken by Thomson Broadcast & Media Solutions in conjunction with its local distributor and systems integrator, Tek Signals. Phase one of this project, which included significant additions to its newsroom and broadcast operations, has seen several rooms take shape at the channel’s headquarters in Qatar; namely, a room-in-room studio floor for “zero phone” noise level, linear edit suites, twelve non-linear edit suites, a master control room, a central apparatus room, translation and dubbing rooms, a quality control centre, viewing rooms, a graphics creation centre and an audio post production centre. ||**||II|~||~||~|The room-in-room studio is a special aspect of this project; it is a high acoustic performance floating floor that has been created as part of the complete Al Jazeera TV studio. “This is a room within a room but it has a floating structure,” says Tariq Raja, managing partner of Tek Signals. “We made this floor with support from IAC,” he adds. Tek Signals was responsible for the installation and integration of the systems for the broadcast part of this project. Constructed from pre-fabricated, 100m thick, modular acoustic panels, the floor gives a greater sound reduction than could be achieved with 5+ times the mass of traditional construction solutions such as brick and concrete. The construction process was rapid and clean, as the panel system also removed the need for wet trades on site. IAC claims that the floating floor does not just give guaranteed acoustic performance; it is also maintenance-free. This new studio also has non-reflective glass walls on either side. One side gives a view of Al Jazeera’s 100 plus journalists. On the other side of the studio floor is a control room, which has a large monitor bay. This was created to enable Al Jazeera to show dynamic, working backgrounds for the Arabic channel, when it goes on air from the new studio. This is currently a five-camera news studio, and uses LDK 300 cameras (switchable between 4:3 and 16:9) with Thomson’s IP-based control system. However, Al Jazeera has already placed an order for another five cameras to keep up with its Arabic programming requirements, says Raja. With regards to news automation, the network has retained Avid’s iNews because the channel’s journalists are familiar with this solution. However, each new application has been connected to iNews. This means that when a journalist makes a run down in iNews, it automatically appears in the rest of the applications as well. One primary application installed at the facility is the Grass Valley NewsBrowse Web-based editor. This will enable editing in low resolution. Thomson claims that this is an advanced editing application that primarily enables journalists to browse and edit in proxy. It also allows them to link EDLs (Edit decision Lists) to a news story in high resolution or send it to a Grass Valley Profile server to play direct to air. NewsBrowse uses a web interface to provide browsing and simple editing on the desktop. It promises to deliver frame accurate proxy versions of the material available. “This delivers simple, cuts-only editing facilities,” says Alain Demay, business development & consulting director, Media & Server Solutions, Systems Group, Thomson. “Plus, in the AE version, it has the ability to add a voiceover and comes with additional functionality like split audio. This allows journalists to finish their packages at their own workstations. The resulting EDLs are then conformed at full broadcast resolution, either in advance or live to air,” he adds. The installation at Al Jazeera also includes twelve Grass Valley NewsEdit nonlinear editing suites. NewsEdit is tailored to the requirements of the news environment, with a simple user interface for speed. The user interface, for example, places the tools in front of the user: there is no need to go through drop-down menus or risk windows covering other windows. Speed is further enhanced because News Edit allows the editor to confirm each insert as it happens, without having to review each step. The architecture of the Al Jazeera system is built around a Grass Valley Open storage area network (SAN) for core storage. Broadcast quality material is handled by three Grass Valley Profile servers, running MPEG-2. ||**||III|~||~||~|The Profile Open SAN has a capacity of 600 hours of content, and can support 18 simultaneous channels. Six of these channels are dedicated to ingest from VTRs or agency feeds. Four are used for playout, and the remainder support the NewsEdit stations and the graphics workshop. Completed graphics sequences are fed into the server and catalogued along with the source material. The browse resolution clips are stored separately for maximum availability. Both high and low resolution stores are mirrored to redundancy, and a dedicated application ensures that the databases are synchronised. The long term archive uses a StorageTek tape robot, capable of accommodating 15,000 hours of high resolution content. The same capacity of browse resolution material can be kept online, so journalists have direct access to the whole of the archive from their desktops, even if the broadcast quality material is not currently on the SAN. The archiving process was developed by Thomson’s Grass Valley Systems Group with the assistance of an application from specialist developer Blue Order. The whole system has been designed to be bi-lingual to give Al Jazeera the flexibility to operate it in either Arabic or English in future. The expanded facility has been equipped with completely new hardware. However, the solutions at the old and the new facility have been integrated. Thomson claims to have put together a complete turnkey solution for Al Jazeera. “We are responsible for the whole project including the design, planning, engineering, implementation and integration of the whole solution. We will also be providing Al Jazeera with services and support,” says Demay. On the broadcast side of the installation, the playout automation system has been provided by Harris. The installation includes a Grass Valley M2100 master control switcher, a Procart tape library for legacy material and a Pinnacle Deko character generator. Other solutions include Under Monitor Displays (UMDs) from TSL, an intercom system from Drake and Sync Pulse Generators (SPG) from Tektronix. “All of the waveform monitors in the station — the WFM 610, 1471 and the new WVR600 are from Tektronix,” says Raja. The whole station is ‘genlocked’ using Tektronix SPG.” The project included providing lighting and acoustics. Lighting was subcontracted to Strand Lighting. For the audio control room, Tek Signals went with audio mixers from Midas, called the Heritage 2000 and Tascam audio transports. “This is a huge mixer and fits in with their current demands,” explains Raja. “Also, all of the technical consoles were fabricated in our factory in Abu Dhabi and can be custom built to suit each customer’s need,” he adds. The new graphics creation centre included two Quantel Paintbox units and 2D and 3D stations. The whole project was completed within 60 days. “This was a massive project. So, at one time, we had about 35 people working at Al Jazeera to meet the completion date,” explains Raja. Although this was a significantly huge project, Jaffer says work is not over. This project was primarily meant to keep up with the Arabic channel’s expansion. “Work on the English channel is still in progress and we hope that by the beginning of next year, it will be on air. But we still have to have a building, studios, television cameras, equipment and all of this will take time. We are exploring the possibility of having High Definition solutions in place for this,” he adds. In the meantime, Al Jazeera seems to have sorted out its business plans for the English channel although it is still to seal distribution deals. The Qatar-based channel has already selected Kuala Lumpur as its Asian hub. “We will be establishing an Asia studio broadcasting three to four hours a day,” Nigel Parsons, managing director of the new channel, told a briefing on the sidelines of an Asian broadcasting conference late last year. “Our target audience is everyone who speaks English. We will have a slightly different agenda than the Arabic-speaking channel. There will be four major news centres including Doha, London, Washington in addition to Kuala Lumpur, which will have about 30 journalists and 20 technical people.” Al Jazeera is currently recruiting staff for its channel. In a statement released by the network, it said it was expecting to ‘create more than 300 jobs worldwide’. The Qatar-based TV station did not disclose its budget for the channel. However, it is currently mulling privatisation plans to become profitable within the next three to five years. ||**||

Add a Comment

Your display name This field is mandatory

Your e-mail address This field is mandatory (Your e-mail address won't be published)

Security code