In-sourcing Tech

Jan. 18, 2006
Discovery Channel’s broadcast technology creates seamless programming

By Julie Eisele

As television viewers cozy up for a night in front of the tube, few know about the extensive technology working to prevent gaffes, gaps, or blackouts from interrupting the show.

Such interruptions can be catastrophic to a broadcasting company. Extreme measures are taken to guarantee high levels of reliability. In the case of Discovery Communications’ state-of-the-art Television and Technology Center, which opened last August, nothing was left to chance.

The center, located in Sterling, VA, provides network origination, previously outsourced, for Discovery’s U.S. Networks. It is one of four origination centers for Discovery’s 90-plus networks, some of which include Discovery Channel, TLC, Animal Planet, and Discovery Kids. The company’s programming reaches 1.3 billion cumulative subscribers globally. The digital facility features some of the most sophisticated technology in the broadcast business. Its creation followed the company’s formation of the Technology and Media Services organization, which combines information and television technology experts.

Blending the production and IT functions into one building is part of the company’s effort to keep pace with technological evolution, says John Honeycutt, senior vice president of the company’s Television Operations Group. Discovery’s mission is to create a completely tapeless production and network origination environment, and the Sterling facility is a key component.

As part of that network origination environment, programs, commercials, promotions, and other broadcast components arrive on tape or via fiber-optic connections at the center and are prepared and consolidated to create seamless programming for 13 Discovery networks and BBC America. Each network is “played back” in the master control area and monitored, in digital format, to ensure quality. It is then sent via fiber optics to a satellite uplink and delivered to cable and satellite providers.

The building also houses information technology (IT) services. While this technology enables the broadcast operations, the facility also provides IT disaster recovery for several of Discovery’s business systems.

Right - From the Start

All of this means that viewers enjoy polished programming that is carefully produced and monitored behind the scenes. Viewers may take it for granted, but the technology required to make smooth broadcasting a reality - and the architectural needs of facilities that specialize in broadcasting - are complex and captivating.

The center includes eight active media “ingest” suites - expandable to 10 - where incoming materials are received and readied for broadcast; a live events control room for periodic live events; two post-production suites; and a transmission operation center. A huge digital archive is hosted on a server-based warehouse. After materials are received, they are prepared in a tapeless format using five video servers that offer 2,000 hours of online storage.

The 55,000-square-foot Sterling facility is located about 30 miles from Discovery’s headquarters in Silver Spring, MD. “No one had ever occupied this building. There was nothing in it, just electrical switch gear,” says David Baker, project architect and principal of Archcentric, Greenwood Village, CO, which provided architectural and engineering services for the project.

The assignment was to turn the shell building into a modern, high-tech broadcast facility. And while it presented its own challenges, this type of work was not new for Baker, whose firm specializes in “technical architecture.”

Baker explains that clients bring many disciplines into television facilities, such as antenna circuitry, satellite functions, live broadcast equipment, digital linking needs, and sophisticated computer networks. In addition, project managers must integrate electrical and mechanical systems into the building, and multiple backup systems are needed. All of the broadcast and building functions must coexist and operate smoothly, which is where Baker’s “technical architecture” specialty comes in.

“This is very much a niche type of architecture,” Baker notes. “We aren’t reinventing the wheel, but there are many different needs that have specific solutions, and we have a lot of dialogue with our mechanical and electrical engineers. It has to be done right or it could be a disaster.”

Owners of broadcast facilities often invest “literally billions of dollars,” Baker says. The amount spent on broadcast technology is often triple or quadruple the amount spent on the actual building. “Companies put a tremendous amount of capital in place, and sometimes it comes down to a circuit breaker that trips and takes them off the air. That’s why we pay such close attention to building systems,” he adds.

Masterful Controls

Many of the building systems are duplicated for backup. “There was a lot of time put into redundancy schemes. We go through all of those ‘what ifs.’ This is the heart and soul of Discovery Channel. This facility can’t go off the air,” Baker says.

The building has five uninterrupted power supplies and two emergency standby generators. Redundant electrical distribution equipment was separated so a breakdown in one area would not affect other operations. There are multiple backup systems for HVAC operations and for virtually all electronic functions. Even computer networks have duplicity, for reassurance. An alarm system also monitors all building operations and reports potential problems promptly.

The focal point of the building is the master control center, a circular, glass-encased room about 70 feet in diameter with monitoring screens that dominate the 360-degree room, designed by Archcentric. Supporting either high definition or standard definition platforms, the control room can broadcast up to 32 program channels.

The master control area includes three on-air supervisor posts, based in the center of the room and surrounded by 10 transmission pods, each equipped with monitoring and switching equipment, says Paul Berg, senior project manager at Ascent Media Systems and Integration, New York, NY, the systems integrator. Supervisors can see into each of the pods from their central location.

