Mix and Match

The easier vendors try to make television, the harder it gets for broadcasters to sort through the thicket of technological options that tends to grow rapidly. There's a lot to choose from. Most large stations and networks have already deployed servers to handle master-control functions, such as commercial insertion. Some also use servers in sophisticated nonlinear-editing newsroom operations.

But, as the cost of disk storage drops, more broadcasters are considering replacing tape with disk in other parts of the plant, such as for recording syndicated programs and then putting them on the air (playout).

And new tapeless acquisition systems like Sony's XDCAM optical-disk system and Panasonic's P2 solid-state camera are fueling dreams of a completely tapeless future.

Purchasing a server involves more than deciding on the amount of storage; the way the server will be networked with others must also be considered.

Most servers are purchased from specialized broadcast vendors and are based on storage-area-network (SAN) architectures. These SANs usually use a Fibre Channel network to link multiple large servers and sometimes broadcast devices, such as smaller disk recorders for quick access to content via caching.

At the same time, the proliferation of high-capacity Gigabit Ethernet (GigE) networking has led some broadcasters to use a network-attached-storage (NAS) architecture. NAS comprises multiple smaller servers connected by a central computer that acts as kind of a traffic cop, controlling the information sent from one server to another. The popularity of GigE equipment and the commodity pricing that comes with that popularity also has spurred a few broadcasters to buy off-the-shelf equipment from general computer vendors.

One additional development that could make buying servers easier is the Material Exchange Format (MXF), a set of standards for handling metadata. MXF is being promoted by Sony and other vendors as a way to provide interoperability among different devices. Broadcasters seem to widely endorse it, too.

"We think they're moving in the right direction," says Preston Davis, president of ABC Broadcast Operations and Engineering. "There is some flexibility within MXF, but the basic wrapper is compatible across a broad range of products. I don't think I would like to see a world where there's Windows Media 9, MXF, and then Thomson with something else and we need converter boxes to talk to one other." No doubt, confusion would be the big winner there.

Fox came first

Fox network launched video-server playback of all commercials and long-form programming in 1997 with Thomson Grass Valley (then Tektronix) Profile servers. Today, all Fox programming and interstitials still come off those servers, although the network will begin replacing them with high-definition models as it moves to HDTV broadcasts this fall. Fox has already created a prototype SAN using three new Profile servers to launch HD programs; commercials will remain in SD this fall.

"Since the time is so short and we're used to the automation systems dealing with the Profile, we figured why take the risk of bringing a new product in," says Richard Friedel, executive vice president and general manager, Fox Networks Engineering and Operations. "So we took a conservative approach and essentially duplicated what we have now."

While Fox's numerous Profiles rely on Fibre Channel networking, Friedel can foresee using Gigabit Ethernet in the near future. One of the first places might be in creating a wide-area network (WAN) connecting its Fox Sports Net bureaus; they currently rely on MPEG-2 over ATM transport to exchange content, but Friedel wants to replace that system.

"There's no question that GigE is a huge change in the broadcast-equipment environment," he says. "It's the fastest uptake of computer techniques that I can remember in the business, and it is going to revolutionize how we do things by lowering the cost of networking tremendously and providing the capability to move both SD and HD files."

Also well into server deployment is Media General. Its 26 stations use servers for spot playback, and the station group is quickly moving syndicated content to servers as well, says Ardell Hill, Media General senior vice president of Broadcast Operations. The 19 stations that do news still rely on tape for the bulk of production and playout, although they eventually will move to server-based nonlinear editing using Grass Valley's Vibrint products.

"We have four stations in process now," says Hill, "and we hope to get eight to 10 going before the year is over, then six to eight next year."

Media General has an assortment of servers in the field, ranging from Profiles to Pinnacle and Leitch servers to a few large SeaChange units.

Inexpensive changes

"As we have transitioned over the last four years, we've used different servers in different applications for different stations," says Hill. "In some situations, we used a large server base like SeaChange for a duopoly, with a common database for an independent and a network affiliate. With a lot of syndicated product and a lot of long-form content, it made sense to use a large server. In some smaller stations, we do everything in caching mode from Profiles."

