Systems Integrators Answer Industry's Needs


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Court TV's Master Control Room featuring Barco based virtual monitor wall. Facility designed by A. F. Associates.
2003 Andy Washnik
For the systems integration specialists at National TeleConsultants (NTC) out of Burbank, CA (http://www.ntc.com/index.html), the greatest change they have experienced is reflected by the kind of contacts with whom they discuss projects with when a customer needs their services. "In years past we used to talk with engineers or even the creative people at a facility," reflects one of NTC's Vice Presidents, Bob Slutske. "Today that is turned on its head and the first person we run into is the finance guy who will be carefully watching every stroke of the pen."

On the technology side, Slutske and his fellow Vice President, Ed Hobson, have been struck by the necessity of taking IT, or Information Technology, into consideration at almost every level. "Nowadays we can't just meet with the person in charge of broadcasting," Hobson says. "There are always two parallel discussions going on, with the management of information using IT providing an equally important structure for any systems installation."

This includes more than just networking computers. Today, IT involves the way telephones, data bases and Internet communication can all talk with each other. As Hobson explains, "We are moving away from transferring video and audio signals toward a more file-based system and we increasingly find that the mindset of the media Information Technology managers is different from those involved with production."

Just as we can transfer files from one hard drive to another within a computer, broadcasters can now send files between facilities sometimes faster than real time. But as long as the file arrives early enough, it does not have to rely on a continuous stream of information as required by a video transmission. "That means we have to be familiar with the kind of technologies IT people use," Slutske explains. "Often, this is something that their broadcast colleagues are just getting used to, and the design of systems that can used packetized IT communication to support the continuous streaming of live video can be our major challenge. In fact, often the program files are only converted back to video at the very end of the chain."

Often this revolves around well worn buzz word in systems integration: asset management. "The ability to organize large stores of information, and then re-purpose that content for other applications, is becoming crucial for broadcasters to understand," Slutske says. "We used to design a production facility with a set number of router I/O crosspoints, but today we have to think in terms of networking multiple workstations together with each node having access to multiple signals. So we are at a time when these two technologies, video transmission and file transfers, are crossing into each other and systems integrators need to help facility managers understand how to benefit from both."

One of the greatest concerns that the clients of Beck Associates bring to the company's headquarters on the north edge of Austin, TX (www.becktv.com) is overseeing their transition into digital broadcasting. "Stations all over the company are being forced to adopt digital program transmission, but some of those serving smaller markets are finding it hard to develop a revenue stream after making the investment," says the company's President, Fred Beck. "And just to make it more complicated they still find it necessary to maintain significant analog components since much of the terrestrial transmissions, inter-city relays, and most of the downloads from satellites still rely upon analog I/O and even in the era of digital production these have to be accommodated."

One reality of digital technology that Beck Associates has to deal with is that in case of a system failure the digital signal will be lost entirely. "In an analog plant, we used to be able to look at snow or a degraded image to help tune the signal in," Fred Beck explains, "but losing a digital signal results in lock-up. And a lot of legacy equipment still relies on an analog signal path. So we are finding that even in new digital plants we still need to allow for a layer of analog routers just for monitoring. Even a big city installation like the one we recently completed at a FOX O & O in Boston may have a 256 X 256 digital router, but they still need 64 X 64 crosspoint router just for the analog component."

The biggest trend that has resulted from trying to control the costs of digital conversion is the migration toward centralcasting, enabling regional stations to consolidate their hardware investment into one facility. "The goal is getting the most channels for the least money," Beck tells us. "We are currently working on a job in New York for WNYW, WWOR and WUTV where all three stations will be sharing master control operations out of a central facility in Seacaucus, New York. When you are managing three video streams, these are also three revenue streams, so the danger of catastrophic failure is tripled. The solution has been to rely upon a very high degree of system redundancy." This new central facility, scheduled to go on the air by July 1st, will have duplicate master control air chains for each channel so it would take more than two failure points to interrupt their broadcasting. There are also multiples of commercial and program servers, redundant satellite receivers, and constantly mirrored play-to-air streams. Each stream is even controlled by two different automation systems, just in case one goes down.

"What if you had the equivalent of a Y2K bug?" Beck asks. "It would affect all of the common technologies in the same way. So even with the up front cost savings that comes with today's digital equipment, the trend in broadcasting is to protect the integrity of the facility's operation and the continuity of its video stream against all eventualities."

The broadcast and cable industry has gone through several cycles of technological revolutions during its short history, each bringing new opportunities accompanied by new challenges. But as its complexities increase, systems integrators are helping decision makers navigate the conflicting currents to keep their fiscal and production vessels afloat.