Richard Dean reports on the file-based HD initiative from Associated Press, the world’s oldest and largest newsgathering organisation.
The multi-million dollar upgrade by Associated Press of its global newsgathering infrastructure – the single biggest investment in its video business since the acquisition of Worldwide Television News in 1998 – is on course for completion in time for the London Olympics (27 July to 12 August 2012).
“Actually we’ll have HD entertainment coverage and file-based workflows in place by the end of this year, and move on to sport and live news coverage by the middle of 2012,” says David Hoad, AP’s director of Global Video Technology.
It’s a huge undertaking for the London-based company, which supplies live news video and edited clips of entertainment, sport and lifestyle coverage to more than 1,000 national and international broadcasters and major portals worldwide via an international satellite and fibre network. With video bureaux in more than 80 countries, AP claims that more than half the world’s population sees its news every day.
By the time this ambitious ‘camera to customer’ upgrade is complete, AP claims it will have the most advanced and innovative video newsgathering operation on the planet. “This is much more than a parity game,” says Hoad. So what’s involved? “The aim is to deliver HD content from a breaking news story to all of our customers, which means replacing all of our cameras and migrating to the latest generation of video editing, compression and transfer tools that a field producer will use,” says Hoad. “AP has always done a lot of editing on location – typically using Apple Final Cut Pro – as it produces a more complete result from those who know the story best.
“We shall also be upgrading all of our production and distribution equipment, and are investing in technology to allow live coverage of news events via cellular phone networks to give customers improved content coverage, as our camera staff will no longer be tethered to a satellite truck.
“Ultimately this investment will give our customers a wide range of options about the technology they use to receive video, both in the traditional broadcast market and on digital platforms – and we believe 2011 is the tipping point when the majority of the international TV news market will want pictures in HD.”
AP began the project with a detailed analysis of customers’ requirements, followed by a technical assessment of competing Sony and Panasonic cameras at the end of last year. “We decided that the Panasonic P2 solid state system was right for us,” says Hoad. “We considered it to be more reliable within a hostile environment – such as desert sand in the Middle East for example – than any electro-mechanical system, and a better fit for our file-based workflow.
“We’ll be using a mixture of P2 cards, mostly at the lower end of capacity, as we do a lot of fast turnaround, short duration material. Field material will be locally archived onto consumer-based technology such as Blu-ray, which is widely available and doesn’t need a support package.
“Looking beyond the acquisition of content, we are installing a state-of-the-art HD MCR in London and an integrated satellite and video over IP contribution network capable of working in HD and SD. There will also be a new video production system in London that fully integrates with our archive systems, to ensure that all content is captured in HD for our archive customers.
“Outside of London we are undertaking very similar MCR and production system upgrades in New York, Washington DC and LA,” says Hoad. “The mobile systems providing content to our GMS (Global Media Services) customers will also be upgraded to HD but will be flexible enough to provide customer feeds in HD or SD.”
Sprint to the line
As well as the delivery of HD and SD files to Media Port, live breaking news in HD video for APTN Direct, HD services to GMS customers and the upgrade of archive systems to capture HD content, the new system will see the introduction of ‘eBusiness’ transactions and the global migration to a true file-based workflow. “AP is undertaking market research and discussions with customers regarding the file formats to be supported by the new eBusiness delivery platforms,” says Hoad.
Several projects are already running in parallel. “We have started to deploy new solid state cameras, video editing, compression and transfer tools, and appointed system integrators to upgrade the London and New York MCRs. Plans are also underway on replacement production systems in London, and upgrades to our video communications networks.”
These new systems and workflows build on AP’s current use of technology, where a producer can edit content at the desktop as it is being recorded for fast turnaround to customers via the company’s GVW (Global Video Wire), APTN Direct and Media Port services.
All 80 AP video news bureaux will be affected to some extent, with large locations undergoing significant upgrades such as MCR, editing and transmission technologies, while smaller one person bureaux will have new camera and editing equipment.
Hoad admits that AP faces an aggressive timescale to complete this work in time for the launch of its first digital news products in HD by the end of this year – followed by a sprint towards the ‘drop dead’ finishing line of London 2012. “The magnitude of this project is such that we shall have to upgrade all of our infrastructure right from the camera lens to the distribution technologies and everything in between,” he says. “However in recent years we’ve been purchasing HD-ready equipment in preparation for this strategic initiative, so not every nut and bolt will need to be replaced as we migrate to HD.
The majority of video infrastructure will be replaced or upgraded to HD, although some of the equipment will be retained as AP still has a need to work with SD in specific locations. The oldest equipment will be recycled where possible, or if not scrapped.
Clearly not all customers will have ‘gone HD’ by the middle of next year. “Indeed, so as well as delivering HD content via APTN Direct and as HD files via Media Port, we shall maintain SD files via Media Port. Also the GVW will remain as a linear playout of content in SD. By adopting this hybrid approach to content delivery, we shall be allowing customers to choose the format most applicable to them,” says Hoad, adding that AP currently has no major plans to introduce 3D services.
Despite the new capability to interface with cellular networks, Hoad doesn’t expect to see a significant change in the proportion of satellite delivery compared to fibre. “There is still a need for both methods of acquisition, and over the years AP has been very innovative in how we use technology to cover breaking news.
“Often in some very remote and challenging locations, different types of technology have been vital in getting content to our customers as fast as possible, and the new system should streamline that process.”
There are also plans to make greater use of the internet for content delivery, but satellite remains the principal means of delivery for HD content to broadcasters. “The internet will be a very important part of the customer experience going forward for our new products that are under development,” Hoad adds.
After all this investment in an expensive network of professional newsgathering crews and equipment, doesn’t the increasingly high quality footage from private camcorders or even phones represent a threat to parts of the newsgathering industry?
“Citizen journalism has a part to play, and sometimes delivers great footage,” says Hoad. “But we don’t see it as a competitor: apart from high quality technical and editorial standards, we can offer a level of trust and authority that cannot necessarily be relied upon from an amateur source.”