In November 2010, BPME broke the story of a partnership between BSkyB and ADMIC to launch Sky News Arabia. In March 2011, we reported that TSL had secured the SNA systems integration project. This CABSAT, Vijaya Cherian brings you the first comprehensive case study from SNA, based on exclusive interviews with launch technical director Bevan […]
In November 2010, BPME broke the story of a partnership between BSkyB and ADMIC to launch Sky News Arabia. In March 2011, we reported that TSL had secured the SNA systems integration project. This CABSAT, Vijaya Cherian brings you the first comprehensive case study from SNA, based on exclusive interviews with launch technical director Bevan Gibson, CTO Dominic Baillie and input from TSL
In Spring 2012, Sky News Arabia (SNA), one of the Arab worlds most anticipated Arabic news channels will go on air. Although the exact time and date of broadcast appears to be a closely guarded secret, the channels launch technical director Bevan Gibson claims his team is on schedule.
Sky News Arabia is a joint venture between BSkyB, Skys parent company, and Abu Dhabi Media Investment Corporation (ADMIC), and presently has around 300 people at its facility in the UAE capital. The channel, available in High Definition (HD) and Standard Definition (SD), is intended to be available on multiple platforms including online and other devices such as tablets and smart phones.
When BroadcastPro visited SNA at its new home in the twofour54 campus in Abu Dhabi, the team seemed to be putting the final touches to its production and newsroom operations.
A single large studio, which was previously built as part of the twofour54 intaj facility, and has been taken over by SNA, was under wraps at the time of our visit. The studio is said to have a number of presentation areas within the set dedicated to different programming styles, based on time of day and has been adapted by Sky News to suit its requirements. This includes fitting glass panels to enable greater visibility with the other operational areas in the studio. SNA is using 11 Sony cameras as part of this setup, although all of them are not deployed in the main studio.
Sony HD cameras, Vinten Radamec robotic pedestals, a Grass Valley Kayenne production switcher and Calrec audio mixers are part of this set up with motion graphics and clips triggered by a Kayenne switcher from Grass Valley K2 production servers and a large Vizrt graphics system. All production content, including crafted packages are held on an EVS storage area network, and are cued from the Kayenne. This project also includes the construction of a small contribution studio.
A new three-storey block, built alongside the studio, houses the rest of the operations including the newsroom, graphics and editing, machine rooms as well as SNAs news operations centre (NOC).
Unlike most other news operations in the region, SNA has a launch team headed by Bevan Gibson, who was also responsible for the technical design of Sky News HD in the UK. The launch team, which comprises a couple of dozen people including design engineers, project managers, audio specialists, online staff as well as legal and financial experts among others, have come together from Skys international facilities to put together a world class facility in Abu Dhabi. SNAs chief technology officer Dominic Baillie has been working alongside the launch team since September 2010 and is responsible for all technical systems and their operation. After the channel launches, the launch team will disassemble and return to their respective facilities leaving the permanent team to manage the operations.
The launch team was tasked with selecting a systems integrator following a thorough procurement process. TSL Middle East was chosen to design a solution that would follow in the same vein as Skys international operations while also focusing on the quality and the scope of newsgathering and ensuring that its workflows are automated and as streamlined as possible.
Gibson, who has worked with Sky since 2003 and specifically with Sky News since 2005, has seen the media networks news requirements evolve over the years and has been instrumental in ensuring that Skys newsgathering mandates have been followed at the Abu Dhabi facility. This includes building an advanced news operations centre (NOC) that is designed to give Sky a lot of operational flexibility while ensuring stringent quality control.
We did a lot of work initially in the UK to get our newsgathering techniques up to speed and have increasingly enhanced how our newsgathering teams operate in the field. We have moved from the traditional methods of newsgathering using satellite technology to more streaming and store-and-fold operations using IP networks.
Flexibility is key in any news operation and this is what our NOC provides. NOC utilises IP networks to bring all of our content into the building. We have a pretty comprehensive IP network internationally and have built a very advanced NOC in Abu Dhabi as well.
The purpose of our NOC is to convert any signal to our production format. We are a 1080i HD channel; its the same format we use in the UK as well. NOC QCs content as it comes in and converts it to the HD format that we use and from here; it goes into our production chain and is seamlessly fed into our tapeless workflow, explains Gibson.
