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The tale of two TV stations

The tale of two TV stations

The year-old Maori Television Service and the recently relaunched Prime TV enlist technology to help them in the broadcasting battlefield.

His workplace is always busy, his office is on perpetual technology upgrade, and he has no typical day. But Phil Skaggs knows it is all part of the territory. Prime Television has just relaunched in New Zealand with a new logo and local programming, aiming in a few years to top the ratings.

In its bid, the Aussie-owned channel lured TVNZ presenters Paul Holmes and Alison Mau over the Harbour Bridge, with Holmes, for example, reportedly earning a million dollar annual salary.

Sited among the units of Albany, in Auckland's industrial North Harbour area - the six year-old station has rebuilt its premises and in the process, upgraded its technology systems.

Phil Skaggs plays a major role in this infrastructure upgrade as manager, engineering and IT, and helps, indirectly, in getting the new "Paul Holmes" show on air.

The US-born Skaggs has been with the station since its inception. He began his broadcast engineering career with seven years at a television station in San Antonio, Texas, before coming to New Zealand 26 years ago.

He worked in technical sales and sales support before returning to broadcasting through Prime TV.

Prime was built on an empty field, before going to air on 30 August 1998. The broadcast infrastructure followed an IT layout set by Prime's Australian parent company - a joint venture between Prime TV Australia and Nine Network - with regular expansions since.

This set-up works for Skaggs. "Auckland, being the major city in New Zealand, has the advantages of being able to work with the more sophisticated 'toys' but still feel like I'm living in a small town environment, compared to many American cities."

Variety

Television is an an ever-changing business with no typical day. The nature of the industry, however, suits Skaggs who describes himself as "very much a hands-on manager".

"With a small staff, we're all 'multi-skilled', and often multi-task as well, invariably running on 'interrupt', as any support person does," he says.

While there are planning, reports and paperwork to do, Skaggs says his job is pretty varied.

"Technical responsibilities don't stop at the broadcast and IT areas. "My team and I also deal with building services contractors such as air conditioning, electrical, telecomms, data, security firms and even plumbers, when needed." As well as IT, we get to work with broadcast video, audio, recording, lighting, etc," he says.

Prime TV's ICT systems are complex, and Skaggs always keeps an eye on new technology in the field.

Novell 6 is used for file and print, Microsoft Win2K servers are used for some broadcast sales, plus a Unix server for broadcast business systems. Prime's 70 desktops are typically Compucon - a 'clone' supplier sited just down the road in Albany.

Overall, the company has 90 staff in Auckland, with 20 others based in Hamilton, Tauranga, Wellington, Dunedin and Christchurch. Skagg's department has just a couple of others, with a "software and support budget of six to seven figues".

The latest expansion saw all the work done in just two months, with a rebuilding of the station premises and several million dollars spent on technology.

There was a quick selection process in November, with equipment placed in early December.

"One of the challenges was Christmas; great freight issues, important people on holiday, trades people on holiday, there was air conditioning to order, electrical stuff; all that takes organisation and time.

"We had as much cabling to do as soon as possible and it was a fairly tight schedule. Things have turned out like we planned and we are pleased with the result but we were rushed and if we were doing it differently, we would have had more time," says Skaggs.

Cool gadgets

The 'prime' technology for the "Paul Holmes" program is a French-built news management and operations system called Dalet. The channel considered alternatives, but Prime TV Australia has also just installed the system, so again the New Zealand station chose to "use the expertise of the group".

Dalet allows channel staff to manage and put together live programming, news and current affairs.

"It covers all elements from the generation of the basic story, it provides scripts for the reporters, it captures the video and audio elements from the field crew and allows browsing and shot selection of the media over the network," he explains.

The system allows "craft editing" - editing to a higher standard by transfer to/from another system.

Dalet also lets journalists supply named graphics to identify themselves and the person being interviewed, ingest and edit stories. It automatically transfers video clips to a replay server and feeds scripted information to the prompter for the presenter. It can also drop and re-order stories quite quickly during the live broadcast.

Like virtually all TV technology, the system is digital, using fibre channels or gigabit ethernet. Its numerous distributed servers run on Microsoft operating system with a large NetApps FAS920 storage area network.

Text generation

The "Paul Holmes" program uses a texting system from a company called Two Way TV, a company co-founded by Prime TV chairman Sam Chisholm.

"It was offered to us and we liked the idea. It wasn't something other stations were doing. It was a way for interactive involvement with the viewer and the benefits this will bring to the program. We believe it will offer freshness and intimacy to the program that the traditional voice in the corner of the living room does not offer."

Viewers pay 98 cents to send a text, and once telco costs are removed, revenues are split between Prime and Two Way to help fund the system.

"A whole service is provided. Two Way have their central server, which receives and collates the text messages as they come in. The messages are then sent to a server here at Prime, where they are screened and selected for us during the program. We have to vet them before they go on air.

