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Sky News hits HD headlines

2 June 2010
Sky News hits HD headlines

High definition channels remain the exception rather than the rule and HD news channels are a collector’s item. Although Fox and CNN have launched HD in the US, the launch of Sky News HD, simulcast alongside its 24-hour SD news channel, is a rarity in Europe, writes Adrian Pennington.

The catalyst for the move was coverage of Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration in January 2009 which Sky News aired on Sky Arts HD. “It proved to be successful technically and in audience figures so there was a collective view to make this a permanent HD channel,” says Sky News Head of Technology, Steve Bennedik. “We repeated the trial covering the Michael Jackson Memorial although the decision to go for an HD channel was already taken. We thought it would take around a year so in the back of our minds was the May 2010 general election which gave us a good timeframe to work toward.”

The satellite broadcaster’s existing SD infrastructure needed to be ripped out and replaced with HD kit while the channel remained on air. “Introducing HD without compromising the exiting SD service was the main challenge,” says Bennedik. “It’s like making a triple heart by pass while the patient is still up and about. We didn’t want the viewers to notice or the journalists’ jobs to be compromised.”

The production gallery was moved twice into a temporary facility built by Visions in a portakabin at Sky’s Osterley HQ. Several existing tech components were retained while others – notably from Quantel to EVS ingest and server equipment – were swapped. The EVS set up includes 14 XS and 2 XT2 production servers, and a 200 TB Xstore2 SAN.

“The decision to change servers was the most difficult,” reports Bennedik. “We made a rigorous examination of server systems and felt that EVS was a progressive company whose ethos and evolution over the next five years, such as moving to web clients, seemed to match ours. That’s not a criticism of Quantel. We had a good relationship with them and parted on good terms.” Indeed Sky recently added a Quantel Enterprise sQ system to produce Sky Sports News at its new Harlequin 1 production facility.

Sky News already had a tapeless strategy centered on media asset management and library system Viz Ardome and it had been capturing on Panasonic P2 SD/HD switchable (AJ-HPX2100) units for a couple of years. “We were also using Final Cut Pro in the field, so this gave us another advantage,” adds Bennedik. “We can ingest directly into the EVS servers system, or into our Ardome Ardendo tapeless library system. This can then be picked up by an editor in FCP, or journalist on EVS browser.”

Twenty five EVS Xedio HD systems (Clean Edit), and in addition an EVS clip compiler (thin client) are available for the bulk of the newsroom to use predominantly as a browse tool. “Clean Edit allows for more sophisticated editing and audio monitoring and changes,” he explains. “We’ve given it to the on-air news journalists, and to key specialist areas such as sport and business, to boost their ability to shape content, and get material to air fast. It’s also used by our online and multi-platform production teams who can carry out the majority of work without FCP.”

Another retained component was Avid iNews newsroom software which is upgraded to version 2.8 and mirrored for disaster recovery with seats for up to 1000 staff.

Bennedik tasked EVS to find a way to integrate content management system IPDirector with iNews. This was achieved through MOS protocol support and the introduction of an Active X browser. Any running order managed from the iNews client interface is kept up to date on the IPDirector control panel, ensuring full control over the rundown of playlists in IPDirector.

With EVS’ new ActiveX plug-in database browser, which is integrated with the iNews client, Avid operators can access any EVS clip and associated metadata referenced in the IPDirector database and add it with a simple drag and drop to the rundown list. The ActiveX browser allows the user to do search on any IPDirector database field.

INews rundowns create and update IPDirector playlists in realtime with associated metadata (name, duration, time code as well as iNews specific data) using MOS Protocol. Clips in the iNews rundown, which are not already available in hi-res on the EVS server, are referenced as a virtual element in the EVS ActiveX interface. Once the content is online on the server, the clip status is instantly visible in the iNews rundown.

“In terms of feeds, we now go through to our New Operation Centre (NOC) in the news building, where the NOC engineers sit with Master Control,” explains Bennedik. “We have 40 lines coming in, through the NOC. The NOC team can arc and amend feeds to comply with the required format. Everything is up-converted at the point of entry, and down-converted later downstream if necessary.”

There are 16 recording lines in ingest, instead of the previous twelve, set permanently in record, so feeds can be protected and named. Feeds are then sent to the EVS SAN, where all the video is stored before being accessed via EVS clip compiler and Clean Edit. Media Managers control what’s held and what goes to library.

“Our workflow is changing to more IP delivery,” he says. “So our Washington bureau has been updated and converted to be an HD hub. The rest of our foreign bureau will follow in future phases. We have an MPLS system set-up in London, and this includes regular plug-in points such as Scotland Yard, the Old Bailey, and Westminster.

Resolution of assets
Footage from Sky News crews is shot 1080i DVCPRO 100 and maintained as such through the process. Archive is the same as acquisition with P2 content ingested directly into the production environment.

Ingest is made into EVS via file transfer and can also be made into the Ardome system via Viz Media Porter. Two P2 players enable ingest in realtime if required.

Sky isn’t saying what percentage of its HD news channel will in fact be HD originated but it cannot mandate agencies like AP or Reuters to deliver in HD, even though both have standardised on P2.

“If the day features largely domestic news then you will see predominantly HD coverage, but if we have to rely on foreign stories or stories from remote locations then content is more likely to be SD uprezzed,” he reports. “Often where Sky leads, others follow but it would take other broadcasters transitioning to HD to ensure consistent agency HD delivery.”

Vizrt is driving new realtime HD graphics for the channel, as it is for Sky Sports and Sky 3D. Its tools provide multi-touch screen interactivity and a centralised database with shared access for all Vizrt graphics at Osterely. Viz also drives the Barco newswall which has been upgraded to HD by replacing the SD input cards and concentrating on configuration and calibration.

There’s additional investment in a Chryon HyperX3 graphics system, together with a Chyron CAMIO cluster service and OMS (Order management System), to enhance graphics creation and generation. “We chose Chryon because it gave us design capability and flexibility for playout,” explains Bennedik. “Chryon Lyric drives screen architecture, for example, text generated for lower screen thirds and locators.”

The core of the gallery is a Grass Valley Kayenne switcher with which several K2 Summit servers integrate directly. This allows rapid update of banners, straps and graphics.

“We also use Chryon’s LUCI system, with newsroom client Active X, to enable journalists to remotely browse templates and do the more simple full frame graphics with text, and insert them into the iNews rundown,” he explains.

Additional kit includes an HD gallery display of Evertz VIP multi-image processors; an upgraded production studio including 12 Grass Valley LDK 8000 Elite WorldCam HD cameras and the introduction of new PCs, monitors and a HD ring main into the newsroom.

“This is a massive project,” says Bennedik. “Only the shell of the building remains the same. All the cards and wiring has been changed beneath people’s feet. We kept the majority of integration in-house to give Sky teams a genuine ‘buy-in’ to the whole process.”

Although full channel launch was May 6 the gallery was used in earnest to produce the Leaders Debate in the run up to the election in HD. Never one to miss a trick, the Sky 3D team arranged two 3D rigs on the studio floor and shot the debate in stereo for replay on the Sky 3D promotional channel.

“When I first saw, in rehearsal, the new studio look, graphics, tickers and live inserts for HD News I had a Eureka moment,” recalls Bennedik. “It looked fantastic – all the work we’d done really has paid off.”

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