Live From London: Channel Nine, Foxtel Take Olympic Games Down Under

Anyone visiting the International Broadcast Center in London during the London Games can sense a very apparent theme among the broadcasters on hand: a concerted effort to leave as much of their operation at home as possible.

John Brandon heads operations for The Olympic Unit, which produced all Australian coverage from London.

However, while most broadcasters are developing new workflows that reduce on-site staff, gear, and infrastructure, Australian-rights holders Channel Nine and Foxtel are doing just the opposite. The Olympic Unit (TOU) — as the Channel Nine-Foxtel alliance is known — has located nearly its entire operation, from capture to transmission, in London.

“Everyone always wants to come to London, so it is just a matter of whether it is in your budget. We are somewhat of a small group anyway, so we were able to get everyone down here for this,” says John Brandon, head of technical operations for The Olympic Unit. “The architecture [of the IBC operation] is all driven from the production point of view first and foremost, so the [Channel Nine and Foxtel] production teams went from there.”

The Broadcast/Pay-TV Split
Channel Nine is delivering 14½ hours of live over-the-air Olympics coverage each evening (6:30 p.m. to 9 a.m. Sydney time), along with a two-hour highlight show in the morning (9-11 a.m.) that is replayed in the evening (4-6 p.m.), for nearly 300 hours of coverage. Nine is also offering the OBS-produced 3D coverage for viewers with 3D sets in metropolitan areas of Australia.

Meanwhile, pay-TV service Foxtel is delivering eight dedicated 24-hour channels (in HD and SD) throughout the games, for a total of 3,200 hours of coverage (including 1,100 live hours). In addition, Foxtel has released a tablet app that allows viewers to watch all eight feeds over 3G or WiFi and provides an IPTV service for Xbox Live and Samsung Smart TVs (for a $50 fee).

An Australian Split
The TOU setup occupies a massive footprint at the IBC, boasting one of the larger facilities of any rightsholding broadcaster. Channel Nine and Foxtel brought in Presteigne Charter to build its facility at the IBC after working with the systems integrator at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games and at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.

“We had done something very similar to this twice before, so we knew how the architecture was going to be laid out and could do a lot of preplanning,” says Presteigne Charter Operations Manager Steve Kilsby. “But this is probably twice the size of Vancouver, and the sheer size of it adds a lot of new [challenges].”

Despite teaming up to produce the Games, Nine and Foxtel are running largely as separate entities in London with independent studios, control rooms, postproduction operations, office areas, and transmission. However, the two networks are united by a file-based infrastructure, which includes a massive EVS network of 42 servers (a combination of XT3, XT2, XT2+, and XS units and IPDirectors) and a 576×576 Evertz router.

Both networks have equal studio space at the IBC facility, but Foxtel has elected to split its single studio in half, creating two studios to handle the constant transitions and studio updates for its eight 24-hour Olympic channels. Nine’s control room is built around a Grass Valley Kayenne switcher; Foxtel’s features a Kalypso.

A Control Room Down the Street
To cut down on the personnel and overall footprint at IBC, Foxtel’s playout-control room is located about 6 miles away on Tabernacle Street. This facility handles all commercial insertion and finalizes the presentation before it is sent back to the IBC for distribution to Foxtel subscribers. Tabernacle and the IBC are linked via a NetInsight NIMBRA switch router.

“The equipment actually sits here in the IBC, but the work is done over there,” says Brandon. “Then it comes back to us at the IBC, where it is compressed and ready to go to air so that, when it gets back to Australia, it essentially goes directly to the home.”

All eight channels are played out directly from the IBC, where an EVS IPDirector works with Foxtel’s scheduling system to create a playlist of what will air on each channel, including all live, edited, and studio content and commercials.

“This is a self-sustaining operation,” says Presteign Charter Senior Engineer Martijn Swart. “The fact that they use IPDirector in this way is very unique. There are only two setups in the world: here and at Sky TV in New Zealand.”

Teaming Up in London
In addition to having access to all 40 of the OBS-provided VandA (video and audio) feeds from venues across London, the Australians have deployed 14 unilateral cameras and 23 ENG crews (shooting on Sony XDCAM HD). TOU is ingesting 28 of the incoming event-coverage streams at any given moment and also uses an IPDirector from OBS to obtain any additional host-feed content it was not able to ingest live.

TOU has deployed 19 commentary teams armed with 39 total commentators at the Games. The commentary is the same regardless of whether it runs on Nine or Foxtel, with the exception of the Aquatics Center, which features a dedicated announce team for both networks (not surprising for a nation as mad about the pool events as Australia). The Australians inked a deal with BBC to take the commentary feed for all remaining events not covered by the 19 teams.

Postproduction and Archiving
An Avid Interplay system interconnects various Media Composers throughout both operations (three at Foxtel’s IBC location, five for Nine, and six at Tabernacle Street). In addition, Nine News’s operation has rolled out four Apple Final Cut Pro suites linked to IPDirectors that allow editors to access content within the EVS network.

In terms of archiving, OBS logs all metadata associated with the feeds, and TOU associates each clip with those logs when they are input into the IPDirector system. All this content is migrated to EVS XFile removable hard drives with lo-res files remaining on the IPDirector system, then labeled and placed on a shelf in the archive area.

“Obviously, we can’t keep everything online; there’s just too much content,” says Swart. “So, whenever a producer finds something on the lo-res library that he wants to keep but it’s not hi-res anymore, IPDirector tells us what XFile drive it is on, and we slide that drive in and send it to Avid or playout or wherever it needs to go. So this is not only archive, but it is also essentially our near-line offline storage.”

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