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C-SPAN takes digital two-step

C-SPAN is ready to hit the switch on the first part of its conversion to digital technology. The cable net has to finish tests of a new Grass Valley Group Media Area Network (MAN) system and put the final touches on installation of a number of Panasonic DVCPRO tape decks before all systems are go.

"Two years ago, we talked about what was important going forward with our board of directors," says Rob Kennedy,

C-SPAN executive vice president and co-chief operating officer. "Their message was, it was important to go digital for two reasons: to improve the quality right away, and to develop a platform that would serve us in terms of future applications."

The project began in summer of 2000 with planning and is expected to be completed within the next 18 months. Total budget for the system is $10 million, but Kennedy is hopeful that the declining cost of digital equipment relative to capabilities will allow the network to come in below that figure.

"The basic idea is that content will be captured digitally and stay digital throughout its life at C-SPAN," he says. "In fact, as part of this, we're going into our tape archives and digitizing everything that we've saved."

The backbone of the new facility will be two GVG MAN network systems, each offering 900 to 1,000 hours of server-based storage. Video will be acquired in the DVCPRO format, which is a big jump from the Panasonic MII format that has been used.

"The increased tape length of DVCPRO is a big deal because our crews will record an entire event," says Vice President of Technology Roxane Kerr, "so we can get up to three hours without a tape change. And the decks in the field are fairly small, so that weighed heavily on the decision as well."

Kerr says roughly 35 decks for the field and 20 for in-house playback are to be purchased. They will complement the net's 30 Hitachi cameras, including SK-777 cameras for field use and SK-2070 for production and in-house use.

Also new in the field will be four-input switchers from London-based Brickhouse. "Unfortunately, none of the big vendors make a small digital switcher," Kerr says, "and the bigger ones are way more than anything we needed. We found this small switcher at NAB for about $5,000."

Once the material is acquired digitally, it will be brought into the new technical facility and then into the ingest MAN system, which has 22 inputs and 14 outputs. The other server, which will be used primarily for output, has four inputs and 26 outputs.

"The move to digital is going to improve our overall look dramatically because there are no more tape breakups or anything like that," adds Kennedy. "The other thing it does is establish our content as a central asset that all our groups can use. So the first step is easy-to-find, high-quality content."

There's another benefit of digital: It future-proofs C-SPAN for potential interactive applications, something the MSO executives who serve on the board of directors hinted could be a big part of C-SPAN's future.

"We saw early on that the driver for interactive television was going to be commerce, and we don't really have a commerce application," Kennedy explains. "So we saw, down the road, the possibility to use it for schedule information or associated information with the content, like text of a bill or voting records. As we've gone through this process, ITV has been slow to build, but, when it comes back, we'll be ready for it."

For long-term storage, Kerr says, C-SPAN is looking to sign a deal with Storagetek for a robotic system that can hold 6,000 tapes. The network will prepare 2,000 slots for playback and activate additional tape slots as needed.

Kennedy likes the idea of a robotic system with much lower storage costs even than analog tape's $55 for 90 minutes. "We think, with the trend on the tape storage, it will cost less than $7 an hour to store. So it's very efficient," he says. "When we looked at the volume that we were going to store and the cost declining, we thought that was the way to go."

It's the MAN system, however, that offers the biggest changes. "It will be a central repository of content that is accessible throughout the organization," Kennedy explains. "Anyone who has worked in an environment with analog tapes has dealt with the frustration of losing and missing tapes. And if you need something quickly, it can be hard to find."

The first MAN is in the testing phase but will be on air within a couple of weeks, Kerr says. The second MAN will be up once the technical operations center (which will take advantage of an additional 20,000 square feet of space on the ground floor) is completed. Kerr hopes that will be sometime in March.

Another C-SPAN project is to build a database for use in the MAN. "We can attach data to the tape that describes the event, who spoke, and what happened," says Kennedy. "And that information is consistent across the organization and can even be published to the Web."

Thomas Technologies, an integrator located outside of Philadelphia, is working on the homegrown database system. According to Kennedy, a system along the lines of that offered by Virage will be used to index and code video with metadata tags as it passes through the system.

"That project is on a separate track, and we talk a lot to make sure everything will work together," he adds. "It's a question of design, tests and then another redesign. The timetable is to have it finished by the end of 2002."