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Pitch Blue Makes Progress

Pitch Blue, the new server-based system from Warner Bros., CBS and Ascent Media aimed at automating the process of delivering high-definition syndicated content, is now fully deployed at local stations, and its partners are starting to ramp up the delivery of high-definition shows. At the same time, a competing HD delivery system from DG FastChannel has also made its way to market.

While many stations still need to buy transcoding gear and upgrade their playout servers to support HD playout, the Pitch Blue and DG FastChannel rollouts go a long way toward eliminating a labor-intensive, often manual workflow where stations record linear satellite feeds onto HD tape decks or servers because their existing file-based syndicated delivery systems can’t handle large HD files.

After announcing the Pitch Blue venture in May 2009 as a replacement for DG FastChannel’s Pathfi re server platform, which had been used to deliver the bulk of standard-definition syndicated content, Warner Bros., CBS and Ascent set about to create their own satellite-based HD/SD delivery system. The system is designed to record shows as MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 files at a data rate of 15 megabits per second, and use an Internet connection to confirm receipt and fix data errors.

While the rollout has had some technical hurdles, 830 to 850 Pitch Blue “edge servers” supporting more than 1,350 stations have now been deployed, according to Derek Powell, senior VP and general manager of GDMX, Warner Bros.’ content delivery arm.

“We’ve been able to deploy all the boxes we needed to the field,” Powell says. “We’ve had some challenges around that at the stations, in educating them how to use the box, how to manage content on the box, in terms of managing the files, as well as ways to integrate with automation systems on the back end. We’ve been engaged with that for the past 12 months.”

The Pitch Blue box records satellite feeds in real time but stores them as files; a 30-minute show takes 30 minutes to record. It can output uncompressed SD or HD video (SD or HD-SDI) and also deliver compressed files, including HD MPEG-4 and SD MPEG-2, through a Gigabit Ethernet output.

To replicate the syndicated workflow stations enjoyed in the standard-definition world with the old Pathfire boxes, the MPEG-4 HD files need to be converted to MPEG-2 and transferred to playto- air servers from Omneon, Harris and others, including placing them in the unique file “wrappers” used by different vendors. Metadata about the shows also needs to be extracted and passed along to master-control automation software to automatically populate the on-air schedule.

While a number of vendors including Telestream, Masstech, Rhozet and NVerzion provide the necessary transcoding gear, those systems can cost up to $20,000. And that’s not counting the cost of upgrading or replacing a playout server to support high-definition, a much bigger expense.

Matt Heffernan, GM of central broadcast operations for Media General, says that only a couple of Media General stations have HD playout capability today, though more are upgrading. “I think that would be the case for most groups,” says Heffernan, who is also evaluating new transcoding gear.

Some stations that do have HD playout capability say they received the Pitch Blue box last fall or over the winter and tested it to make sure it was operational, but then didn’t receive any content to the box this spring. “We got all the equipment in and operational, and I expect later this summer we’ll have content come in for it,” says Berry Pinney, director of engineering and operations for Scripps’ WEWS Cleveland.

Improved flow

Powell says that GDMX held off on delivering shows through Pitch Blue as it tested the system’s hardware and software to make sure everything was working properly, and that the flow of HD content is now picking up. Warner Bros. stopped delivering shows through the Pathfi re box in late May, and Ascent pulled off Pathfi re in late June. CBS, which has been delivering syndicated shows like Jeopardy as linear HD satellite feeds since September 2007, is moving at a slower pace; it just began delivering shows including CSI: Miami to the Pitch Blue box last week.

While Warner Bros. and Ascent are still providing standard-def syndicated shows as linear satellite feeds (a process GDMX calls “digital linear”), they have shifted the delivery of a number of high-definition shows, and some standard-def fare, to Pitch Blue. “With digital linear, most of it is SD,” Powell explains. “Most of the HD content is being delivered over Pitch Blue.”

For Warner Bros., the HD shows delivered through Pitch Blue include Cold Case, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, George Lopez, Two and a Half Men and Without a Trace. For Ascent, the HD shows include King of Queens, Laura McKenzie, Seinfeld and Stargate Atlantis.

Station group News-Press & Gazette is one of the early adopters. According to Jim DeChant, the company’s director of technical operations, stations like KTVZ Bend, Ore., and KIFI Idaho Falls, Idaho, installed the system a couple of months ago and are now taking close to 14 hours of syndicated content daily from Pitch Blue (both stations use digital multicasting to support multiple affiliations). “We’re just now shutting off all of the analog and digital feeds from the syndicators,” DeChant says.

KTVZ, for example, is using Pitch Blue to receive Warner Bros. shows like Ellen. The station is using a new transcoding system from Elemental Technologies, a Portland, Ore.-based company that specializes in video processing using graphical processing units (GPUs), to prepare the content in faster-than-real time.

DeChant says the Elemental product is much faster than the Rhozet system KTVZ was previously using. “When the thing is up and running at full power, you can run a half-hour show through it in five minutes,” he says.

While KIFI has a new IP-based HD master control system from Digital Broadcast and airs Ellen in HD, KTVZ’s Omneon server is still only capable of SD operation. But to deliver the best picture quality, the station is taking the HD MPEG-4 file of Ellen from Pitch Blue and using the Elemental Server product to convert it to MPEG-2 SD for playout on the Omneon unit. KTVZ is still refining the final interface between the Elemental transcoder and its Sundance automation software, according to DeChant, but expects to finally drop the linear feed of Ellen this week.

News-Press & Gazette’s stations have also received and installed the new HD DMG 1500 server from DG FastChannel, though DeChant says most of the programming he used to receive through Pathfi re has now shifted to Pitch Blue. The new DG FastChannel system delivers pro- Stations are now using Pitch Blue to receive shows like Ellen. grams as MPEG-2 files through a mix of satellite and Internet transmission.

“What they’re doing in our case is multicast delivery,” DeChant says. “It’s an IP stream into the box, and it’s a store-and-forward system with packetized files.”

DG FastChannel has rolled out more than 500 units of its new HD delivery platform, says DG FastChannel President and COO Neil Nguyen. It is delivering several syndicated shows in HD, including Dr. Oz from Sony Pictures Television.

WEWS has had the new DG Pathfire 1500 system online since early May, says Mike Sulzman, the station’s assistant chief engineer. The station began receiving Dr. Oz as HD files by late May. Before that, WEWS was recording linear HD feeds of the show onto its Grass Valley K2 playout servers. “We’ve been doing nothing but HD for a long time,” he says.

WEWS is using Telestream’s FlipFactory transcoding tool to rewrap the DG files into the GFX format used by K2. The station initially had some issues flipping material from the DG device into the Grass Valley servers, Sulzman says, but these have since been corrected.

“It was working, but an hour show would take an hour and a half to flip over until recently,” he says. “Now, it’s about 45 minutes to do an hour’s program, and that’s much better.”


According to updated numbers from DG FastChannel, there have been a total of 720-750 HD DMG units deployed to date, serving 1340 stations.

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