The design allows for two pods to be folded down into one; for example, in off-peak work hours. Programming can be transferred to another pod within fractions of a second, says Berg. That is made possible by a multiviewer processor, the Evertz MVP 3000, manufactured by Evertz Microsystems. Within the pods, employees observe three 67-inch monitors produced by Barco. The company designs screens up to 100 inches, and monitors can be integrated into almost any environment, such as the Internet, videoconferencing, and satellite links.

Each network has a dual channel arrangement, says Berg - each has two streams running simultaneously, one as a backup. The programming stream is routed through time delay units that provide a 3-hour delay of content. If an employee notices a glitch in the programming, a buffer can fix the situation: The time of the problem is noted and operators switch to the duplicating backup stream, so viewers do not notice the error. Program control and branding is accomplished using Miranda Oxtel switchers, says Berg.

The Show Must Go On

Additionally, the time delay allows for late adjustments, such as unexpected changes in scheduling. “The delay also allows Discovery to monitor what is leaving the building, to make sure it meets their quality standards,” Berg notes. The servers and all the transmission chain hardware are managed by the OmniBus Colossus broadcast automation system.

OmniBus provides computer automation and program management services; this technology is ultimately responsible for moving files from ingest to final play-out, says Berg. It also controls the movement of files through the facility’s massive archives, which are managed by Front Porch Digital. The company provides archive management computer systems for media companies, storing materials and offering searching and browsing functions.

Berg, who has worked on many similar broadcast facility projects, is impressed by the new center. “This facility is the best of its kind for this environment. This is a very powerful monitoring facility. We have used some unique techniques and technology that others have not used before.”

Architecturally, says Baker, the control room presented the most challenge. The 4,000-square-foot circular space is highly efficient for monitoring. However, the space experienced “focal point phenomenon,” says Baker - meaning speech and voice patterns bounced off surfaces and returned to the center, where supervisors are stationed inside a glass monitoring area. “There were some acoustical issues. We analyzed the situation and came up with some good, cost-effective solutions.” The project team chose sound-absorbent, low-reflective glass manufactured by Schott North America Inc., and the glass was angled strategically so that sound reflected down into the carpet. Sound-absorbent walls and ceiling tiles are also used in the room.

The control room’s efficient design mirrors the company’s desire to streamline its functions. Investing in cutting-edge technology and bringing this function in-house will result in lower costs for Discovery, says Berg. “This will have a tremendous impact on costs and will allow Discovery to have better control over monitoring,” he says.

For Discovery, it also means the company will no longer be subject to changing business deals made with outsourced vendors.

For viewers, most will remain unaware of the ubiquitous toiling at Discovery’s new technical hub as the company continues to deliver quality programming.

Monitors Bring Ease of Use to Discovery Channel

When Discovery Communications was gearing up to open its new Television and Technology Center, project managers put the signal out: They were looking for custom-designed, large-screen display monitors that offer superior performance 24/7.

The call was answered by Barco, a Belgium-based company that specializes in products and control rooms designed for broadcasting, telecommunications, air traffic control, medical imaging, and a variety of surveillance applications that range from traffic control to government situation rooms.

At Discovery’s Sterling, VA, facility, a curved wall - about 130 feet in length - lined with Barco monitors provides the capability to monitor about 1,000 broadcast sources. Users can reconfigure the sizes and layouts of the items on the screen, and the wall units can be modified and expanded as needed.

While Barco has a large broadcast market in the United States, the Discovery project was unique, says Jim Durant, market development manager for Barco’s broadcast market. The Discovery master control center is a circular room. Project managers wanted monitors placed side-by-side in the curved room, with no rear access to the units available because of the arched walls. That meant operators would need frontal access to the units’ system components. “We didn’t have that available at the time, though our design team - in Europe - was working on this type of product,” says Durant.

But the company was able to fast-track the needed design: Within 3 months, Barco custom-designed and produced specific units to meet Discovery’s needs. David Antosh, Barco’s chief designer for the project, created the modified design.

The front access gives Discovery employees quick access to each unit’s projection, illumination, and fan systems. “It’s important to have access to be able to fix the units in a matter of minutes,” says Durant. More than 30 Overview D DLPTM (digital light projection) units are used in the facility, offering 1280 x 1024 pixel resolution. The screens allow multiple images to be projected. The number of images depends on the software used, but Durant said the range of possibilities is up to the software employed by the end-user.

The monitors are easy to install, can be flexible to meet room layout, and are ultimately designed for 24/7 use. High contrast technology and low glare enhance the working environment.

The company also touts the product’s ergonomic benefits. In the past, control rooms were more functional than comfortable. Better imaging and improved operational efficiencies have improved work conditions in control rooms, says Durant. “The more pleasant the rooms are, the less fatigued people are, and the more productive they are,” he adds.

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