Moving a busy broadcast centre is a huge undertaking involving not only the choice and design of a new location, but also a carefully and detailed technical move plan to ensure the station remains ‘on air’ throughout the move.
When e.tv, South Africa’s first free to air broadcaster, decided to move from its Longkloof studios to a new purpose-built facility and upgrade its operations to full HD, the broadcaster looked to its long-term UK-based systems integration partner Megahertz Ltd. to help plan and manage the relocation and undertake the technical fit-out.
e.tv, which started life in 1998, currently transmits eight TV channels, via both terrestrial and satellite. “We worked with e.tv on the move right from the start, advising on civil engineering issues like studio floor construction and soundproofing,” explained Don Wilson, project manager at Megahertz. “We also catalogued all the existing equipment, advising what could be upgraded to HD and moved and where we need to plan for new hardware.”
The Megahertz team developed the new system design and provided advice on what new core equipment would be required. It also liaised with the transmission partners of e.tv, including Platco, Globecast and Sentech, to achieve a seamless transition.
Planning for the move began in 2013. Dave Stewart, e.tv’s group chief engineer and project leader worked with Wilson from Megahertz to examine the existing ingest, editing, graphics, newsroom and production studio equipment. They identified what could be transferred to the new facility and which equipment could be moved without causing disruption to operations. Since the move also involved an upgrade to HD, any equipment that was not already HD-capable was to be either replaced or upgraded.
Some equipment choices for the new build were straightforward, either because of the workflow already established at e.tv or because of existing relationships with manufacturers. However, the broadcaster was not satisfied with some areas of its existing workflow, so the move to a green field site allowed Megahertz to take a fresh look at both practices and suppliers and to explore what could be done to improve them.
The outcome was a phased approach, involving the migration of existing systems and the testing of new platforms. As part of the wider technology transfer and upgrade, the team at Megahertz reviewed the file-based workflow media management and playout infrastructure it had installed for e.tv’s channel expansion project in 2010.
The incumbent Pebble Beach Systems (PBS) automation workflow, which handles the movement of media across the e.tv facility, was upgraded from Neptune to Marina with an added Anchor media management system. The upgraded system was transferred to the new site alongside a number of Omneon Spectrum servers from Harmonic.
Certain systems, including these existing Omneon servers that support the PBS file-based workflow, could be moved in stages. By borrowing the standby servers, moving them into the new building and later migrating the main servers from the old building to become the standby servers for the new facility, Megahertz ensured that a smooth changeover could be achieved. Where new equipment such as routers was required, these were purchased early on to allow for onsite testing.
This project also saw the installation of a substantial amount of infrastructure in the new e.tv facility, including Vinten camera robotics, two Grass Valley Miranda 8000 routers - one for lines traffic and a larger router for all the transmission traffic - as well as Volicon off-air compliance recorders.
First African ALTO deployment
One of the most unique aspects of this project was the deployment of a five petabyte Alto-II spinning disc archiving solution from Disk Archiving Solution (DAC), which is used as online storage for all media with the exception of commercials and promotions, which are stored on an Omneon MediaGrid Ethernet-based network storage solution.
Because of the number of channels run by e.tv, there’s a lot of video content that needs both storage and easy access on site. Traditionally, all those materials would have been stored off line or alternatively archived to a LTO tape library, which would have involved mechanical moving parts, tapes snagging and a large footprint on the ground. That is why Megahertz recommended the deployment of Africa’s first ALTO tapeless archive solution at e.tv.
“We realised e.TV needed to access material quickly, reduce the amounts of space it had been dedicating to tape storage and also reduce its carbon footprint,” explained Wilson. “Until recently, keeping content on disc meant the disc had to spin continuously. In comparison to tape, DAC’s ALTO II system allows the disc to power down, so it switches off when not in use and therefore doesn’t consume power. This has lead to a much reduced power consumption bill and of course, storage footprint, while offering the instant access of a disc drive.”
Any media ingested or transmissions approved from within the PBS Marina system are simultaneously sent for online storage to ALTO-II and to a Spectralogic Tape library for archive. When transmission lists are compiled for playout, the PBS workflow looks to the ALTO first for material, following on to the Spectralogic archive if that material is not available on the DAC archive. The DAC ALTO chassis at e.tv can be expanded as future needs may require and forms a core part of the broadcaster’s disaster recovery effort.