Now Media General is rolling out Grass Valley's M-Series iVDR (Intelligent Video Disk Recorder) as a direct replacement for tape machines. Since the M-Series offers 14 hours of storage at DVCPRO 25 quality and two channels of both input and output for a list price of under $20,000, it's not a tough call.

"We use it in a modular way, to address function and task step by step," says Hill. "The box is allowing me to do that because it has the capacity and capability of a robust server at the size and cost of a tape machine."

At ABC, Profile servers are currently used in master control to play out commercials and promos, to originate the West Coast feed of Good Morning America, and to play back clips during regional sports broadcasts. But the network will still rely on tape playback for two new program-control rooms it is building.

"We're doing long-form playout from new Sony Flexicarts, two redundant systems," says Davis. "Unlike other broadcast outlets, the network plays a prime time program maybe once, twice if there's a rerun. So the idea of ingesting content for long-form playout to play once or twice doesn't make sense."

ABC will load the new Flexicarts with Sony's IMX tape, which was selected for its backward compatibility with the Digital Betacam and Betacam formats.

In graphics and post-production, ABC uses an NAS system with GigE networking to link off-the-shelf storage from vendors like Compaq and Iomega with a proprietary redundant-array-of-independent disks (RAID) system from Isolon. That system also is connected by WAN to ABC's operations in Washington and Los Angeles and ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn.

One reason the NAS approach works well for graphics is that each graphics device has its own local storage, says Bruce Simon, director, ABC Broadcast Information Technology Systems. When a completed graphic is "posted" to common NAS storage, a backup copy still resides in the local device.

"Some graphics may go in the RAID architecture; with others, we don't bother," says Simon. "We still have the original material, so it's not a tragedy" if something happens to the image.

"Commodity-based TV"

Tribune Broadcasting uses Profile XP servers to handle spot playback at all its stations and is also moving its syndicated playback to Profiles. The station group is creating a centralized distribution center for syndicated programming, using IP-over-satellite gear from International Datacasting Corp.

"All programming will be prepped centrally and distributed as a prepped file through satellite data transmission to the station for playout," says Ira Goldstone, vice president and chief technical officer, Tribune Broadcasting.

"We're using the NAS model," says Goldstone. "Basically, our point of view is that we want to move material off central storage to storage tied to a playout device. So we use network attached storage for 'park-and-pull' storage, then use attached storage for actual playout."

GigE is clearly Tribune's networking technology for now and the future, says Goldstone. "Fibre Channel only exists in legacy devices that supported it. GigE is much more cost-effective."

In news operations, Tribune is using Sony NewsBase servers in six markets to support both desktop editing and playout. It will also start to roll out Avid digital newsroom systems at other stations this year.

One broadcaster that is aggressively incorporating off-the-shelf IT equipment into its broadcast operations is Clear Channel Television. "Our philosophy is that we are going to commodity-based equipment," says Mike DeClue, senior vice president and director of engineering. "The general infrastructure of IT performance has reached the point where it is unnecessary to have specialized servers to play out or ingest content. Every goal that we might see as really important can be attained without the necessity of buying expensive, specialized equipment developed for these particular applications."

While Clear Channel does have legacy servers from vendors like SeaChange and Philips handling spot playback across its 40 stations, it is moving both commercial and program playback to low-cost Intel-based servers running automation software from Clear Channel subsidiary Prophet Systems. The "next-gen TV" units will have 100 to 200 hours of storage each, enough for several days of commercial and program inventory.

Clear Channel will feed the systems remotely, via either terrestrial networks or IP satellite connections, in a store-and-forward mode. Installations have been implemented by KTVF Fairbanks, Alaska; KSRT and KSAN Little Rock, Ark.; and KGPE Fresno, Calif.

The TV division, like other broadcasters across the country, is following the model already used by Clear Channel's gigantic radio division: digitizing content into data files at a central location, then distributing them across a WAN to local servers for playout.