|STAMFORD, CT - Ice hockey games can be life-changing events. Just ask Paul Koopmann, director of engineering for Versus, a national sports network available in more than 74 million homes. When the network acquired the rights as the exclusive cable television home of the National Hockey League (NHL) in 2005, it sparked the beginning of an era to re-brand the network from the Outdoor Life Network to its current moniker, Versus.
To accommodate these changes, the network recently designed and built new post and production facilities to produce its expanding slate of sports content in both HD and SD. Versus - a wholly-owned company of Comcast Corporation - is also the cable television home of best-in-class events such as the Tour de France, Professional Bull Riding, and World Extreme Cagefighting, among others, and airs collegiate sports featuring nationally-ranked teams from top conferences such as the Pac-10, Big 12, and Mountain West.
Prior to the NHL acquisition, the network had been outsourcing much of its post services to outside vendors. “We were growing so rapidly, most post houses couldn’t keep up with us,” says Koopmann. “So we made a pitch to build our own facility to meet future HD post production needs, since that is where everything was headed.”
The workflow used to produce live events and taped segments now includes an end-to-end Avid broadcast environment for ingest, content creation, media sharing, and publishing of finished pieces to multiple outlets, including cable networks, mobile devices, video-on-demand, and the Web. Key components include an Avid Interplay nonlinear workflow engine, an Avid Unity ISIS shared-storage solution, multiple AirSpeed servers for HD/SD ingest and playout, and several Media Composer Adrenaline and Symphony Nitris offline and online editing systems for cutting and finishing programs in HD or SD. All HD content is edited using the Avid DNxHD 145 codec, which combines top-image quality with highly-efficient storage, enabling the staff to work quickly and easily with rich HD material.
GOING WITH THE EXPANDED WORKFLOW
Within months of completing the new 25,000-square-foot post facility located in a waterfront building in Stamford, CT, Versus was presented with another major challenge. It needed a new studio, fast.
“We were at the end of our contract for studio space, and our options were limited,” says Koopmann. “We looked at using production [facilities] we had in other geographic areas − Philadelphia, Denver – but, we decided to keep it here and stay connected to our post environment. Now our production facilities are in the same building, right below the post operation.”
The HD-ready production facility was built in near record-breaking time based on the designs of the three-person, in-house engineering staff. “We began construction on July 3 of last year and were on air October 3,” says Koopmann.
The seamless integration of post and production operations in the same facility has had several benefits for Versus in terms of speedy content delivery and the ability to add live, late-breaking content to shows in progress. Koopmann explains, “The staff can easily share content, create content, and move content into a studio show. We can take in multiple feeds with our AirSpeed [servers]. Editors can cut pieces and feed them directly into a live studio show. Even graphic artists can create small pieces that are pushed live.”
Approximately 50 people throughout the organization have access to the Avid Interplay workgroup solution, which has improved productivity in all areas of the organization − from marketing, to legal, to production. Koopmann explains, “Interplay rolled out in August 2007 and became an incredible tool for us right away. Interplay combined with the ISIS [shared-storage solution] radically changed our entire workflow. What used to take hours to produce now takes minutes. It was a radical change. Now we have a completely searchable database. All of our material is in archive [with a half petabyte of storage], and we are able to get material to producers in proxy format or edit capacity.”
Koopmann was hesitant at first to implement an Ethernet-based shared-storage solution to support such huge amounts of media. “Two years ago, our salesman at Avid tried to convince us that an Ethernet solution was the way to go. The ISIS storage didn’t have a track record at the time [so we weren’t sure]. At first we had 16TB of storage − two crates − tied into a gigabit switch. Now we have nearly 100 TB − six crates, doing HD and SD in multiple rooms. We are moving more HD over Ethernet than I could possibly imagine.”
The sophisticated storage setup enables Versus to keep pace with a massive amount of SD and HD programming content each week, with room to grow as needed. “There is never a day we are held hostage by limited storage. We have online, nearline, and deep space storage that can be accessed so fast. This storage setup changed how we operate,” he says.
The Media Composer Adrenaline and Symphony Nitris systems have also become the hub for quickly re-packaging content in a variety of forms to feed the network’s multiple outlets. “There are a lot of programs that are cut down for video-on-demand and the Web. We have a tremendous amount of content on versus.com,” says Koopmann. “We cut those pieces on Media Composer Adrenaline [systems], compress them to the proper format, and then push them out.”
Throughout the design process, Koopmann relied on Avid’s Professional Services Group for consultation and engineering advice, and he continues to rely on Avid’s 24/7 support. “It’s worth every penny for a huge infrastructure like ours, and we have had flawless performance,” he says. “I think the worst case we had was a drive failure. One drive failure in two years − out of more than 70 drives − is pretty good.”
Koopmann views the technology itself as an important factor in Versus’s expansion from a small, growing cable TV network to a large nationally-distributed sports network. He explains, “If we had to do this 10 years ago, it would have cost an enormous amount of money − an HD online room was $1 million or better. Even five years ago, we could not have kept up. Without this technology, I don’t believe it would have been possible to get to where we are today.”