Transformation game

How Al Jazeera Media Network is setting the benchmark in broadcast technology
Al Jazeera's Arabic news studio
Al Jazeera's Arabic news studio

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Al Jazeera has long been a beacon for quality journalism, and with the redevelopment of some of its main studios and the ongoing installation of the latest media asset management systems, the broadcaster is also blazing trail with ambitious technology and system integration projects.

In what is likely the biggest broadcast integration project ever in the MENA region, Al Jazeera worked with Sony Professional Solutions MEA to completely redevelop three major studios in the initial phase of the project.

Al Jazeera and Sony PSMEA signed the contract to work on the far reaching project at the tail end of 2013 and work started at the beginning of 2014. Sony, which was hired as the lead system integrator on the project, is expected to complete phase two at the end of this year.

The initial stage of the project was for the redeveloped of studios 5, 14 and 2 and rollout of a global media asset management system, incorporating Al Jazeera’s Doha HQ and its global operations including major bureaus in London, Washington D.C. and Kuala Lumpur.

The overall project is transformative for each of the broadcaster’s channels: Al Jazeera Arabic (AJA), Al Jazeera English (AJE), Al Jazeera Mubashar and Al Jazeera Documentary Channel. When complete all channels will operate off a centralised media management and transmission system.

Currently most of the first phase of the project is complete, with Al Jazeera English building (which houses Al Jazeera Arabic’s Studio 5) now running on the new MAM and Avid Interplay PAM. The galleries for Studios 5, 14 and 2 went on air with the centralised systems last year in time for the broadcaster’s 20th anniversary in October.

In the early phase of the project, the studios also moved from individual CARs to a centralised system, which is far more efficient. Shabbir Hussain, head of projects, Sony Professional Solutions MEA, explains that the broadcast CARs were previously divided into zones, but are now consolidated in the AJE building.

The second phase of the project will see the complete MAM system and Production Asset Management (PAM) systems deployed throughout the network for studios 1, 2, 5, 11, 12, 14. The studios will also migrate to the complete centralised TX as part of the project.

The project work is further complicated by the simple fact that all of Al Jazeera’s channels must keep broadcasting 24/7 throughout the transformative changes.

The sheer complexity and scope of the project demanded a veteran management team be brought onboard to ensure it is delivered.

It also required candid and open dialogue between the teams at Al Jazeera and Sony Professional, which had 180 people working on-site at the height of phase one.

Digital Broadcast spoke to key members of the project management team at Al Jazeera and Sony Professional to get the details of this challenging upgrade project.

Ahmed Al Fahad, executive director of the project at Al Jazeera, joined in 2012 when the broadcaster was first talking about a project to upgrade systems and drive efficiency.

“In 2010 they started talking about the project and necessity of going ahead and upgrading all the facilities inside the studios,” Al Fahad says.

Indeed, at the time the broadcaster’s systems were at risk of becoming obsolete as they were still based on the original systems from its launch in 1996. “In 2012 when I joined Al Jazeera the director general at that time, H.H. Sheikh Ahmed, had already started putting the project scope together. In addition to upgrading the facilities he had efficiency as his priority.”

Al Fahad adds that the idea was to upgrade the systems and build infrastructure with the newest technology, all the while with full redundancy on the systems. In 2012, Al Fahad established a dedicated project division within Al Jazeera and the team added another pillar to the project scope: to centralise the systems with a central TX. Al Fahad explains the importance of having a project division to oversee the transformation. “It’s not only the technical fit out upgrade, it’s bigger than that. There was a lot of infrastructure to be built, buildings to be built and interfaces between all those projects. It was important that we had a unit to ensure all parts of the project worked together in harmony,” he says.

“We put a project management team in place to go ahead and manage the technical aspects of the project. It was a big team with people from editorial, technology and from other departments.

“We started to put the project together and we ended up with a few streams: there were a lot of projects actually: the studios, the sub-stations, the infrastructure and the fibre optics for example. The project division was to establish the interfaces, assemble the teams who are looking after all of those projects and ensure that they are all interacting with each other.”

A revised plan was tendered to Sony at the end of 2013 and work has been progressing on the project since then. “The first thing we started building was a power sub-station, based on the information that we got from our technical people. We also established a contract to go ahead and build the building for studio 5.”

It was also important for Al Jazeera to upgrade its hubs in London, Washington D.C. and Kuala Lumpur in-line with the blueprint for Doha. Due to a relocation of the facility in London, it made sense for Al Jazeera to push ahead with implementation of the new systems at the UK hub before Doha.

While the implementation of so many different technologies was no doubt a tall order, one of the main challenges related to people, according to Fahad. “One of the main challenges was to bring the people here at Al Jazeera to embrace the project management culture because it was such a big, all- encompassing project with so many streams.”

There were numerous in-depth meetings between Al Jazeera and Sony to create a blueprint that both parties could agree on. “It was a good experience,” Al Fahad adds. “We all wanted to achieve the vision of implementing the infrastructure and workflows.”

Constant high level of communication was vital as most of the components of the project were carried out in parallel, from implementation of the studio technology to the deployment of fibre optic cable across the compound and the delivery of the CTX and MCRs.

Being a ‘brown field’ project made it more complicated, especially when it came to relocating members of staff – an aspect of the project that was handled by a dedicated ‘migration team’.

“It was very complicated to bring it all together. At one time it felt like it was all construction activities and fitting all of the equipment in there.”

Hossam Abdul Majeed, director of the project, joined Al Jazeera in March 2013 when the project was in its final commercial evaluation stage. Abdul Majeed, a veteran of project management in the oil and gas industry, says that the project broke new ground in the media industry as a design and build concept.