As the Abu Dhabi facility is the newest in the Sky stable, its workflow is clearly a lot more advanced as the team has had the opportunity to learn from its previous projects.
We have enhanced our workflows substantially and the system here takes advantage of what we have learnt during the launch of our first news HD project in the UK in 2009. When we initially launched Sky News HD, for instance, we learnt that newsgathering in HD can be quite tricky. If you are working with partner organisations, for instance, you are likely to receive a lot of SD material.
We wanted to have the largest amount of HD content when compared to other HD news channels out there and maintain that quality. If people are going to tune in, we wanted to give them HD material rather than up converting SD content. To achieve that, we equipped our crews with the latest HD equipment and ensured that the bureaux were capable of sending HD material in and if we were to deploy portable equipment to places where breaking news happened, we ensured that would be HD as well. So everything from the satellite space we booked to the edit suites and every part of the workflow has to be capable of supporting HD, says Gibson.
One system that Sky has been comfortable using in the field is the Panasonic P2 cameras.
This is the standard we have maintained everywhere on the field and we have developed our workflows around it over the years.
There are also new devices and advances in this workflow that allow our team to be flexible on the field and get our news as quickly as possible on TV before our competition, he points out.
The SNA team undertook the project in close coordination with systems integrator TSL, who was awarded the contract in 2011. System design, construction, installation, and training and rehearsals for a largely new staff drawn from the Middle East and North Africa had to be completed in time for its impending launch.
We have a huge design team both here and in the UK that worked in conjunction with TSL to ensure everything worked well.
TSL brought several advantages. By having a base in the UAE, it was able to provide local support and staffing. At the same time, its facilities in the UK were large enough to build a complete system that included 100 racks of equipment that could be tested before being shipped to Abu Dhabi. Building the racks in the right relative locations also meant that much of the inter-cabinet cabling could be prepared ahead of time.
More importantly, TSL claims to have brought a completely vendor-agnostic approach to system design, which allowed Sky News Arabia to specify some key pieces of equipment, and to develop a pragmatic approach to the rest of the architecture, which was important to deliver a system that was not only functional but easy to support over the lifecycle of its capital investment.
Below, we take a look at some of the technical highlights of this project.
Studio and newsroom
One distinctive feature here is the use of an overall monitoring and routing layer driving very large monitor walls: one of the largest ever built (10 metres wide and with 400 tiles). Routing and processing is by Miranda. As well as the studio control room, the large monitor walls provide viewing of all sources or multi-view layouts in the network operation centre.
An Avid iNews system drives the newsroom. This is linked, through MOS, to Vizrt graphics and a large EVS media production server system that provides the asset management for all production content.
As well as controlling recorded material inserted into the news programming, Harris provides automated playout, switching between the studio and recorded content and commercials. Omneon servers are used for transmission. Although the channels SD and HD versions run the same programming, the graphics and interstitials are tuned to each variant so the two are treated as separate outputs. A Spectralogic tape robot is linked to the EVS and Omneon server networks. Front Porch Digital archive software talks to the EVS and Harris software to ensure efficient retrieval of content. The project also includes the construction of a small contribution studio.
Graphics and Post Production
The vast amount of local and international feeds that are expected to arrive at the station each day will be ingested onto an EVS server network, from where it can be accessed by any user in real time.
Twelve edit suites are included in the project, running Apples Final Cut Pro. These edit directly on the EVS storage area network for maximum speed and efficiency. Completed packages are dropped into a dedicated folder for checking, quality control and delivery to playout.
Vizrt drives the graphics at Sky News Arabia. Extensive use is made of template graphics, allowing journalists to complete captions from their desktops. More sophisticated graphics and maps are created by specialists and transferred to the studio for transmission.
Perhaps one of the key technical achievements that the launch team is proud of is a resource management system that streamlines resource allocation.
This system enables us to optimise the use of resources. So if you have a big news story and you need to record something for six hours, you require a standards converter, you need to change the aspect ratio, shuffle a couple of audio channels and so on. The system dynamically allocates resources and that means, there is a more effective utilisation of resources, explains Gibson.
