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NBC Developing All-Digital Editing and News Production Facility

NBC TV Network Hopes to Have Tapeless Workgroup Editing In Place By End of the Year By Charlie White
[Click for larger image] Here's a diagram of the workflow that NBC is working toward in their digital newsroom system.

Come along with us as Digital Video Editing takes a trip to NBC's television network facility in New York, where engineers are working with video editors toward the goal of a totally tapeless news editing and production facility for NBC News, CNBC and the local NBC affiliate. Well, not totally tapeless -- the acquisition format is still tape-based, but once it gets into the facility, tape is out, and eventually, according to NBC officials, tape will be retired for good. Although there are a few vendors for this workgroup-style of news production, NBC chose Grass Valley Group. The Nevada City, California company recently made an agreement with NBC to provide lots of new equipment to the network's headquarters in New York. When they asked me to come take a look at it for myself, I took them up on the offer. This would be a chance to see Grass Valley group's newly-acquired Vibrint NewsEdit platform, one that is designed to work like a tape-based edit bay.

But that functionality is only half the story. The best part of this scheme is that it's all-digital-based production. According to Dr. Peter Smith, NBC vice president of technical planning and engineering, NBC's grand design is to have an NBC without tape. No small plan, either, especially considering that 98% of the news operations in America are still fully tape-based, according to Tim Thorsteinson, President and CEO of the Grass Valley Group.

Starting with the intake of footage from tape-based sources and satellite downlinks, called the "ingest," or "central casting" phase, Grass Valley's Profile servers hold the vast amounts of footage that run through the facility each day (see diagram above). At this point, when the facility becomes fully operational, all producers' desktops, as well as edit bays and everyone else, will have access to the footage. All will be able to mate the shots with scripts, place the story titles on rundowns for newscasts, and edit the footage, either in full resolution or in reduced rez.

Here's the Vibrint NewsEdit system at NBC that we saw in action. Photo by Charlie White.

The Profile servers are mostly in place at NBC, so that will be the easy part. According to NBC's Smith, the challenging part of the project will be the asset management phase. Here is where all the footage that enters the facility will be cataloged and archived, a monumental task considering the vast amounts of tape NBC shoots every day. This asset management phase has been saved for last at NBC, where the network plans to begin its implementation by this Fall and hopes to have it up and running by the end of this year.

The most interesting part of this workflow for digital video editors is the Vibrint NewsEdit platform, an MPEG-2 and DVCPro-compatible hybrid-style editor with the ability to mix digital footage with tape-based shots, all on the same timeline. One of NBC's editors showed me how easy it is to place an already-digitized shot on the timeline, then he cued up a shot on a Betacam deck, marked ins and outs and executed that edit, and as it played back it was digitized into the system at the same time. As he worked, the advantages of this interface became apparent to me. It's decidedly Avid-like, but with notable differences. The main impression you get is one of a lack of menus, and of simplicity. This is designed for news use, an atmosphere that can many times resemble a battlefield. As you change what you want to do with the editor, its contextual interface elements offer you just what you need, when you need it. And, the fast response of the system is evident throughout, with no waiting for rendering, playback, or anything else. There's all the advantages of the speed of tape-to-tape editing, coupled with the random access, effects and flexibility of nonlinear editing. I sure wish I had one of these when I was in the news-editing trenches.

Screen Shot of the Vibrint NewsEdit Interface

Once the piece is edited, the producer is able to see it in its entirety, and writes the script for the package right alongside the description of each shot. Included in the scriptwriting routine are designations of which anchorperson will be reading that script, and that person's reading speed is taken into account. Also in that same script are the director's plans for the studio shots -- a far cry from the days I spent as a commercial news TV director, where the accepted method still consists of marking up the script with a trusty pen in carbon-copied quadruplicate. Finally, the days of paper and tape are coming to an end.

The last phase involves playout from the servers, where it's easy for the control room producer to see which tape pieces are finished and which are not. It's a simple matter to float a story that's not finished yet, and all involved, from director to teleprompter operator, can see what's going on in real time.

Grass Valley Group is proud to say that there are a few stations already using this system, but for NBC, it's not quite there yet. But NBC's Smith is careful to point out that he's concerned about the buy-in factor of NBC's highly talented and creative staff of editors, producers and directors. At each phase of the project, he calls in those who will be using the equipment, asks them what they need and explains how the whole thing works. "We have to make the best use of our creative people," says Smith. " We must be able to move as quickly as possible in this environment, but sometime we'll run into problems. When you have 'buy-in,' people tend to solve their own problems."

There's more innovation on the way for this system from Grass Valley Group, according to what the company's president and CEO, Tim Thorsteinson told me in a one-on-one conversation. "We've noticed what's happening with Apple and Final Cut Pro," Thorsteinson said. "We're going to be developing the ability to use Macs within a facility, too." That's when Thorsteinson's handlers started getting nervous. You heard it here first.

Charlie White, your humble storytellerCharlie White has been writing about new media and digital video since it was the laughingstock of the television industry. A technology journalist and columnist for the past eight years, White is also an Emmy-winning producer, video editor and shot-calling PBS TV director. Talk back -- Send Chazz a note at cwhite@digitalmedianet.com.

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Related Keywords:Digital Video Editing, Digital Media Net, NBC television network facility, engineers, video editors, totally tapeless news editing, production facility, NBC News, CNBC


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