Digital freedom

NBC sees its future in a networked infrastructure of freely accessible digital media. The latest step toward that future is a comprehensive $25 million agreement to purchase a wide array of Grass Valley Group (GVG) technology over at least three years.

NBC will spend approximately $8 million in year one of the deal, $10 million in year two and about $7 million in year three to acquire multiple Profile XP Media Platform servers, Media Area Network (MAN) shared storage systems, modular and routing products and Vibrint NewsEdit nonlinear editors, according to GVG.

The massive effort to convert existing operations to digital production—and, eventually, away from videotape—began more than a year ago, when network engineers began "test-driving" various manufacturers' editing products at their 30 Rockefeller Plaza headquarters in New York.

"Digital operation will speed the production process by taking out all non-creative steps. It will benefit production by giving producers more options in their choice of suitable content and allow rapid multipurposing of assets for additional programs and alternate delivery methods," explains Dr. Peter Smith, vice president of technical planning and engineering at NBC, adding that the GVG deal "gives us the tools to improve our product in the long term, coupled with workflow efficiencies to give rapid return on our investment."

The agreement is part of a complete upgrade of the network's playout facility in New York, called "GEnesis." In the mid '90s, it was one of the first facilities to play programs and commercials directly to air from a Profile-based networked storage environment.

"The GEnesis project is one component of this effort, which will be completed when all content remains in digital form throughout the acquisition, production and distribution processes," Smith says, adding that the transition will include Profile XP servers as the HDTV playback system for GEnesis. "Our challenge is to provide platforms and standards that allow seamless transfer of content across all our facilities."

The entire implementation will take several years and include GVG's MAN technology for real-time, shared storage and the playout of programs and commercial spots. These systems will be incorporated into the network's "hub-and-spoke" system, combining the resources of three sites—Los Angeles, Miami and New York—to feed its 13 owned-and-operated stations across the country. To achieve this, the network will spend about $5 million for a selection of GVG routers and modular (digital-to-analog converter) products to distribute programming and other digital materials throughout the Television Station Division.

"Master-control operations at the NBC O&O TV stations are being consolidated into three hub sites, where Profile XP servers and Media Area Networks will be used to play out channels of local programming and commercials to each station," Smith says. "Consolidations like the hub bring reliability, flexibility and productivity improvements."

For editing news packages, NBC currently uses a system of linear editors and Betacam SP and DVCPRO tape that will soon be replaced by Vibrint NewsEdit nonlinear systems, all networked both locally and among the three main hub stations. Over the next three years, $8 million to $10 million will go to NBC's nonlinear-editing project, incorporating 150 Vibrint editors and multiple MAN systems across all NBC properties.

A GVG MAN system will support ingest, playout and editing of source material existing anywhere within the network of stations. All NBC producers will also be able to edit low-resolution versions of their stories on their desktop before sending the rough edit decision list into the edit suite. The idea is to reduce the use of videotape once material comes into the station.

Smith says this could also include the use of disk-based camcorders for recording news in the field. "Although not absolutely essential to our strategy, disk-based camera recorders and RF cameras linked directly to our production facilities have the potential to significantly contribute in terms of reliability and speed of access."

Media-asset management will also be a big part of NBC's transition, with nearly $10 million of the GVG deal to be spent in the next three years on a corporatewide media-management project, cable properties and a news project. The goal is a closer synergy between NBC and its MSNBC and CNBC cable outlets, with the MAN hardware and software used to repurpose story elements and historic footage into new programs. This will also include the network's various Web efforts.

"The media-management system will provide a common process for capturing, cataloging, storing, retrieving and distributing both new and archived content," Smith explains. "A common system will allow desktop browsing of all content from anywhere in NBC."

In a pilot process to be implemented over the next few months at MSNBC, he says, the NBC production community will be able to experience systems in operation.