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CBS News Crosses Digital Divide

CBS News scooped its competition this week, becoming the first network news organization to employ tapeless technology across the entire operation.

While other network news outfits have taken steps toward a digital workflow, CBS is the first to widely embrace tapeless recording. Eighty Sony XDCAM cameras and decks deployed this week are the first step in a $16 million overhaul that will have the news division acquiring, editing and playing out news content without videotape by the end of 2006.

CBS is also shifting its editing and playback operations to a server-based infrastructure. The one-two punch will improve workflow, say CBS execs, and enhance the viewer experience as well.

“This allows us to turn around material a lot more quickly and create a better product,” says Frank Governale, CBS News VP of operations.

CBS crews are getting their hands on the XDCAMs, which record video on Blu-ray DVD disks. In moving away from tapes, the editors no longer need to fast forward and rewind through 90 minutes of material to find a certain clip. Instead, they can jump around the disk with the push of a button, the way a viewer of a DVD can jump from one scene to the next.

On the Air More Quickly

It’s the first step in a project that will give editors and reporters the ability to edit clips from desktop computers. Once the story and promo clips are edited, they’ll be placed onto video servers, where technical directors and producers can easily reorder stories for play to air. As a result, stories will be on the air faster, and visitors can expect a wider variety of content, as the site has access to all video on the server.

“XDCAM makes us more file-based,” says Governale. “Now we’ll be able to drag-and-drop files into the Avid nonlinear editing systems.”

He adds that the upgrade also changes employees’ job descriptions. Reporters, for example, can edit their own packages and even design graphics. “This has the potential of changing the traditional roles in the newsroom a lot,” he says. “Producers can have a more active role in the on-air product. By tying the Avid video server into our newsroom system, the lineup can be changed instantly.”

CBS recently purchased more than $10 million worth of Avid editing and server products, too, including a Unity server with 64 Terabytes of storage, and 40 NewsCutter Adrenaline systems for the newsroom. In addition, more than 40 NewsCutter XP laptop editing systems will be deployed around the world.

CBS News can take cues from its London bureau, which made the move last spring. Dave Fairweather, director of European operations, says it took about a month to get staffers on board. “Getting consensus from a large group of editors and reporters can be difficult because they’re very determined,” he says. “We actually had to throw them a workflow that we already created; otherwise we would have 35 ways of doing things.”

Helping the technophobes overcome their fears took some effort as well, but Fairweather says the comfort level has grown. “At first they were complaining that they wouldn’t be able to stand in the control room and take notes while watching the incoming feeds,” he says. “But two weeks after getting the system up and running there was a crash, and all of a sudden they couldn’t live without the new system.”

Fairweather’s main gripe is that the new format hasn’t eliminated clutter as much as he’d hoped. “In the past we would have physical clutter of videotapes,” he says. “But now we have electronic clutter [on the server], as staffers still don’t want to throw anything away.”

CBS News’ stateside shift occurs in three stages. The first will last about six months and involves putting the Avid Unity video server online, transitioning on-air playing to the Avid AirSpeed server, and moving to nonlinear editing. After that, the ingest area, which pulls in news feeds from around the world, will move to tapeless operations. Up to 20 channels of incoming feeds will automatically be ingested onto the server, giving producers, editors and reporters instant access to video.

Once material is on the server, staffers can use the nonlinear editing systems to grab clips and put together story packages. And because the content is stored on a central server, other network divisions—including the promo department, CBS Radio and—can access the material as well.

Moving to server-based editing introduces a number of challenges, such as archiving the video and audio content. Like any computer-based storage device, there is only so much content a video server can hold. That leaves news departments hunting for cost-effective ways to store material. CBS News will use a StorageTek system that stores on inexpensive data tape drives.

“We’ll feed high-resolution versions of the content into both the Unity production server and the StorageTek archive system as soon as it arrives,” says Governale. “That way, we don’t have any bottlenecks, where we would have to offload the high-resolution material to the archive. We’ll also have an instantaneous high-resolution backup.”

Keeping Communications Open

While CBS News has not announced specific plans for a move to high-definition, its decision to store material at 50 Mbps gives it that option. That’s because Sony’s XDCAM format will use 50 Mbps when it is available in HD. “With this approach, the move to HD will be almost transparent to our editors,” Governale says.

As his London counterpart can attest, going digital involves more than just gear. Governale says the key is keeping communications lines open with employees. “You need to make sure the editorial staff buys into the concept because you’re adding a lot of responsibility to their plate,” he says. “Make sure they’re listened to so they can help drive the train.”