File-Based Production Takes Center Stage at HD World; Mazza Lays Out NBC Olympics Vision

At the HD World conference in New York on Oct. 13, top technology executives from NBC, CNN, and IBM gathered to discuss the benefits and challenges of implementing file-based workflows in traditional broadcast plants and give advice to programmers looking to do the same in their operations.

Dave Mazza, SVP of engineering for NBC Olympics, led off panel discussion IT for Production Infrastructure by describing the approaches NBC took in producing online video for the 2008 Beijing and 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games.

Peter Guglielmino, chief technology officer for the global media and technology industry at IBM, explained how service-oriented architectures (SOAs) apply to media and entertainment clients and described the vendor’s efforts to create standardized interfaces with vendors, working with the Advanced Media Workflow Association (AMWA) and European Broadcasting Union (EBU).

And CNN Senior Director of Technology Chris Hinton outlined the network’s multiyear project implementing file-based acquisition, ingest, editing, and playout at both CNN headquarters in Atlanta and its myriad locations worldwide.

While the NBC and CNN projects were very different, said moderator Harlan Neugeboren, CEO of consultancy The Workflow & Technology Group LLC, they shared a common thread: careful planning and in-depth knowledge of each organization’s existing workflows were essential to taking full advantage of file-based tools.

“These guys did innovative things and leveraged technology to the max,” said Neugeboren. “But both basically lived and worked in their operations. They understood their operations first and understood where they needed to go.”

To Expand Digital
According to Mazza, NBC knew it wanted to dramatically expand its digital distribution for Beijing — including on-demand clips, streaming coverage, mobile and electronic sell-through — but didn’t know exactly how to get there. A key objective was to take advantage of equipment, infrastructure, and personnel that were already supporting broadcast coverage and reassign them to new-media applications without disrupting existing operations.

“We were glomming on the new-media workflows on top of the existing broadcast plant,” said Mazza, “and one of our main goals was not to screw that up.”

At a high level, NBC split its new-media efforts into two categories: anything that required editing or other human intervention, such as on-demand clips, would be supported by the Highlights Factory, while long-form material that didn’t require editing went through the Streaming Factory.

A complicating factor for Beijing was that sending low-cost personnel, such as interns, to China was still prohibitively expensive, so NBC created a remote Highlights Factory in New York with the ability to access and edit material in China by using low-resolution proxies. A system of some 250 Omneon servers, along with software from Mogg, Cyradis, and Avid, allowed Highlights Factory staff in New York to see a proxy of a high-res clip within three minutes of its being recorded in China, create an edit-decision list, and then send the clip to China to be conformed. The finished clip would then be relayed back to New York, where it was transcoded for distribution to myriad digital platforms.

Although the Beijing Highlights Factory system was successful, Mazza said the architecture was probably too complex for the limited time that NBC had to test it before the Games. Most circuits were turned on only 10 days before the opening ceremony, and NBC was receiving new components from vendors up to the last minute.

“I still have some lasting scars from that effort,” he quipped.

The Vancouver Games was easier because the location provided an ample supply of English-speaking personnel who knew how to edit sports for an American audience. So NBC set up the Highlights Factory right next to its hi-res broadcast operation at the IBC in Vancouver and simply added extra EVS servers to support its editing efforts. Finished clips were then transferred to a large Omneon MediaGrid system that handled file flipping and accelerated delivery from Vancouver to New York.

Factory in Vancouver
Although NBC created a Streaming Factory in China for the Beijing Games, for Vancouver, it was able to use fiber connections to deliver broadcast-quality feeds to iStreamPlanet in Las Vegas, which handled the encoding and streaming distribution for using the Microsoft Silverlight player.

The biggest lesson from both Games, said Mazza, is “don’t underestimate the time needed to debug” file-based systems. Although traditional broadcast hardware from different vendors might have worked via standard connectors, it isn’t that way with file-based workflows despite efforts at standardized interfaces like MXF.

“I highly doubt an exchange between two vendors will work the first time,” said Mazza. “This stuff is not yet plug-and-play, though we’ve made huge leaps.”

IBM is looking to improve interoperability in SOA implementations with the Framework for Interoperable Media Services (FIMS) initiative, which Guglielmino described as “best practices for what a Web-service interface should be.”

FIMS, a joint EBU-AMWA project, has made great progress since December, said Guglielmino, and IBM executives hope it will be used to demonstrate interoperability across multiple platforms, systems, and Web services at NAB 2011.

Explaining the importance of FIMS to file-based workflows, Guglielmino said, “It’s very simple. You don’t buy a vacuum with a plug for every room you want to vacuum; you buy the best vacuum. [With workflows,] you don’t concentrate on the interface; you concentrate on the function.”

This Is CNN
CNN began moving to file-based workflows in 2005, said Hinton. It adopted HD in 2007 and moved to a third-generation, HD edit system this year. He described changing systems at a global 24-hour news operation as “akin to changing the engine in an airplane while it’s flying” but said that CNN uses open architectures wherever possible to give it flexibility.

A major decision CNN made in 2005 was to pick a house standard: in this case, the Sony XDCAM HD format, MXF-wrapped, at 35 Mbps, for use through acquisition, editing, playout, and archiving.

“That way there’s only one format and one wrapper,” said Hinton, adding that “every MXF file is kind of different.”

At its Atlanta headquarters, CNN has created redundant “big buckets” of video storage with two Omneon MediaGrid systems that each hold 7,000 hours of HD video (98 servers combining to deliver 120 TB of storage). CNN ingests an average of 1,000 items per day, using Vizrt DART asset-management software and Omneon MediaDeck input/output modules, and performs about 1,100 edits a day using Apple Final Cut Pro software. A centralized playout system in Atlanta comprises Omneon Spectrum servers connecting to locations in New York, Washington, and elsewhere, and archived footage is stored on StorageTek robotic data-tape units.

Tying everything together is CNN MediaSource, an internally developed, browser-based media-management system that runs on desktop PCs. The MediaSource application allows CNN journalists at any location to search and access content all around the world. Journalists, producers, and editors can use MediaSource to view proxies and initiate edits and file transfers through work CNN has done to integrate MediaSource, Apple Final Cut Pro, and Omneon MediaGrid storage.

“An editor can collect video on the desktop using MediaSource,” Hinton pointed out. “When it comes time to edit, the editors in the edit bay can click a single button on MediaSource, and the project opens up in Final Cut Pro.”

HD Proxy Editing
While proxy edits currently are for SD content, CNN plans to have proxy edits for HD next year using Adobe Premiere software. The network is also creating a workflow that will allow people to edit on the desktop using either Final Cut Pro or Premiere, have the same edit-decision list in either program, and then use a centralized render service to create the finished segment.

“Our goal,” said Hinton, “is to create a complete location-independent production environment. We’ve made some progress toward it, but there’s still a long way to go.”

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