Come Together

When it comes to digital newsrooms, blueprints are the easy part. Just ask Harlan Neugeboren, director of engineering and technology for Time Warner Cable.

Responsible for overseeing rollout of the company's 24-hour newschannels across the country (his current slate includes facilities in Albany, N.Y., San Antonio, and Houston), Neugeboren and his team have worked closely with a number of equipment vendors in hammering out interoperability and workflow problems. "The blueprint and components didn't change," he says. "It's getting them to work and achieve the functionality we want. There are a lot of technical firsts."

As it did last year, much of the integration work revolves around the Media Object Server (MOS) communications protocol used by the AP Electronic News Production System (ENPS). MOS allows newsroom computer systems and media object servers to exchange information using a standard protocol. Media objects can include character-generator objects, audio, still-store items and video. The MOS gateway has been rebuilt, making it easier for content to move from desktops to the servers. The ENPS system works closely with Pinnacle equipment (like the Vortex editor) and the Omnibus station-automation system.

"The good news," says Neugeboren, "is that the integration, concepts and ideas worked."

Once NY1 was up and running, he explains, it soon became clear that the load from journalists was too much for MOS. With the vast number of items, the system would often choke on processing requests and changes. It took weeks of rewriting different versions of MOS before the system could run without crawling. But it is running.

Developments in newsroom technology at AP are not so much new, according to Bill Burke, AP broadcast technology product manager, as representing mature and complex integration of ENPS and broadcast devices via MOS.

"Stations and groups are on a mission to eliminate duplicate work," he says. "They count on the newsroom system and servers to move content as needed automatically and to play it out. That may necessitate file-format change or file conversions, and there are products out there to do that."

One feature that has emerged as a "standard" expectation in newsroom design is shared storage, which allows broader access to common material, eliminating a workflow bottleneck. "MOS integration across editing systems, newsroom computer systems and playout applications has streamlined the process of identifying and coordinating the various pieces of a story, such as script, audio, video and graphics materials," says Michael Cronk, vice president of marketing/general manager, digital news production, for Thomson/Grass Valley. "It means less chance of human error."

Thomson/Grass Valley's NewsBrowse Web-based browser/editor system, he explains, lets journalists browse MPEG-1 versions of high-resolution media to create frame-accurate shots, clips and sequences. The system can then send an edit decision list representing these materials to a server or edit system.

Avid's Media Browse is a similar product. It also offers frame-accurate capture and provides auto-conform of sequences on the server with the high-resolution copy.

The freedom that digital files create in a newsroom environment remains the key driver. Content taken from a tape or DVD can be transferred to a larger video server or farm of servers, giving newsroom workers access to that content via their desktop.

"We've proved that centralized server playback and editing can work," says Neugeboren. "We use Pinnacle's Vortex. While it's not cheap, the new Vortex 200 clients allow a user to connect across Ethernet to their network and edit on desktop with the same software found on a hardware-based editor."

One thing that has changed with the advent of the digital newsroom is that newsroom employees who previously had very non-technical jobs (such as the reporters and producers) now find themselves at desktop terminals that allow them to create graphics and even edit.

"Their editing, while constituting a substantial part of the process at many sites, may be less sophisticated than [what is done] in the edit bays," says Burke. "For AP, since edit tools used with ENPS are developed by the vendors and integrated via the MOS protocol, this means that our job is to provide feedback to our partner vendors about exactly what constitutes 'intuitive and easier.'"

Today's newsroom is still one major development shy of tapping the full potential of the digital newsroom: creation of a hard-drive–based camera system that allows content to be instantly dumped onto a server and then be available for editing. Ikegami and Avid introduced the Camcutter camera system in the early '90s, but the cost of the drives made what was technically possible fiscally impossible. Today, that is still the case.

"We aren't talking about giving a camera stringer 10 tapes worth $20 a piece," says Stuart English, Panasonic vice president of marketing. "We're talking about 10 hard drives that are worth $300 apiece. This is about more than the actual technology of recording onto a medium. It's about the workflow, how they work, and what they would do with a half dozen hard drives."

The major camera manufacturers—notably Sony, Panasonic, JVC and Hitachi —are taking a very close look at disk-based recording; Hitachi is offering the DZ-MV100A single-chip DVD camcorder. The tricky part, according to English, is that the goal isn't to surpass tape as a recording medium. It's to surpass tape as an editing medium.

"That requires much faster-than-real-time transfer rates because you want to be able to edit the medium randomly, like a hard disk," he says. "But, if your disk has just enough capacity to put the signal on the disk, it is ineffective because you still won't be able to do faster-than-real-time transfers or multiple-user access simultaneously."

Avid Broadcast Group Director David Schleifer backs up English's contention that the key is improving the editing process, not the recording process. There is some upside, however.

"The issue will still be that you can't plug it in and get multiuser access, too, but you will be able to facilitate moving it in more easily and, as we see people moving to things like the Media Exchange Format, move the metadata in more easily."

Schleifer circles back to what Neugeboren and Time Warner Cable have been sorting out: workflow. For all the talk of DVD disk recording and hard drives, improvement comes down to speeding up the process. And for now that means working out issues like metadata and file storage.

"The more important part to improving the workflow is making sure the metadata and essence are compatible. For us, that means files in Sony's IMX or the DV formats."

The metadata would have shot markers included in the file's "wrapper," making it easy to find edit points. And now the challenge is to turn that metadata into something that can help with archiving.

Time Warner Cable is working on an archive system. The goal is to figure out a way for the Pinnacle Vortex system to pass material off to the Omnibus system which, in turn, would move content to a nearline and archive system. "It's a workflow manager's job to set storage rules so, if a clip is on the server for a certain amount of time, it moves a copy into the archive and deep archive," Neugeboren says. "Omnibus had to invent a whole new way of transferring data from the archive system."

Archiving looks to be one of the next frontiers of the digital newsroom. The meaning of the phrase "digital asset management" is always changing, but there is little doubt what it means for a newsroom: the ability to move content off the online servers and into an easily accessible nearline area. There is always the standby method of keeping tapes in a storage area, but all manufacturers are looking into how archiving impacts their products.

"An archive medium may change from digital tape to recordable DVD, but the underlying storage, editing, browse and server architecture remains the same," says Thomson/Grass Valley's Cronk. "MPEG-2 based formats and Panasonic's DVCPRO are already well-known, and technologies like recordable DVD are generally available in standard PC-bay form factors, making the upgrade path very straightforward."

Those still selecting among the different ENG formats, English advises, should keep in mind future needs beyond the life of the new format. Panasonic's DVCPRO architecture is designed to scale upward if something like HD for news catches on.

"If you buy into DVCAM, you're really just getting a format that doesn't go beyond where it's at today," he says. "So we're seeing people look at DVCPRO 50-Mb/s widescreen up through HD. That doesn't mean that they're investing in the upper end of the spectrum yet, but it gives them comfort that it is there."

Dual-mode 25-Mb/s and 50-Mb/s camcorders will be available soon, as will a new 24p DVCPRO 50 camcorder. There has been some interest in shooting news reports with the film look that 24p provides.

HD is being used in the field for news by a couple of TV stations, but English says one limiting factor has nothing to do with the cost of the cameras and everything to do with ENG microwave links. "There is a certain bandwidth required for standard definition. When doing HD, there should be a bit more. But it looks like the FCC is actually going the other way, and that's putting a crimp on practical usage of HD in the field."

Moving forward, he adds, HD may be a studio upgrade based on HD studio cameras, but field camcorders would be widescreen 480p. "That would compress reasonably well on a narrow bandwidth link and still give some quality of upconversion."