Taking control of live transmission
Much of the modular infrastructure in the new facility was provided by Axon and includes synchronisers, converters, multiviewers and transmission switchers. The new facility also features a central control and monitoring system combining Axon’s SynMC master control and Cerebrum monitoring and control software platform.
This ‘glue’ equipment was key to solving one of the design challenges presented to Megahertz during this project: to review and improve the operation of e.tv’s Final Control Centre (FCC). During the transmission of live events, the broadcaster prefers to have an operator take control of the channel and manage it for the duration. In the former studio buildings, channel operators worked in lightly partitioned cubicles within the main FCC. This transmission environment, originally tailored to e.tv’s demands, was now ready for an upgrade to bring it in line with the broadcaster’s current needs for flexibility and future expansion.
Within the new facility, the main FCC desk is the hub of operations and is surrounded by a group of six booths separated by glass walls. This layout provides a more suitable working environment for the operators to monitor and control live transmissions, away from the hustle and bustle of the main FCC, whilst allowing them visual contact with the transmission controllers.
Using a hardware or software panel, the SynMC master control allows the operator to take control and set transitions for the vision, programme sound, voiceover and graphics needed to run a live broadcast. SynMC enables up to 18 channels to be installed into a single Axon Synapse frame. The hardware panel communicates with the channel cards, router and any automation via Ethernet. The system offers flexible license upgrades to enable Digital Video Effect function and add-on cards such as a Keyer or Logo can be included to expand the channels’ capabilities.
The number of logos required when broadcasting in South Africa is a major concern for e.tv. Considerations include a bug for the station identity and up to 32 potential logos or content rating, any of which might by law need to be displayed simultaneously. Axon increased the amount of presets in the SynMC image store to accommodate this need.
Loudness control was another particularly hot topic for e.TV. The broadcaster adopted embedded audio throughout the new facility, offering a daughter board audio card technology from preferred supplier Jünger Audio.
360˚ view of operations
Another first for e.tv in Cape Town was the use of a manufacturer agnostic station-wide monitoring and control system from which the broadcaster could centrally manage its resources around the building. This enables the PBS automation system to connect with Axon’s Cerebrum control system and SynMC master controllers, as well as the N Vision routers, for example.
Cerebrum enables both the monitoring and control of any equipment that supports a third party interface – be it an API, a driver written by Axon or Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) as used by numerous vendors for the monitoring and control of equipment. Information is presented to the operator in a highly graphical manner for ease of use.
Finally, a series of custom Cerebrum forms (panels) were created by Megahertz senior engineer Chris Harwood to monitor the station. Having gained a deep understanding of the broadcaster’s workflow and daily operations over the course the project, Harwood researched and reviewed the visual templates that Cerebrum offers to find the best approach for e.tv.
The resulting panels, displayed on two 55-inch monitors in the workshop area, provide a central monitoring point from where the duty manager can switch between panels and monitor anything on the system. The operator can inspect transmission and in the event of an alarm drill down using the graphic displays to locate and resolve a fault. The system can be shown as a complete broadcast chain, using colour to indicate its status (Green = Good, Amber = Warning, Red = Alarm), providing a 360˚view of operations.
A formula for success: Technology & People
After years of detailed planning, e.tv relocated to its new facilities over the course of several months and has now been on-air 24 hours a day, seven days a week without technical problems.
This impressively smooth transition to both a new facility and HD operations was the result of expert systems integration and project management by e.tv and Megahertz, with intense cooperation between all parties involved. e.tv had absolute confidence in its systems integrator and Megahertz, in turn, had implicit trust in the manufacturers it chose to work with.
“Any project which involves picking up eight busy channels and moving them across town is always going to be a challenge on a knife-edge,” commented Stewart of e.tv. “Even while the planning and moving is happening, we still have a station to run and channels to put out. So we needed a partner we could trust to come in and take responsibility for the move.
“Megahertz has always been grounded in solid, practical broadcast engineering skills,” he concluded. “We have worked closely together, of course, but I have been able to let them get on with the job safe in the knowledge that they had anticipated all the problems and pinch points. The move was seamless.”