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'The Price Is Right' Set for Hi-Def IT Future

CBS has installed a file-based production system from Harris Corp. at CBS Television City in Hollywood to support the game show The Price is Right. It's part of a broader rollout of the server technology across the network's technical infrastructure.

The system reflects the new way networks think about technology in a file-based world, as it was selected partly for its ability to interface with additional Harris servers in New York that CBS will use for primary program playout as the network gradually replaces legacy tape-based equipment on both coasts. Besides the potentially lucrative master-control installation in New York, supplying editing and storage for an entertainment show in Los Angeles is also a significant win for Harris as the company expands into the production space with its “One” strategy of providing end-to-end systems.

The company's recording, editing, storage and playback system at CBS Television City, which CBS has been using since The Price is Right converted to full HD production last September, replaces a previous system comprised of comprised of Sony Digital Betacam tape decks and CMX linear-based editing. It is based on a large storage area network (SAN) that allows the show's production staff to record camera feeds directly to file-based server storage and begin immediate editing or playback of the footage.

For now, completed Price is Right shows are still being laid off to high-definition Sony HDCAM SR tape for playback. But the long-term plan is for shows to be directly transferred as files from the Harris SAN over fiber links to CBS' new Media Distribution Center in New York, which will then store them on additional Harris Nexio AMP servers for playout. That 32,000-square-foot facility, which is replacing all of CBS' legacy tape-based operations in New York with a new file-based HD infrastructure, is due to be completed in 2010.

The Harris system at Television City includes seven Nexio AMP (advanced media platform) NX3601HDX video servers controlled by Nexio “Ingest Control Manager” and “Playback Control Manager” software. The Nexio servers are configured in a 28-terabyte (TB) online SAN that links to the company's Velocity ESX nonlinear editors and provides 200 hours of online HD storage. One Velocity ESX handles traditional editing functions previously performed by tape decks, while the other renders high-end effects and allows operators to edit and output content simultaneously.

CBS Television City, which handles program production and transmission tasks for both CBS and the CW Network and also produces shows for outside clients, was an early adopter of HD production for shows such as Fox's American Idol, CBS' The Young and the Restless and HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher and the facility was instrumental in the development of high-end HD studio equipment such as Sony's HDC-1500 camera. It currently has four full-time HD studios and three that are HD-capable.

As such, CBS Television City has been using HD tape, first Panasonic D5 then Sony HDCAM SR, for years, says Peter Sawyer, manager of videotape and post production for the facility, and the production staff has grown very comfortable with it. The Price is Right is in production some 40 weeks a year, and the team produces two, hour-long shows per day, three days a week and edits five days a week. So Harris engineers worked with CBS engineers to customize the new server system—and the Ingest Control Manager interface in particular—so it would record the show's seven camera feeds and 16 audio tracks at high quality while replicating the old tape-based workflow as much as possible.

For example, a key selling point of the Nexio servers is that they were able to maintain the vertical blanking interval (VBI) information in the original video and produce traditional timecode when recording. The Harris system also records video using MPEG-2 4:2:2 compression, I-frame only, at the high-quality bit-rate of 150 megabits per second (Mbps), which Sawyer says delivers image quality that compares favorably to HDCAM SR tape, which records at a much higher 440 Mbps bitrate.

“The shows here are so used to tape-based production, they wanted a server to mimic a tape machine,” says Sawyer. “They wanted timecode in the picture, which is not a common thing in the server world.”

The Nexio Ingest Control Manager software, which has customized features to start, stop and create file names with one click of a mouse, controls the recording of the camera feeds to the SAN. The Playback Control Manager provides immediate clip playback for the operators, who generally play out 10 to 20 clips per show to the studio audience. If necessary, an editor can also begin editing work seconds after the Nexio servers begin recording the feeds.

To date, the Harris SAN has been “incredibly efficient,” says Sawyer, and hasn’t suffered any read/write errors. CBS editors have also adapted quickly to the Velocity editor, which is still a relatively new player in the broadcast production space.

The ability to quickly play out clips from the same server used to record was a big selling point for the Harris system against Avid, the other vendor that CBS seriously considered for the Price is Right file-based production system when it began evaluating systems early last year. If CBS had gone with Avid for ingest and editing, says Sawyer, then it would have still needed to buy a dedicated playout server, such as a Grass Valley K2, to handle that function. Moreover, the Harris system would be compatible with the Nexio AMP servers that will be used in New York for broadcast playout.
“It all fit into the big picture,” says Sawyer.

While Sawyer won’t divulge exact pricing of the system, he says overall it was about 20% cheaper than a comparable system from Avid. It certainly represents a sizable chunk of the multimillion dollar investment to take The Price is Right to HD, which included rebuilding the studio and installing Sony HDC-1500 cameras, a Grass Valley Kalypso switcher, Evertz processing and infrastructure gear, a Solid State Logic C100 audio board and Chyron Hyper X graphics.

While Harris already has major deployments of server-based production systems for sports and news customers like Turner Broadcasting, MSG Network and Cordillera Communications, the CBS Television City installation is still a significant win for the company as it expands from its traditional strengths in master control, automation and transmission into the production space after a series of acquisitions and new product launches. For example, Sawyer concedes that he wouldn’t have considered Harris for the Price is Right production system if he was shopping five years ago.

Sam Lee, Harris director of development for news and editing, is happy that the capabilities of the Velocity editor played such a big role in winning the CBS Television City deal. He says the company will preview new features aimed at news production at the NAB show this month, including advanced search features for accessing archive material akin to a Google search.

“We’re expanding outward into integrating with media asset management systems, as part of the challenge for news systems is pulling in archive material,” he says.

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