"For one story, there were nearly 400 text messages received. We could not air the whole lot, but it provides a clear indication that the system is a valuable addition to the show," Skaggs says.

The Two Way system allows instant poll results and Prime plans to use it in other shows. Should Prime launch an interactive set-top box, Two Way would also provide the applications. Overall, Two Way expects the Prime deal to deliver $790,000 profit over three years.

The "Paul Holmes" program studio is just 10 metres by 10. It features a small set for the presenter and guests, plus four others, including a studio manager. It has three cameras, plus a large plasma display as part of the set's backdrop. There is also a telephone for viewers to ring in and these calls, too, are screened prior to airing.

A nearby production control room features a raft of TV displays, including two 40-inch LCDs, and is responsible for the overall output of the program.

Another nearby production room receives several hours of live feed from Channel 9 in Australia everyday, plus other events such as sports coverage.

BCL links the station's output using Telstra fibre. Because the Australian feeds are transmitted via Intelsat 35,000 kilometres above the earth, there is a slight delay between what is broadcast and what is received in the home. Stringers and camera crews across New Zealand also feed stories using BCL's network.

"There is still a tendency for broadcasters to use quite robust networks. There are some things you just don't put Windows on," Skaggs explains.

Prime TV plans other upgrades "to keep the station at the forefront of technology".

A major project will be a new traffic and billing system, which is essentially the core business system behind a TV station.

"It helps you schedule your programs; it allows you to book client ads into programs. It publishes the schedules into the presentation suite prior to air and interfaces with the financial systems for payments and general ledger," says Skaggs.

The system is called Encoda (now Harris) and the upgrade will include connecting Prime's nationwide offices using Citrix to improve communications.

Another project will replace the storage of videotapes in the library with a digital server.

The afternoon MIS visited Prime, staff were busy preparing to put the station's flagship 7pm current affairs program. While this is not strictly Skagg's role, he could be called in to help, if need be.

And this did not escape Paul Holmes, who put the IT team on the spotlight, but only for one brief, shining moment. "Phil and his team have done a marvelous job in turning the place around," the TV presenter told MIS. "What went up in two months is amazing. It was a marvelous, marvelous achievement."

He then segued the discussion to his show. "There is a bedding in period but I have no doubt that [what] we have in here will help ensure the success of the program.

"But texting is merely one element. It is very powerful vehicle as people have already caught on to it, but by itself, it won't [attract the viewers]. It is my job to bring them in."

Vibrant birth

Born amidst controversy, Maori Television celebrates its first anniversary this month.

But while political personalities are still trading barbs on the subject, working quietly behind the scenes are the station's technical brains Barry Russ and Bruce Eagles.

The pair started in the TV industry 30 years ago and similarly helped launch TV3 in the 1980s.

The two work as a team to get the job done. Russ is general manager of operations and a member of the channel's senior management team. He has overall responsibility for ensuring the program schedule for on-air is met and transmitted accordingly.

Eagle is the technology manager who helps with the technical standards and functionality of station equipment; plus training and teaching on both technical support and some speciality areas. This is a "very hands-on role" that increasingly deals with IT rather than engineering technologies.

"Maintenance is (also) a key area that needs constant attention," Russ continues.

Maori Television seems a special favourite with them; both laud its unique culture and traditional internal values of whanaungatanga (family togetherness) and manaakitangi (holistically taking care of).

"There's a warmth here that we won't find at other places I have worked in," says Eagles.

"People come here together, not to discuss something, but to be involved. There's a natural support process - it's like a big family."

New kid on the block

Such friendliness extends to having the kitchen or wharekai at the centre of the studios to promote easy mingling of staff and because the kitchen is an important room for Maori.

Based in Newmarket, Auckland, Maori Television employs 140 staff, including IT staff, plus freelancers across the country.

It buys material for transmission and also makes some programs "in-house" - all of which has to be prepared to technical quality and censorship requirements.

Such needs are met by the operations group, which also services the production needs of the internal programs group.

When Russ joined the long-awaited station in June 2003, he was presented a 'pathway' shopping list of broadcast equipment created by Christchurch engineer Grant Allan, combined with a brief given by former directors Derek Fox and Joanna Paul.

The channel wanted state-of-the-art technology that would provide a workflow that is more collaborative than the traditional linear TV industry model.

Russ fine-tuned the brief to ultimately create a shared area network system that allows studio production, to post-production and transmission, all on one system.

The overall technical equipment and installation budget was some $7.4 million. Once funding was approved in August 2003, transmission started within seven months from the newly designed building in Newmarket, which the station took possession of last January.

"We assembled hard drives and equipment in racks that were pre-wired and set up a mock-up on the North Shore and then relocated that to Newmarket. We had to get the building, refit it, commission, test equipment and train our people to meet a committed on-air date," Russ explains.

