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‘We’ve completely modernised every piece of infrastructure’: Discovery’s CTO talks plans for Beijing 2022

Simon Farnsworth, SVP, Technology and Operations at Discovery Europe talks to TVBEurope about the work that's gone on behind the scenes ahead of the broadcaster's coverage of the Winter Olympics in Beijing

With just over a week until the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics, European broadcaster Discovery has revealed its plans for the event.

Across both Eurosport and Discovery Plus, the company plans to reach 50 European countries and territories in 19 languages.

The broadcaster will be producing 1,200 live hours of coverage for viewers across Discovery’s linear and digital platforms, including Discovery Plus, Eurosport and the Eurosport app, and will be using 3,254 km of fibre optic cable in its broadcast operations, enough for a round trip between Beijing and Tokyo.

Since delivering its first Olympic Games from PyeongChang, South Korea, in 2018, Discovery’s technology team has been busy modernising Discovery and Eurosport’s infrastructure to allow the broadcaster to move into a digital age. 

“We completely modernised every single piece of infrastructure that we have in our production control rooms, so that’s vision mixers, sound desks, slo-mo replays, graphics engines, all of the monitoring,” Simon Farnsworth, SVP, Technology and Operations, tells TVBEurope. “We’ve completely rebuilt all of our playout and digital streaming. We’ve developed all new commentary infrastructure.

Simon Farnsworth inside the newly rebuilt Cube. Image courtesy Getty.

“We’ve essentially ripped out every single production control room and every single commentary booth and completely replaced them with IP remote production-based infrastructure. So we built hundreds and hundreds of commentary booths, probably up to 50 or 60 production control rooms, green screen studios, all around Europe. We’ve also completely rebuilt the Cube, and all of the network infrastructure that all sits on.”

The big change compared to Tokyo is that now is everybody will be on Discovery’s post production and media asset management platform, Grass Valley Stratus, sitting on AWS. “All of the content from Beijing and all the content that’s generated in our production centres gets ingested centrally, and anybody can get access to that content anytime they want. It’s through the MAM or through Premiere Pro, and all the metadata gets stored centrally,” explains Farnsworth.

Discovery will once again be using remote production as part of its workflows during Beijing 2022, not least for commentary. While there are physical commentary booths throughout Discovery’s offices in Europe, the technology team has also developed Discovery’s own in-house software where any commentator can log on from their home as long as they’ve got more than a 10 megabit internet connection. “We stream video to them,” Farnsworth adds, “they commentate and we take it back into our data centres and then distribute. We could do commentary from a hotel room, from someone’s bathroom, from someone’s kitchen, they could do it from a park if there was appropriate Wi Fi, they could even use 4G If they wanted to.”

Working on any event on the other side of the world has major challenges. For example, during  PyeongChang 2018 Discovery had to deal with fibre optic cables breaking due to earthquakes in Taiwan, as well as diggers in Edmonton in Canada digging up cables. This time, the team have put plenty of backups in place to deal with all eventualities. “In terms of weather related incidents that could affect our feeds back from Beijing, we now have four fibre optic cables coming back from Beijing into Europe,” says Farnsworth. “We also have a satellite service that comes back so if there’s bad weather, we’ve got fibre. If there’s a fibre cut, we’ve got the satellites, and we can downlink those satellite signals in all of our production centres as well as our data centres. With the two data centres that we have, if one data centre goes down, we can still manage the load with the other data centre, which is why we built two data centres in London and Hilversum as well as having all of our content stored in the cloud.”

The broadcaster will once again be offering viewers content in 4K via its pop-up channel as well as on Eurosport Player. “We’ve developed a 4K production platform that sits within Stratus cloud services so that we can edit and manipulate content in 4K,” he adds.

“The latency delivered back to our data centres is pretty much exactly the same. In terms of manipulating 4K, we have put some separate audio syncs in there, because it’s really around the audio that the challenge is. By the time the 4k goes out to a consumer you are ultimately dependent on CDNs as well as the telco’s last mile infrastructure, which we can’t ultimately predict or effect. We’re using JPEG XS from Beijing’s to deliver the fastest possible signal that we can to our consumers.”