Sky News Arabia also wanted a unified bookings system for its communications systems around the world. In the traditional television news operation, each element required is booked separately, calling for a lot of manual co-ordination. Sky News Arabia wanted to be able to make a single booking for all functionality. The solution uses the ScheduAll booking system, to which the manufacturer developed additional functionality to provide connectivity with a number of other systems. These include Miranda routing, quality control and editing, as well as IP circuits and switches and recording. An extension to the contract will add control of the satellite farm, so dishes and transponders, together with Tandberg and Harris encoders and decoders, will be included in the unified booking system.
TSL drove the development of new functionality for the Broadcast Bionics PhoneBox system. It is now capable of controlling the Riedel intercom infrastructure, so that as well as setting up the complete signal path a ScheduAll booking also sets up the talkback paths between the appropriate locations.
The result is that a single booking can set up an encoder in, say, Cairo, and connect it via MPLS or satellite path to Sky News Arabia; route it to a decoder, transcoder or audio shuffler as required; record it to the server and update the asset management; and ensure that all participants are connected on talkback. All the elements are automated, so the booking merely requires source, destination file and time.
As all content within the centre is file-based, and the station is new, all content transfers at Sky News Arabia will be done over IP. To accomplish this while achieving broadcast standards of reliability, and allowing priorities to be set for traffic close to air time, called for careful design of the IP infrastructure. To deliver the required capacity and latency performance, TSL specified multiple networks, with Cisco Nexus 7000 switches in a collapsed core topology. This allows the content network to be managed and for all performance indicators to be achieved.
Built in to the requirements from the start was the recognition that television news now increasingly relies on non-broadcast content, and has to deliver to non-broadcast platforms. It was a central requirement that Skype video conversations should be used live on air, for example, or that YouTube or other user generated content (UGC) videos should be capable of being broadcast as soon as they were on line. Given that the design for Sky News Arabia was being developed at the time of the revolution in Egypt, these requirements were very much in the forefront.
Equally, audience loyalty is retained when they can access news from their preferred trusted source wherever they are. Making the same content available in multiple formats online for a range of IP devices from smartphones to the web called for a fast transcoding farm and the broadcaster worked closely with a content delivery network provider to push the material out.
These new requirements added to the traditional broadcast requirements of lines from remote bureaux, ingest, feeds to uplinks and other broadcast hosts, and sends from the small contribution studio to broadcasters around the world. The result is that Sky News Arabias network operations centre is large, featuring numerous operational positions sharing a huge 10-metre wide monitor wall.
One feature that is common across the Sky network is the use of Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) technology to cover events.
One of the core things we do in the UK is have a high-capacity network around central London, the UK and our bureaux in key locations around the world. We have tried to do the same here. Direct connectivity to the UK is very good and to some parts of the region is patchy. Some countries have amazing infrastructure while some countries dont, explains Gibson.
We have dedicated circuits so we buy high bandwidth, low latency, point-to-point connections that we wrap an MPLS network around so that we have got ability to do any point to any point within the network. London is going to be a key location for Sky News Arabia and we have great connectivity between here and London. We have about 12 dedicated regional hotspots. Where we can install connectivity, we have done that. Where the local infrastructure is not available, we would potentially use satellite technology and some internet tunnelling techniques to get our story across.
I know a lot of the markets around here are being deregulated from a telecoms point of view and that will hugely help when it comes to deploying MPLS technology. Having these networks in place to transfer content in good time is crucial for us as a news organisation because we want to get breaking news to air before the competition.
The system build took from June to August, with a rolling programme of factory acceptance seeing a sign-off from SNA in September. While the equipment was packed up and shipped to the Middle East, preparation and site cabling started in October. Final installation on site was in November and December.
Testing on site ran through January 2012, with site acceptance tests in February to ensure plenty of time for training, familiarisation and rehearsals before going on air. The project was not without its challenges especially when dealing with suppliers in different time zones, recalls Gibson.
A couple of racks of equipment ended up at random airports across the region but they are now all in place, he says.
The technology may now be in place but an even greater challenge awaits CTO Baillie.
The biggest challenge you face when you have sourced people from different broadcast operations is that they have all worked with different work ethics, workflows and have different levels of understanding about technology. Bringing all those people together with their different backgrounds and experience levels to work as one team and launch a channel that has to be impressive from the start is not easy. We do not have the luxury of evolving as Sky is a valuable brand. Sky News has become a massive force in news over the last 23 years and we have to live up to that reputation from the first broadcast.