E! Gets Around the World

Networks with international distribution have to figure out how to build and staff overseas technical facilities without investing millions of dollars in mortar, gear and support staff.

Faced with the challenge, E! Networks decided the best way to accomplish the daunting task was to work with Globecast, a satellite-services provider that also has 15 teleports and technical-operation centers across the globe. Now, with the help of Internet technologies, the E! Networks master-control facility in Los Angeles is able to control international feeds worldwide.

“All of our content files in Los Angeles have four different language tracks,” says Howard Bolter, senior VP, network and production operations. “We can play the same file out to four different playout centers in four different countries at four different times.”

While having control of the content is important for E!, the Globecast solution saves the cable network money. Bolter says it can often cost $500,000 and take months, if not years, to launch a new feed overseas. With Globecast, those costs are cut to $50,000, and a new channel can be up and running in no time. “If we want to launch a separate feed in Germany,” he says, “we can do it in about six weeks.”

Embracing next-generation storage, production and distribution methods is nothing new for E!. Its large production and master-control facility features nonlinear editing systems and a massive video-storage system that holds more than 100,000 hours of video material.

A Cheap Way To Get To Paris

The content creation and distribution flow used by Comcast-owned E! Networks are indicative of the industry’s future. The E! solution relies heavily on Information Technologies infrastructure and takes advantage of fiber and Internet-based transport. That cuts satellite costs and saves the company hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

“Because we use the Internet to send files to Paris, the trans-Atlantic transmission costs are nonexistent,” says Bolter. E! also has begun using Sony’s XDCAM disk-based camera system. XDCAM records video and audio onto Blu-Ray discs as files. That makes it possible to download the content onto a video server much more quickly than dubbing in a videotape. In-depth metadata describes the content in the file so editors—using Pinnacle, Avid and Apple nonlinear editing systems—can use keyword search to easily find the right clip for the right show.

And speed and dexterity matter at E!, where the video style is fast paced. “There are so many cuts and edits in our programs that one editing station can be using up to 700 pieces of material,” says Bolter. “By moving to digital files, they can spend more time making the show better because it facilitates looking at more clips to find the right shot.”

The nimble new tools are also important in dealing with an only-in-Hollywood editing problem. “We have to be sure to remove any couples that might have broken up,” says Bolter. “For a program like True Hollywood Story, we always have to put on a new ending for people like Tom Cruise.”

With 15 years of red-carpet appearances and other clips available for browsing, it doesn’t take long for an editor to find the right clip (or Tom Cruise bride), access a high-resolution version, and then re-cut a show. Bolter says the process can be done in less than four hours.

“[Nonlinear editing and digital storage] doesn’t necessarily make the editing process faster because, if you give an editor a deadline of 24 hours, you’ll still get the material in 23.5 hours,” he says. “But it does make the programs better.”

Control Factors

Once the programs (and advertisements) are ready to be broadcast, they head to the on-air server for distribution in the U.S. from Comcast’s Digital Media Center in Denver and via the Internet (at 5 Mbps) to Globecast’s playout center in Paris. Globecast’s Paris facility is the only one that has storage and broadcast capabilities, allowing it to distribute the programming to Italy, Australia and London via Fibre Channel. In London, that programming is sent to the rest of Europe; Asia and India are sent content via satellite.

E! Networks is now distributing six different programming feeds through the Los Angeles and Paris facilities, all controlled by L.A. personnel.

That is important because E! has to work by different rules internationally. For example, each country has a distinct approach to commercial breaks. “We can tell the playout server in Paris to play out the UK feed with breaks and to play the program segments back-to-back in France, with the commercial breaks placed at the end of the show,” Bolter says.

E! could have outsourced the entire process. Companies such as Crawford Communications in Atlanta, for example, handled the on-air playout for the Discovery Networks for nearly 20 years. But Bolter says outsourcing playout forces a network to give up control. Discovery may be learning that now. It just opened a technical center in Virginia so it could get flexibility in on-air operations, such as last-minute changes.

“Other [playout-service providers] wanted a measure of control and the playlist in advance, basically controlling the content,” says Bolter. “But the great thing about Globecast is, they wanted to control the technology and not care what we put on or how we switched things.”