NTC gets into the game

Like the sports teams it covers, ESPN is looking to assemble a winning organization. Currently in the early stages of designing a new digital facility, which will bring both HD and SD content to viewers beginning next year, the cable sports net has selected the equivalent of its digital coaching staff: National Teleconsultants (NTC) has been chosen as the integrator on a project that will keep both integrator and client very busy for two years.

NTC Vice President Ed Hobson says his company is developing comprehensive documentation for procurement of systems-integration services for all technical facilities, both standard- and high-definition. The facilities will include three studios, associated control rooms, edit rooms, an 80-seat sports-highlights screening room, and a large sports-highlights ingest, editing and server-based playout system.

"There are also multiple, multichannel-release control rooms and, of course, the core infrastructure," he says.

At this point, the technical details and winning bids for equipment are still being sorted out. NTC has been building its staff over the past two years, increasing the size of its New York City office and adding to its Glendale, Calif., headquarters. The company specializes in information technology, media-asset management, workflow, storage area networks and network attached storage, all vital to ESPN's success.

The sports network, with close to a million hours of material on hand, will no doubt challenge the NTC team. The trick is for both integrator and client to make sure everyone knows the playbook.

"The key to success in this effort is a thorough analysis of workflow issues in the current facility and ESPN's business plans for the future," says Hobson. "These provide the basis upon which to make appropriate workflow enhancements and technology decisions."

Those decisions, he adds, drive system design and hardware and software selection.

"Software is becoming ever more important," he notes. "Hardware will continue to improve, and standard 'off-the shelf' components will replace more and more specialized and custom platforms. Similarly, software that adheres to industry standards—that is open, extensible and well-supported—is important."

There will be a number of development phases. The most challenging, Hobson explains, will most likely be the final integration and commissioning, when hardware and software systems from multiple suppliers will finally be integrated. But NTC has had experience with similar large projects: It built the first all-digital, server-based, multichannel network release facility for Fox Digital, as well as the DirecTV Los Angeles Broadcast Operations Center.

"Our approach is to first identify the workflow requirements followed by the technical-systems design," says Hobson. "The typical pitfall is to embark on technical issues prior to understanding the business model."

Problem areas are often building-related, which is why NTC will work closely with architect HLW and contractor partners to coordinate all the technical details of the building with the media technical systems to be installed there. Other challenging areas include software scalability, interfaces, redundancy and fall-back strategies.

Because the project is still very much in the planning stages, specific details of equipment selections are unavailable. But multiple vendors will no doubt become intimately involved with the project as well, working closely with both ESPN and NTC. At this point, though, only one vendor has definitely been selected: "I can tell you that Ben and Jerry's Cherry Garcia is the ice cream of choice for many of the NTC staff," Hobson jokes.