New CNN Digs

Gordon Castle, CNN senior vice president of technology, plans ahead. In 1997, he envisioned a new Time Warner facility in New York. Since then, technology has changed, and the AOL merger challenged the company's focus. But when the Time Warner Center opened its doors early this year, it became the latest standout in the city's storied skyline.

One thing, however, hasn't changed: the engineering goal to build a state-of-the-art facility that will improve the on-air look and operations for CNN's prime time lineup, CNNfn, CNN's New York bureau, and all other New York-based aspects of CNN properties. The finishing touches are being placed on a facility expected to be fully operational next week.

If CNN's prime time ratings don't see a jump in the next few months, don't blame its new home.

With more than 250,000 square feet on five full (and two partial) floors overlooking Central Park, the new digs are a big improvement over 5 Penn Plaza, where 600 employees were jam-packed. Now staffers enjoy 20-foot ceilings, a cafeteria with a park view, and four control rooms that give maximum on-air flexibility.

Operationally, all content in or out of the facility will be located on Pinnacle video servers. Producers, reporters, and editors no longer need to shuffle through videotapes to find desired shots.

"We're bringing the video to the user's desktop," says Jeff Polikoff, CNN vice president of technical operations. "We're using a browse system from Pinnacle so that anyone in the plant can look at the video they need." They can also edit using the browse application. Because of the large number of users, editing or watching high-resolution video clips isn't viable, but low-resolution is sufficient to make proper decisions. "You can actually do a pretty nice edit," says Castle.

When the demand requires high-quality packages, 17 Pinnacle Liquid Blue nonlinear editing systems are on hand. Story packages can be assembled at those stations, pulling in graphics created by the facility's 15 artists, using a graphics system from VizRT.

The facility has a Scandinavian air—not just because of its wide-open workspaces and sleek style. Norway-based VizRT's technology was developed by TV2, also in Norway, and Ardendo, a system used in satellite scheduling, was developed by SVT, Swedish National Television. SVT has been pushing and pulling content files between stations via high-speed connections for about four years, while TV2's graphic efforts took advantage of high-cost platforms (which have dropped in price) and computing power to drive a sharper on-air look.

As for Ardendo, its ARDCAP (Ardendo Digital Content Acquisition and Playout) system is used to digitize content from videotape. DART (Digital Automated Recording Tool) handles the ingest of up to 29 simultaneous feeds. Says Castle, "It can schedule recurring recordings, find the next available encoder, handle the routing control, and begin recording."

Along with enhanced handling of satellite feeds, the facility also features improved connectivity with Atlanta. High-speed IP and video networks link the facilities, making it possible to move content as files. CNN is currently creating software that will tie Pinnacle servers in Atlanta with the ones in New York, making that transfer even more efficient. But, for Castle, the real network efficiencies will arrive when CNN embraces the MPEG Long GOP (Long Group of Pictures) format.

"In Long GOP, we'll be able to move files between any of these systems due to better compression efficiency," he says. Long GOP also allows three times as much content to be stored on a server and larger files to be moved more quickly. Someday, that could mean HDTV content. The facility already has an HD-capable Grass Valley Trinix router with 512 inputs and outputs, HD-capable Sony MUS-8000 production switchers, and Sony HDC930 HD-switchable cameras.

"Our long-term goal is to use Long GOP and be HD capable," says Castle. "We want to start acquiring and producing content in HD first."

Once that mission is under way, CNN will be ready to make the HD move. That won't be an easy task. Currently, the CNN facility is working only in standard-definition.

The new facility also provides CNN's New York operations with an added bonus: backup power.