“Design and build is mature [practice] in oil and gas, but not in broadcast, so this was a first. We are also working in brown field [site] and there are areas where you need to be very careful because broadcasting is going on 24/7 during the upgrade and switchover.”

To ensure this never became a problem, Abdul Majeed says that it was vital to make sure everyone was laser-focused on the project. “Our concentration was there. We had to map the project, understand all aspects of the project as directed by Sony.

“We went into an interesting phase which shows we were capable of putting infrastructure in place, [it] also showed that Sony were capable from a design and build perspective. A project as large and complicated as this could only be done with a company like Sony Professional,” Abdul Majeed says.

He adds that the project management team reviewed the initial plan early on and found that the timing was unrealistic.

“We went into a very interesting learning curve. The original [schedule] was not accurate, so we redefined the stages. We looked into the engineering side of it and we took another turn. We allowed everyone to learn the interfaces and understand the challenges. There were a lot of debates and challenges until we redefined the way forward in order for us to deliver the first phase of AJE and Al Jazeera Arabic,” he says.

However, after reviewing the plan and discussing it in-depth with representatives from all of the relevant departments, Abdul Majeed says that the project is progressing on track.

“The time spent [on] the project was correct... which we are executing now and we are doing our deliveries. It’s been an interesting journey so far. It made everybody think and link the project from a design point of view, practical point of view and an interface point of view with an eye on the continuity of our channels.”

He adds: “This is a three-year journey and has involved, in addition to Sony, 10 contractors in Qatar. We also should not forget what we delivered in London and Washington D.C. because we also had to link the technical implementation with those big hubs, which we delivered from Al Jazeera’s side. It is a success story and can be used as a model in the industry.”

The technology and its implementation has provided Al Jeezra’s journalists and editors with a greater degree of flexibility and efficiency in their everyday work.

“This project is also about the end result and the benefits for the journalists. It is a new technology which gives them new levels of flexibility. From a station you can edit, move files, push them to the screen and communicate with the bureaus in London, Washington D.C. and Kuala Lumpur.

“It’s a transformation project. It should transform the workplace for our journalists in order for them to deliver quality news around the world.”

Feras Al Suliti, director of network operations at Al Jazeera, is responsible for handling the network operation globally. He said that the project has given the teams of journalists and editors greater flexibility and boosted efficiency. It has allowed Al Jazeera to provide its staff tools such as, Avid MC UX for newsroom production and a sophisticated router control makes every line available anywhere at any time.

“Our concept is to change how editorial works and empower journalists to take more control over their work,” he says.

One other big implementation was the immersive systems we introduced in all [our] new studios. It gave our editorial people strong abilities to enhance their story telling all live to air.

Al Suliti adds that one of the challenges his team faced was processing information sent from 70 bureaus. “We wanted a faster way to get our footage from the field to be on air. What was taking 20 minutes is now taking only three minutes.”

Phase two of the project will also make huge changes to the way the Al Jazeera team works, with automated systems becoming the new norm. “Phase two will help the programme side more. We want to receive most of our programmes from outside from the FTP and make it easier to go through the TX,” he says.

“In phase two we [plan] to digitise all of our bureaus more. We are working hard to finish this because it is very important that we eventually digitise all of our assets. By mid-2017 we expect it will be done from Doha side and by the end of this year we will finish all of our bureaus.”

The new systems are also driving staff training requirements, so that the technology can be used to its maximum capabilities.

“In the last one-and-a-half to two years we have [conducted] 423 training [courses], and 2,300 people have been trained from operations, technology, creative, engineering, editorial - all these people have been trained,” Al Suliti says.

As director of creative at Al Jazeera, Ramzan Al Noimi is hugely excited by the changes in working practices made possible by the new technologies.

“The biggest challenge that we faced before the new infrastructure deployment was that it limited our thinking and our productivity. With our new project upgrade we believe that we can reach the sky with all this amazing technology. It gives all the creative teams the functionality and platforms they need to visualise the ideas they have.”

Al Noimi says that it is now far easier for journalists to share material. “Because the [integrated] system we have is on the central structure we don’t worry about how we are going to transfer materials. It’s one of the key areas where we suffered three years ago when we had to move files around manually. Now whatever you’re producing it’s easy to share,” he says.

“Two years ago people were still using tapes to ingest material for current affairs for clips of just a few minutes. The new system frees up a lot of time which can be used to produce more content: Two years ago we produced six to seven promos a week. Today we produce three a day. Today we reduced the production time almost 60% because of the new infrastructure.”

While the reporters are producing more content, Al Noimi is clear that the quality has not only been retained but has improved. “From a creative perspective, quality was one of our main concerns. We always believed that there should be no downgrade with even a single pixel, and that is what we see today, whatever we produce it goes live in high quality.”

Another major improvement is the lighting technology that Al Jazeera now uses in its studios. The new system, which was initially tested at the London studio, is fully motorised which helps to reduce cost and improve control. “Because it’s a fully motorised lighting system it gives the technicians what they are looking for, while from a creative perspective, it gives us greater control over the ambience. We have the opportunity to create more ideas based on this lighting system for special coverage for various programmes.”

With the second phase of the project set to be completed this year, Ahmed Al Fahad, is happy with what has been achieved so far and speaks warmly of Al Jazeera’s relationship with Sony PSMEA. “Sony has always been flexible and worked to find solutions and complete the project. This project was very complex and we have built a good relationship during the project.”

Rob Sherman, managing director, Sony professional Solutions MEA, agrees: “Building a solution like this one has been a technically demanding task that has involved a lot of close co-operation and teamwork. As we emerge with the majority now complete I would like to sincerely thank the Al Jazeera management for the strong confidence they have placed in Sony to deliver. This is an important milestone in the growth of our strong relationship together,” he says.

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