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NAB: CBS Builds High-Def Hub

CBS arrives at this year's gathering of the National Association of Broadcasters with a mission: to finalize equipment plans for the new 32,000-square-foot, multimillion-dollar origination facility the network is building in its New York broadcast headquarters.

More than three years in the planning, the new Media Distribution Center (MDC) will be a file-based, high-definition program-playout facility designed to carry CBS and its various distribution platforms into the digital-television future. The facility will handle program playout for the East Coast, West Coast and regional-network feeds. It will also link, via fiber and satellite, to CBS Television City in Los Angeles, as well as the network's live-news and sports operations in New York.

Physical construction of the MDC began in early January on the first floor of the CBS Broadcast Center on West 57th Street and is scheduled to finish by 2010. To clear space for the new facility and avoid disrupting 24-hour broadcast operations at the adjacent Broadcast Operations Center (BOC), the network has moved some offices to another CBS building across the street.

CBS won't disclose the total cost of the project. But, based on the equipment specifications, it is easily a multimillion-dollar investment and a significant undertaking by CBS' engineering team, which is doing the design and systems integration in-house.

“It's the single biggest project we've had here at the Broadcast Center in a long, long time,” says VP of East Coast Operations Bob Ross. “It's got a lot of our resources going into it.”

The primary mission of the MDC, which will encompass some 150 equipment racks, is to replace the current BOC and its aging tape-based Sony LMS cart machines with video servers and to create a fiber-based, high-definition routing infrastructure throughout the plant. The core of the facility will be a 1000x1000 router capable of handling uncompressed HD (1.5-gigabit-per-second) signals with embedded digital audio. That will replace an assortment of legacy routers, some more than 20 years old.

“Today, we have eight or nine routers of all ages and sizes,” says Ross. “Some are mono [audio], some stereo, some HD. You can imagine, over that period of time, how much the broadcast industry has changed, and we've added on and added on to satisfy the distribution demands we have. The routing through the plant gets pretty complex with the stuff we've added on over the years.”

In some ways, CBS is playing catch-up with the MDC. Rival networks Fox and NBC began shifting to server-based playout more than a decade ago, and ABC uses servers for HD commercials. Although CBS uses servers for standard-definition commercials, it is the only network to rely solely on tape for both HD program and commercial playback.

By waiting to build a server-based center, however, CBS can build a single, state-of-the-art HD playout facility rather than upgrade an existing standard-def center.

The MDC will be able to support some 80 inbound feeds and 16 outbound feeds, allowing CBS to carry the heavy signal load of breaking-news events or major-sports coverage, such as the NCAA basketball tournament. It will also support new-media platforms like CBS Sportsline, mobile TV and video-on-demand.

CBS Sportsline's live streaming coverage of the recent Masters golf tournament began as a 1080-line interlace (1080i) high-definition feed that was routed through the Broadcast Center and then handed off to CBS Sportsline to be compressed for Internet distribution.

“We take it in as 1080i, pre-process it as necessary, and then hand it off to whoever our customers are,” says Ross. “We're able to do that as a live stream, as this is the home of live CBS programming, as well as file-based formats [like VOD].”

CBS will also modernize program delivery from its entertainment hub at CBS Television City, replacing the current process of physically shipping digital videotape with file-based distribution over satellite and fiber links. That means installing some 30 racks of new equipment.

CBS has already chosen software vendors Pilat Media, for program scheduling, and OmniBus, for playout automation. But, after doing extensive testing of key items like video servers, the network has yet to select hardware. It plans to decide in the next few months, although it will wait to select technology that is undergoing constant improvement, such as up-conversion and transcoding gear.

“We're going to go to NAB with a shopping list and talk to all the big players,” says Ross. “It's [important] for us to get last-minute updates from various vendors and make some decisions. We hope to have test systems up and running by fall of this year to start doing software evaluations and hardware verification by the fall of this year or the first part of next year.”

Although CBS uses OmniBus' software-based iTX playout system to deliver programming to Qualcomm's MediaFLO mobile-TV service, it is considering a more-traditional setup for the MDC: video servers, from vendors like Harris and Thomson Grass Valley controlled by OmniBus' Colossus master-control software. Ross explains that the dynamic nature of network playout is best handled by more-traditional master-control gear and a dose of human intervention.

“With the network operation, you could be going from stuff you know about far in advance to having a news interrupt, where you have to take multiple networks [that is, east, west and regional feeds] and collapse them into a single network for 10 minutes, then go back again. You don't do that with a computer in a box,” he says. “You do it with buttons in a switcher, and you manually push those buttons. It's the traditional broadcast workflow we've known for years.”