Moving a busy broadcast centre is not an easy task.
Choosing a new location and engaging an architect with a building design you like are only the first steps. The technical move alone requires years of detailed planning if you are to remain on air throughout the process. So when e.tv made the decision to move from their Longkloof studios to a new purpose-built facility, they looked to their UK-based systems integration partner Megahertz to help them plan and manage the relocation and undertake the technical fit-out.
e.tv is the first free-to-air commercial TV station in South Africa and currently transmits eight TV channels via both terrestrial and satellite. It started life in 1998 broadcasting from its Longkloof studios in Cape Town where it remained until November 2015 when, over a single weekend, services were relocated to e.tv’s new broadcast centre at 4 Stirling Street, with Axon modular infrastructure and control and monitoring at its heart.
Building new facilities and workflows
Planning for the move began in 2013. The first task for Dave Stewart, e.tv’s group chief engineer and project leader and Don Wilson, systems engineering manager from Megahertz was to examine the existing ingest, editing, graphics, newsroom and three production studios to identify what equipment should to be reutilised in the new facility and how moving this equipment could be achieved without causing disruption to operations. Another aim of the move was an upgrade to HD so any equipment that was not already HD-capable would need to be replaced or upgraded.
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 to explore what could be done to improve them.
The outcome was a phased approach with migration of existing systems and the testing of new platforms. Certain systems, such as existing Omneon servers, 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 ensured that a smooth changeover could be achieved. Where new equipment such as routers were required, these were purchased early on to allow for onsite testing.
With e.tv requiring a completely new core infrastructure in place to facilitate the move and build their new workflows upon, the choice of modular infrastructure was just as important as the big-ticket items. Modular infrastructure manages many of the important processes within a facility, so the chosen vendor had to offer all the key elements of video and audio processing needed to glue the entire system together.
Taking control of live transmission with SynMC
One of the key design challenges presented to Megahertz was to review and improve the environment and operation of the Final Control Centre (FCC). e.tv’s preference for transmission of live events is to have an operator take control of the channel and manage it during the live portion. Another consideration for the design of the transmission chains was e.tv’s rate of growth. The broadcaster required a transmission system that could be quickly and easily expanded to provide additional channels as they came on stream.
With this in mind, Megahertz proposed a new design for the new broadcast centre whereby the main FCC desk would become the hub of operations 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 Tx controllers.
“Our search for solutions to meet the needs of the new FCC began in earnest at IBC 2013,” explains Don Wilson.
“Axon’s Synapse infrastructure and SynMC Master Controller system immediately came to the fore. Its modular nature would make it easy for us to add new channels in the future and it includes a hardware master controller panel capable of accessing any of e.tv’s channels on an ad hoc basis.”
Being modular SynMC also takes up little space and it is possible to have up to 18 channels installed into a single Synapse frame. The hardware panel communicates with the channel cards, router and any automation via Ethernet.
The initial plan was to equip four of the six booths for operations, the remaining two booths being pre- wired ready to equip for service as channel count increased. SynMC’s modular approach meant that Megahertz could plan for expansion by pre-installing a single frame that could later be populated with cards to bring a new channel online simply and easily without causing disruption to the existing services.
One specific issue for e.tv is the number of logos required when broadcasting in South Africa. Not only is there a bug for the station ident, but by law there are up to 60 potential logos for content rating, any of which might need to be displayed simultaneously. The combination of logos filled up the amount of presets in the image store. So in the space of a few weeks Axon increased the amount of presets in the SynMC to accommodate this specific need.
“We were really encouraged by Axon’s willingness to develop custom features that would provide e.tv with a system that precisely met their workflow requirements,” says Don Wilson. “Their product team’s openness and collaborative approach was a deciding factor in choosing Synapse and SynMC for this project.”
Dave Stewart continues, “Axon’s Synapse range of modular infrastructure is highly regarded worldwide and I was immediately impressed by the build quality and scope of the system.” Loudness control was a particularly hot topic for Dave and the ability to buy a card populated with processing from his preferred supplier, Jünger Audio, and control the audio within the embedded domain was a big bonus as all audio in the new build would be transported embedded.
Cerebrum delivers 360-degree view of operations
Possibly one of the most important features that Megahertz wanted to bring to this build and a first for e.tv in Cape Town was the use of a powerful station-wide monitoring and control system from which the broadcaster could centrally manage its resources around the building.
The systems integrator wanted a system that could automatically populate multi-viewers, UMD’s and route signals as and when resources were allocated. It also needed to efficiently raise the alarm to e.tv’s engineers should anything in the system present an error so that issues could be resolved quickly.
Cerebrum, Axon’s monitoring and control software platform, was an obvious candidate for this, not only because it could talk to all of the Axon infrastructure but more importantly because it is manufacturer agnostic, an aspect that was essential for the e.tv build as equipment would be used from a wide range of vendors. Cerebrum enables both monitoring and control of any equipment that supports a third party interface. This can be an API, a driver written by Axon or Simple Network Management Protocol as used by numerous vendors for monitoring and optionally control of equipment.
The last stage of the build was to create a series of custom Cerebrum forms (panels) to monitor the station. Having gained a deep understanding of the broadcaster’s workflow and daily operations over the course the project, Megahertz’s senior engineer Chris Harwood was able to research and review the visual templates that Cerebrum offers to find the best approach for e.tv.
Working closely with Axon’s product manager for Cerebrum, he selected forms that visually represent the e.tv system as racks of equipment. These are displayed on two 55 inch monitors in the Workshop and provide a central monitoring point where the duty engineer can switch between forms and monitor anything on the system.
Don Wilson concludes, “Over the course of e.tv’s relocation we have a developed a close working relationship with Axon, unlike those we have with other manufacturers.”
“It’s been a true partnership of support and collaboration. The team’s responsiveness, their technical expertise and ability to get the job done has been crucial to to this project’s success.”