Central to its technology is a Central video server (SAN) with an Mpeg 1 proxy server that allows channel staff to browse all the material on the SAN and edit it in a low resolution version and then confirm edits with the high resolution material already on the server.

Technology manager Bruce Eagles likens the system to a big bucket that anyone can access.

"The whole building has a network fabric for the file exchange from edit suites to graphics and audio post-production. That obviously facilitates the ease of multiple people working on the same project at the same time. The workflow is far better to do collaboratively. We might have a basic cut without vision effects. Audio people can work on the audio, while we work on the video," Eagles explains.

Another technological highlight is laptop editing systems, which allows for regionally-based 'stringers' or contributors to shoot and edit stories out in the field, avoiding the need for staff to air courier tape or needing special studios.

Maori Television uses many regional freelance 'stringers' since Maori are regionally dispersed rather than based in big cities. This gives the station a broad national spread, but allows flexibility while keeping costs down.

Completed files are sent in a compressed format over JetStream, which arrives on the station's servers and get transcoded back to broadcast specification.

Earlier this year, staff covering the waka ama (outrigger canoe) championships in Hawaii were able to edit and send completed stories for broadcast that night, while other television crews had to wait for the local television station editing suite to open.

Maori Televsion also allows greater flexibility between roles, such as journalists being able to use browsing systems to help edit their stories, thus saving time.

The newsroom computer system also links Maori Television's other office in Wellington or in remote locations like Waitangi where the service was extended via laptop, allowing staff to connect into the news desk, edit the scripts, create new scripts and work on associated graphics.

Overall, the station has more than 120 PCs, nine laptops and 12 HP servers. Windows XP is used for administration, the broadcast servers operate using Linux and Windows 2000 but an Apple Mac G5 in conjunction with a ProTools system is used for audio-post work, as audio experts prefer the Mac version, Russ explains.

Eagles says The TV station remains too small for wireless LANs (local area networks), but it has a complex network infrastructure of four cables to every desk. This is because normal administrative layers are integrated with broadcast operation layers with media transfer layers and the mpeg fibre channel.

"We use the fibre channel for our media, but the broadcast LAN is separate from the administration LAN for obvious reasons - we don't want the administration staff to do an edit. It also manages the traffic flow better to avoid the system slowing down," he says.

MTS also uses IP telephony, including a Cisco call manager and Zeacom interface for voicemail, email and for the IT staff to monitor the network and see who is on the line. Cisco, through its suppliers, gave "a good deal" and the station claims a backbone of Cisco 6500 switches gives the same quality of service as a PABX while saving on internal calling costs.

Cisco wireless IP phones also allow people to be mobile without the cost of mobile. This technology mix allows technicians from the US and UK to dial in and read code to help Maori Television staff work through issues.

However, all this technology presents some unique challenges.

Eagles notes that when he and Russ started out in broadcasting some 30 years ago, the industry was around 95 per cent hardware. By the time they helped launch TV3 some 15 years ago, the software had gained a 20 per cent share in the technology mix. Now it is the other way round.

"We are heavily dependent on software for our IT infrastructure and everyday operations. It means we use a lot of time waiting for computers to boot up and you have big databases all over the place," he says.

"You can (also) get multiple devices on a platform - 3D graphics, photoshop, editing systems, etc. The main vulnerability is a failure, such as a hard drive failure, [which] can cost you more than one application," Eagles says.

Furthermore, "the scariest times" is during software upgrades which "take a lot of planning and a lot of courage" - an issue complicated by the competing standards of NTSC and PAL.

"A lot of products are built in the US and deal with 30 frames a second while we deal in 25, which puts our timing out. We have been given software upgrades which take two bugs and make four others," he continues.

The broadcast systems are tried and tested, as some station technology are incapable of accepting XP2 or Windows Media Player 9. Nonetheless, Russ and Eagle are happy with how the technology at MTS has performed.

Critics and politics

They are reticent in stating what they would have done differently, but are more vocal about what they say are the much "unwarranted and unnecessary negatives" levelled at the station, though these brickbats have largely died down after the first year.

Though classed as a charity for promoting culture, Maori Television still faces financial constraints and has to earn from advertisements, with Russ having executive responsibilities like he would with any other station.

Though a Maori station, no one is employed on racial grounds, or quota, but "for their skills and capabilities", he continues. It is natural that Maori are more fluent in te reo, but the station employs some te reo-fluent Pakeha to do translation work.

"There are some negative forces that still make mischief," Russ says of the station's critics.

"We had to make sensible decisions and were no less flippant with purchasing as anybody else. We don't have anything to be ashamed of," he says.

"Being in an organisation subject to extra political interest, we are automatically cautious about what we do. There's no harm in double-checking and that's what you have to do."

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