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Lifetime's Big Step

Lifetime cable network has fully embraced Information Technology (IT) by creating a 50,000-square-foot program-and-distribution facility founded on a file-based workflow.

Its new Technical Operations Center (TOC), located in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City, began operations in March and houses Lifetime's origination and distribution operations, post-production, and graphics facilities. In a nod to the increasing link between broadcast and IT technology, Lifetime also located its corporate data center there.

The TOC took two years to design and build. Lifetime formed a “cross-discipline team” of broadcast engineering, operations and IT personnel to design the new facility, says Gwynne McConkey, senior VP, operations, information systems and technology for Lifetime Entertainment Services; partners included architects Meridian Design Associates and systems integrator Ascent Media.

“We were determined to make it an all-digital facility in order to streamline that workflow,” says McConkey. “We wanted to be working with video as files for the whole workflow, from post-production through to play-to-air.”

Lifetime has always been server-based in master control, she says, but the rest of its operations were populated with “islands of digital media,” such as graphics and editing systems that didn't talk to each other. The network knew that a file-based workflow linking the systems would be more efficient as it repurposes content for new delivery platforms.

The women's cable network used to store programming on Sony Digital Betacam tape, and it still receives a lot of programming that way. But now that tape is quickly encoded into its file-based production system, which is controlled by Venaca S3 asset-management software. MPEG-2 encoding hardware from Optibase is used to store media in the 50-megabit-per-second (Mbps) IMX format on an EMC storage area network (SAN) with 15 terabytes (TB) of storage. At the same time the IMX files are created, the Optibase system uses a decoding module from Vela Research to create low-res proxies for desktop browsing of content.

“That's our staging SAN,” says McConkey. “From that point, content can be directed in any number of ways.”

Lifetime's HD-ready production system is built on Avid Symphony Nitris nonlinear editors and a 64-TB Avid Unity ISIS storage system. Venaca has licensed the Avid workgroup APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) and used the MXF (Material Exchange Format) standard to build an interface between the SAN and the Avid system, allowing staffers to drag and drop between platforms.

Figuring out how much control each system should have over media was a challenge. “That's where a lot of work has been, thinking through those integrations and how much the asset-management system should manage versus how much the Avid editing system should manage,” she says. “There were a lot of project-management tools in Avid we couldn't give up.”

When material is ready for air, it is transferred to Omneon MultiPort HD servers, controlled by Harris automation software. The Venaca asset-management software is also used to transport material to a large ADIC data-tape archive for long-term storage.

Lifetime stores material on the Omneon servers at a compression rate of 12 Mbps. After it travels via fiber to uplink provider Ascent Media for broadcast, it is compressed to 4 Mbps for satellite delivery to cable affiliates.

Lifetime has no immediate plans to launch HD programming, but the TOC is “ready in a number of ways,” says Pete Sgro, VP/general manager of operations and engineering. In addition to an underlying Gigabit Ethernet infrastructure, the TOC has an NVision 256 x 256 HD router, HD-ready master control and channel-branding technology from Miranda, and some Sony HDCAM tape decks for accepting high-def material.

McConkey still faces challenges, even performing everyday tasks, such as closed-captioning, in its new file-based environment. “When you come from the tape world, there is so much functionality that you come to take for granted. “ she says. “Replicating that in the digital space is no mean feat.”