New broadcast technology serves CBC well

This week the international sports media will have their eyes focused on Helsinki as they cover the World Track and Field Championships.

However, editors at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), responsible for compiling hours of footage for broadcast, won’t be doing their job in Finland but in Toronto.

“In the past, we would have up to 11 edit suites at the event,” said Joe Sidoli, director, productions resources, CBC TV network sports. Now, he said, all of that can be done in ten suites at the CBC’s broadcast centre in Toronto.

CBC’s homegrown editing approach is made possible by some high-end server gear and serious bandwidth from Avid Technologies Inc. Tewksbury, Mass.-based Avid is a vendor of digital media creation tools for film, video, audio, animation, games, and broadcast professionals.

The Avid Unity Server takes in seven common feeds (footage shared by other networks) and feeds from three CBC cameras through an OC-3 pipe that supports speeds of 155Mbps.

All this information is stored in a mainframe housed at the CBC and backed-up on tape. The CBC used the same technology for the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics. Sidoli said products such as these are ideal for covering international multi-sport events like the Olympics.

By opting for this technology, CBC was able to cut in half the crew it normally sends to events, Sidoli said. By doing so, he added, the CBC will save money on flights and accommodation.

According to Sidoli, a benefit of editing footage using server technology is files on the server can be used by anyone, at any time. In the past, he said, people would fight over tapes because footage they needed would only be on a particular tape. That’s no more than an unpleasant memory.

CBC’s use of server technology has garnered interest from NBC. Representatives from the U.S. network came up to Canada to talk to the CBC about their experience with the technology.

Although the technology makes editors’ lives easier, Terry Ludwick, executive producer of CBC’s coverage of the World Track and Field Championships, said there are still some challenges they face since the technology is still new.

When playing from a file instead of a tape, chances of playing the wrong footage are exponentially higher, according to Ludwick. He said the risk is higher as editors don’t get to see the footage on file like they would on a tape.

Bandwidth requirements are also high. For example, downloading a 10-minute segment to a server from Helsinki could take up 40 minutes, Sidoli said. In the future, he hopes it will take about two minutes.

Editors also face an ongoing challenge of having to wade through thousands of files with similar names just to find the correct one.

As all the information is stored on a single server, what happens if that server fails?

Sidoli doesn’t even want to think about that.

“We would be in trouble,” he said, “All the footage is backed-up [on tape] but we didn’t set up for linear editing.”

Ludwick isn’t sure how much footage will be coming in from Helsinki but predicts the Avid server will have to handle around 5,000 hours of footage during CBC’s coverage of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.

“We would have to purge the system once in a while as the server cannot hold that much information,” said Ludwick. The Avid server can hold up to 400 hours.

In future, Ludwick hopes CBC will be able to share the footage on its servers with other broadcasters.

Currently, the news department at the CBC is lending the Avid technology to its sports division but Sidoli hopes the World Track and Field Championship and Turin would be a good enough business case to get permanent servers for the sports division.

In addition to the 2006 Olympic Winter Games, the CBC plans to use the Avid Unity Server for the 2008 Olympic Summer Games in Beijing.

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