Making the transition to digital brings with it many challenges. Carolyn Heinze speaks to three Middle East players on how they have potentially addressed this issue in their facilities.
While the ideal may be starting out with a clean slate - going all digital, all at once - the reality, for many studios, is that the digital transition must be phased in as budgets allow.
The upside is that this enables personnel to gradually become accustomed to new systems and processes. However, it requires a detailed examination of current practices, and how they will change or overlap with more modern technologies as they are brought on board.
"You can phase it in," confirms Mike Whittaker, vice president of broadcast operations and technology at Showtime Arabia in Dubai. Showtime, he says, operates in a tapeless environment. However, it has only recently begun experimenting with tapeless technologies for original production. "You might be tapeless from the point of acquisition to ingest. Or, you could be completely tapeless for your acquisition and edits, but your playout can still be tape."
Smaller organisations might be able to get away with making a complete digital conversion all at once, while larger networks - especially those conducting a large amount of original production - can phase digital in on a show-by-show basis, or department-by-department. However, if you are making the transmission to tapeless tomorrow, then everyone needs to be in line.
Before taking action, facilities must understand what digital broadcast technologies are capable of, Whittaker cautions. This would seem obvious to most people. However this is an area where some organisations fail.
It's with this knowledge that facilities can properly decide how editing, compliance, and formatting for editing, archiving and transmission will be affected. This migration, however, isn't just about the technology; just as the equipment must be converted to digital, so, too, must the broadcast personnel.
"It changes the way a producer works with an editor and how you use an edit suite," Whittaker says, noting that anyone with a PC and some software training can manipulate content.
While new recruits adopt this mindset with relative ease, those accustomed to working in a traditional a tape-based setup may have more trouble taking on duties that were handled by others before. With digital software, he notes, producers can perform a lot of the editing - a task that, in the past, was the editor's job. This certainly streamlines the process, and enables skilled editors to focus on more intricate work.
"They're not out there cleaning up files; they can spend more time on their craft," explains Whittaker.
To assist his personnel in Showtime's digital migration, Whittaker presented new technologies as an enabler, rather than a collection of neat gadgets - a philosophy that those who are having difficulty accepting the changes find easier to swallow.
The focal point when moving to digital is workflow. Whittaker points out that this is a prime opportunity to improve upon - or completely do away with - existing practices.
"When you've got in mind what the technology is capable of, you need to think about your workflow. Lots of practices have grown up within organisations that might be optimum or even a sub-optimum workflow to take. You don't want to digitise that workflow, because you won't see any of the gains," cautions Whittaker.
Kalyan Acharya, director of broadcast operations at City 7 TV, a Dubai-based English-language channel, advises that facilities appoint a group of people dedicated to overseeing and managing the transition.
"The focus is very clearly not to hamper the existing workflow, but to intelligently retain a large part of the machinery, order the right kind of cross-platform mix, and gradually phase in the digital workflow. If enough care is not taken to make the transition, there are chances - and there have been instances - where facilities end up endangering the existing workflow, or invest in solutions and then worry what to do with them," explains Acharya.
For many TV stations and production houses, the adoption of digital systems starts at the point of ingest: content is recorded onto tape, and then converted to digital format for post production, streaming, or multimedia distribution.
Servers, Acharya notes, are the backbone to asset management, enabling both ingest and the capability of entering metadata that is used to manage this content when it is being cross-purposed for processing, archiving and retrieval.
The main factor that comes into play here is the need for data storage: the more assets that are ingested digitally, the more bandwidth the facility requires.
Afzal Lakdawala, director of broadcast services at Arab Media Group (AMG), a Dubai-based broadcaster, believes that it all begins with storage. "The starting point is having essential storage. Then you can slowly start migrating all of your content from tape by digitising it and making it a digital file."
The beauty of this, he adds, is the material is ingested only once, but can be distributed to a variety of different platforms, such as television, mobile TV and Web streaming. "Someone who wants to migrate to a digital environment from a tape-based environment should start off with a centralised server where they gradually start digitising their material."
In a completely digital environment, tape is removed from the process entirely. Camera manufacturers, such as Sony and Panasonic, now offer units featuring disk drive options that record in XDCAM and P2.
"Back at the station, these disk drives can be ingested into the server in less than real time, saving on ingest time and tape costs," Acharya notes. Ingest, archiving and retrieval processes remain the same.
Acharya points out that as facilities migrate into the digital realm, one of the first workflow segments to be affected is that of production. Tape-based cameras become redundant in favour of tapeless or the disk-based units, and servers, equipped with file conversion and sharing software, render VTR machines redundant as well.
"This is necessary because either a TV station or a production house would have, over their years of existence, gathered many different kinds of edit or graphic machines operating on different platforms," he explains.
What makes workflow in the digital environment tricky is the access that the entire organisation has to a file once it is ingested. "It is very important that the file is moved into the right spot," Lakdawala says. "If you ingest your file, it has to go through a proper workflow, which starts with a basic QC."
Those who manipulate these files must pay special attention to folders, cautions AMG's Ladawala.
"Folders are very important in centralised storage and digital environments," he explains, advising that after each step in the process is completed, the updated file should be placed in a new folder - otherwise, there is the risk that someone will modify the wrong version of the file.
"Someone might think that the QC has been done, and start importing the work on the file. Then, when it's posted for transmission and that final QC happens, it will get rejected, and several days of work is gone."
Despite these challenges, Lakdawala underlines that once established, workflow in the digital realm is much less cumbersome.
"In a tape-based environment, you shoot onto tape, you come back to your office to digitise it on your non-linear editing system, you edit it, and once you edit it and your master is ready, you dump it back again onto tape," he illustrates, adding that once the tape is checked for quality control and sent over to be transmitted, it must be ingested all over again. "You are losing a lot of time on ingesting things over and over again. Plus, the media is always physical, and it's exposed to so many outside factors."
In a tapeless environment, where material is ingested once, the quality control portion of the process becomes a lot easier.
Even phasing into a digital environment can be costly, but Lakdawala justifies that over the course of time, digital files are less expensive than the economics involved in working with tape.
"Gone are the days where you could afford so many tapes. Tapes have their limitations in terms of quality, storage, usage and time. The initial set-up cost of going digital may look expensive, but if you calculate it over the long-term, taking into consideration your tapes and the number of times you use and re-use those tapes in the long-term, having digital storage makes more sense and is more feasible."