CNN tapeless vision

CNN has created television trends with its lineup of news channels, and now it's following one as its engineering team will spend much of the next year getting new digital newsrooms up and running in both Atlanta and New York.

"We're looking to replace tape-based, mainly news production, with nonlinear, server-based editing systems," says Gordon Castle, CNN senior vice president, strategic digital systems.

An important player in the move, which will take place in CNN's Atlanta and New York operations, is Pinnacle Systems. At NAB, the two organizations signed a master agreement, although Castle says that at this point it is nothing more than an agreement to agree. But that will change soon as CNN begins placing orders for equipment.

For example, more than 100 Vortex news system client workstations will be put in place to help journalists and editors browse and edit video. And CNN stays wedded to the Avid iNews newsroom system.

"The switch will take place in the daily news-production areas, so post-production areas in Atlanta will not be impacted by the changes," says Castle, of the multi-million dollar project. "Both locations will have central servers store the content and give immediate access of all incoming material to editing client stations, which will be the Pinnacle Vortex news systems. Eventually the systems in New York and Atlanta will be integrated so that files can be moved between them."

Pinnacle servers will also be used, with dual, mirrored systems providing redundancy as CNN moves away from videotape production.

Castle says the move will begin with ingest stations being put in alongside the tape-ingest stations and that it will mirror the tape-production process.

"In Atlanta, once the content is finished, it will be digitally moved as MXF files with compressed MPEG between Pinnacle and Leitch playback servers," he adds. "In New York, it will be played back off of the Pinnacle servers."

An important aspect of the system will be a proxy-based editing system. Castle says it will be a frame-accurate, lower-data-rate editing system that can be operated on a wide number of newsroom desktops.

"Not only can it be a tool for editors but also for journalists so they can visualize the edits while they're in progress or even make editing decisions themselves," says Castle. "And that visualization into the process is a pretty profound workflow change."

The changes in workflow are basically no different than at any other news organization. However, given the scale of content moving through the networks, the process of taping feeds and running tapes into editing while feeds were coming in was, Castle readily admits, cumbersome and confusing. And to get content between the two cities would require a person on each end. When the system is up, a desktop will be able to access proxy video from both cities instantly.

When that will be is to be determined, but the process has started. Castle says that New York (both a new studio on Sixth Avenue and an existing facility near Pennsylvania Station) will be converted faster than Atlanta's but that he expects full-scale integration to be completed in about 12 months.

The changes in New York will go beyond the newsroom and editing functions and also extend to the on-air look. Four Thomson Grass Valley 4000 production switchers will be installed at the Penn Station location and will hold the network over until it moves into the AOL Time Warner Center, which is expected to be completed in 2004. Nine Sony HDTV cameras with Fujinon lenses will be installed in the new studio in the Time Life Building.

"The better quality picture you start with, the better the quality at the end," says Castle. "We're convinced the viewer will notice the improvements because the chips in the camera have much better resolution than standard-definition chips. The difference is mainly in resolution but also in color handles and things like that."

And all the improvements build on the underlying desire to embrace long group-of-pictures (Long-GOP) MPEG. Castle says the goal is to build an integrated-production environment that makes content available across the enterprise, without file conversion and degradation to quality.

"We move a lot of content and store a lot, and there is no question that those steps should be done around MPEG," he says. "But there is confusion over whether you should acquire material in MPEG or do production in MPEG. So when we made our move to Long GOP MPEG, we did so knowing there were some hurdles to cross."

All those hurdles look like they'll be cleared. In the next year, he expects, feed recording, editing, playback and archives will all be using Long GOP MPEG and AAF and MXF wrappers to move files around.

"The advantages are we can store three times the amount of material at the same quality and we can move it at three times the rate for the same cost," he says. "And we have huge scales of content storage and movement, so that's pretty important."

The move CNN is making sounds similar to that made at CNN's sister news group, the Time Warner Cable news station group, with stations like NY1 News. Castle did say that CNN has been monitoring the regionalized news networks and that it was part of the decision-making criteria.