STERLING, VA.—Discovery Networks is home to some of the most widely distributed cable channels in the world. Programming for its Latin America service alone provides 44 unique channels including Discovery, TLC, ID, Animal Planet, Discovery Civilization, Discovery Science, Discovery Turbo, Discovery Kids, Home & Health, Discovery Familia, Discovery en Espanol, and Discovery HD Theatre—each customized for various regions in Latin and South America.
In Discovery’s Miami playout center, where the LatAm channels originate, the network faced a difficult challenge. Existing playout systems were aging, and much of the gear was approaching end of life and loss of vendor support. Also, there was no more room for additional channels to serve new market opportunities.
So the questions became what to do, where to do it, and when? Did it make more sense to rebuild in Miami or relocate LatAm playout to Discovery’s primary transmission facility in Sterling, Va.? In either case, the equipment would have to be upgraded. Was IP technology ready enough for prime time?
To solve this technology riddle, Discovery enlisted Communications Engineering Inc. (CEI), a systems design and integration firm based in Newington, Va. It was clear that migrating the LatAm channels to Virginia would centralize playout resources, drive efficiency, and allow room for channel expansion—key goals for this challenging project. After deciding to make the move to Virginia, Discovery charged CEI with making it happen in two phases: Phase 1 included technology analysis and proof-of-concept testing, and Phase 2 comprised implementation and transition.
Surprisingly, CEI’s analysis showed that building the LatAm playout systems on an IP architecture would cost about 30 percent more than expanding Discovery’s traditional SDI infrastructure. On the other hand, IP would provide a much more flexible design that was fast and cost-effective to expand once the core systems were in place. Even though cost was a huge consideration, Discovery wisely looked at the long term and chose to invest in an IP playout platform.
“CEI provided extremely valuable guidance and expertise as we broke new ground for the LatAm playout systems,” said Jim McGrath, Discovery’s senior vice president of engineering and technology. “During the technology analysis phase, they provided expert advice on IP system architectures and helped us weigh the pros and cons of each design based on their experience with each of the major playout-system vendors. That guidance was invaluable.”
With approval to pursue an IP architecture, CEI focused on which manufacturers could deliver end-to-end IP playout systems. The conclusion: Evertz and Grass Valley. For channel-in-a-box systems, Grass Valley’s iTX Integrated Playout platform came closest to meeting Discovery’s key requirements. Meanwhile, evaluation of core IP routing platforms settled on Evertz’ SDVN (Software Defined Video Networking) platform, which uses its EXE Video Service Router and its MAGNUM and VUE applications for IP routing, signal distribution, control, monitoring, and redundancy switching.
Working collectively with project stakeholders, CEI developed the new Latin America playout systems around iTX, EXE, MAGNUM and VUE. The result is an exceptionally robust playout platform leveraging the latest technologies from two of the industry’s leading manufacturers.
“Working with Evertz and Grass Valley together on this project was a critical factor in its success,” said Raef Alkayat, CEI’s lead on the Discovery Latin America project. “Their close cooperation meant the project stayed on schedule and on budget—key factors in every project effort.”
That teamwork became especially important when dealing with project challenges. For example, the project had unique program audio and caption/subtitle requirements to serve the diverse, multi-language needs of Latin/South America. The goal was to make one program file and automatically rearrange the playout audio channels per region, directly from the playlist rather than separate files. Grass Valley stepped up and developed custom code to make it happen.
THREE KEY SYSTEMS
Overall, Discovery’s new Latin America playout facility encompasses three key systems, and IP technology made it all possible. First, the playout systems themselves consist of five clusters, each delivering up to 12 channels in 1+1 redundancy for a total capacity of 60 channels (120 streams). Currently Discovery uses only 44 channels, with a few additional playout chains dynamically assigned to support system maintenance.
The other key areas of the project: five multichannel-playout master control rooms operating up to 13 channels each, and four live-event control rooms, each managing a single channel during a live program, when commercial rolls are less predictable. New multiseat supervisor positions support the multichannel rooms, and there are two individual supervisor consoles to manage the four live-event control rooms.
What’s interesting is that, thanks to IP multicast (using SMPTE 2022-6), any channel can be controlled and monitored from any operating space using DNF Controls’ DC21 and USP control panels with Evertz MAGNUM and VUE. And while the high-level, file-based workflow remains similar for the operators, the underlying IP technology behind the operation is radically different.
Many media companies are rolling IP technology into their facilities, but so far, few are doing it at this scale, and not for both primary and backup playout.
There are many advantages of Discovery’s all-IP master control and playout systems, but the two main benefits are dramatically improved flexibility and upgradeability. Leveraging IP has given Discovery a playout platform that can quickly adapt to new business opportunities for Discovery programming.
By building an all-IP core, the signal-transport systems are resolution-independent, requiring little or no change of gear as technology advances. Those benefits will enable Discovery to respond rapidly to viewer demand for advancing technology such as HD, 4K, or even 8K down the road.