ART takes the IT approach to transmission

When ART decided to migrate its operations from Rome to Jordan, Radi Alkhas, chief executive of Jordan Media City decided to take a bold new approach to transmission. Digital Studio reports.

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By  Vijaya Cherian Published  August 30, 2005

I|~|cases.jpg|~|ART’s new facility currently handles 16 playout channels but this will be expanded to 28 soon.|~|Arab Radio & Television (ART) has almost completed its migration from Rome to Jordan Media City. The technical installation is ready; the pay-TV operator now has to decide when it wants to cease operations in Rome. ART started with a four-channels service, transmitted from Rome. The broadcaster would have liked to operate from the Middle East as its audience was in the region but at that time, no Arab nation would permit transmission by private broadcasters. This was until one man raised the issue with the government of Jordan in 1993. Radi Alkhas was the director-general of Jordanian Radio and Television, when he was recruited by Sheikh Saleh Kamel, the owner of both ART and Jordan Media City. Alkhas recalls the struggle back in the early 90s. “Even with their enthusiasm, it took until 2001 to get an agreement to create JMC as a freeport zone, and with it, a licence for private broadcasting, the first truly private broadcaster in the Middle East,” he says. With the principle established, he set about planning to move ART’s operations from Rome to Amman. ART’s new facility takes an IT-based approach to broadcast. “I did not want to recruit staff who were experienced in operating television the old way,” says Radi. “Instead, I recruited new IT graduates to run the operation.” The reason for the decision was simple: the technical plan was to design a highly automated playout operation using servers and data archives. The ART playout service in Rome uses Sony automation controlling Sony Flexicarts. For the Amman centre, Radi and his JMC team evaluated all the leading suppliers. “We looked at many companies and settled on Leitch NEXIO servers with a Sony PetaSite archive, controlled by automation from Pebble Beach Systems. We also appointed Leitch as the systems integrator as they provided a big chunk of the hardware,” Radi adds. The new centre currently handles only 16 playout channels but this will shortly increase to 28 with the addition of external services to Europe. The playout network currently supports 68 backhaul channels, some of which have local commercial insertion. The teleport onsite has uplinks to NileSat, ArabSat and for the C-band DTH channels. At the heart of the ART system is a server network from Leitch. “The original design was for 600 hours of server storage, which almost immediately was extended to 600 hours for ingest and another 600 hours for playout,” Radi says. “Now we are extending the capacity again, to 1200 hours for each.” ||**||II|~||~||~|Those capacities are based on JMC’s standard of 15Mb/s compression. Ingest comes in two forms. ART owns a huge library of programmes, which currently exists in a tape library in Rome. Based on looking ahead through the schedules, these tapes are being boxed up and shipped to JMC, whose free zone status simplifies the paperwork. There, a dedicated team with three Flexicarts and a couple of standalone VTRs, ingests the content into the Leitch servers and the Pebble Beach database at the rate of 150 hours a day on average. Even so, the team has only gotten 30% of the way through the movie collection. The second path is to record live programming. Sport is an important part of ART’s programming with, for example, exclusive Middle East rights to top flight soccer games from England, Italy and Germany (with the 2006 World Cup a highlight next year). The broadcast rights to this sport include repeating the games over the next two years, so this is another major source of content to be added. Because there will be times when several channels are broadcasting live sports events with unpredictable timings, the playout centre includes four rooms with Leitch Opus master control switchers. These allow operators to take manual control of the automation to get in and out of the live programmes. An important part of the Neptune multi-channel automation system from Pebble Beach Systems is managing the flow of content between the ingest and playout servers and the Sony PetaSite data tape archive. The PetaSite at JMC is thought to be the biggest in the Middle East and one of the largest in media applications anywhere in the world: it is an eight-bay system, with eight drives and a capacity for 180,000 hours on SAIT-1500 tapes. ART is retaining its existing Encoda system for planning and scheduling, and this communicates automatically and transparently with the Pebble Beach automation. The Encoda scheduler is the last part of the station to be moved, and a dedicated 2Mb/s IP circuit is used to pass information back and forth. During this transition phase, an essential service provided by the automation is that it proves a dynamic link from its database to the scheduling system, so that planners are immediately notified if they schedule content, which is still on the shelf in Rome and not in the archive in Amman. The Pebble Beach Neptune also provides low-resolution MPEG-1 access to all the content, for browsing and for proxy editing, using IPV SpectreView technology. This links to the Leitch NewsFlash edit workstations, which are used for fast cutting of sports highlights packages. Other editing requirements, such as the creation of promos, are served by Leitch VelocityQ non-linear editors, again directly linked into the NEXIO server network. ||**||III|~||~||~|The Pebble Beach automation and Leitch NEXIO servers work closely together to provide security without wholesale duplication. Neptune’s N+n server backup system tracks all the outputs and, should a failure be detected, automatically switches to a spare server channel, providing a cost-effective backup without the need to mirror all the playout channels. The whole playout system is owned by JMC and rented to ART as its customer. Within the ART operation, there are a number of options, with some channels completely under the automation control and others treated as pass-through channels, even though they are generated in the same building. 7 Stars (a channel that focuses on Arab affairs in Europe), for example, rents a small room in the JMC containing nothing but a single NEXIO server. This is the entire channel. It is delivered as an SDI feed to the master control switcher. Ingest and commercials insertions are provided as a facility by JMC under contract. ART’s move from Italy to Jordan has a number of advantages. For one, Jordan has a well-educated IT workforce. With the centre designed on IT principles and driven by automated systems, JMC had little difficulty recruiting the team to build and run the centre. Secondly, the cost base in Jordan is significantly lower than in Europe. This allows for a rapid expansion of channels, giving audiences in the Middle East greater choice. New channels are continually coming to ART; an Arab comedy channel is likely to be the next start-up. The project was built quickly; the first contracts with Leitch and Pebble Beach were signed less than a year ago. “It is a big system, and there were hiccups along the way, as you would expect with any IT system,” says Alkhas. “Moving all the library from video formats to data, and at the same time maintaining transmission from Rome and from Jordan, was a big challenge. With the move now virtually complete, we are extremely confident of the systems,” he continues. “Leitch, as a supplier of much of the hardware, took system responsibility and delivered what they promised. Within the contract we specified some specific choices, such as the Pebble Beach automation. We knew they had experience working in the Middle East and in building systems with Sony PetaSite archives. Pebble Beach is a relatively small company, but working with a small company means we can be face to face with the key people — you can get lost in a big company,” says Alkhas. The completion of the ART move does not mean the end of developments at JMC. Next up is a plan to more than double the size of the main building. When the extension is completed next year, it will provide purpose-built space for the playout business and the facilities around it, including a dedicated sports centre. And with capacity still available at its on-site teleport, JMC will be talking to all the satellite operators in the area. ||**||

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