NBCU Philly Stations Make Big Leap To IP
The first thing you notice when entering Studio A at the new, state-of-the-art facility where NBCUniversal Owned TV Stations Division’s WCAU Philadelphia newscasts will soon be produced is an enormous cityscape behind the anchor desk.
Measuring 20 feet across by 10 feet high, the image is not unlike those on many TV stations these days. Except that on this one, flags are moving in a slight breeze and the water of the Delaware River is flowing by on a gray, overcast day.
“It’s a 4K LED monitor which will broadcast 4K video from a 4K camera,” explains Ric Harris, president and general manager of NBC10 and sister station WWSI (Telemundo62). “It’s going to give us the best skyline shot of Philadelphia.”
The facility, also home to WWSI, offers great views from any of its windows. It’s located on three floors (12-14) of the 60-floor, 1,121-foot Comcast Technology Center in downtown Philadelphia.
Inward from Studio A, you can look across a glass enclosed, two-story atrium to see a similar studio — just steps away — where the WWSI anchors will sit in front of another, only slightly smaller, 4K monitor.
An open staircase just outside the entrance to Studio A descends to a large, open newsroom, flooded with daylight from the atrium’s main wall, where reporters and producers from both stations work together.
But the real marvel of the place may not be the architecture and interior design, but the cutting-edge fibered-linked IP infrastructure at its core.
“I didn’t want to be restricted by traditional SDI routers, and I wanted the ability to put video coming in and have it go anywhere else in the plant,” says Tony Plosz, WCAU-WWSI VP of engineering and operations.
“I also wanted the flexibility so that staff could use any system, and work anywhere across the floors, or even in the field. The ‘anywhere, anything’ philosophy was really big in the design.”
Having originally planned to launch in late 2017, NBCU has been letting its 2018 launch date — now set for sometime this fall — quietly slip as engineers work to finalize software and staff gets up to speed on updated platforms.
“We are using the latest versions of the technologies we have installed, and we are working now to make sure everything works together as it should,” Harris says. “We will launch when we know it’s right.”
The stations’ sales, traffic, finance and human resources departments have already moved in and news, creative services and engineering staff have been splitting time between the new space and the existing station in suburban Bala Cynwyd, which will eventually be vacated.
“It’s been a long road, and like any other large-scale project, we’ve made changes along the way,” says Plosz. “It’s been a lot of fun, seeing a concrete slab turn into functioning office space.”
Integration And Connectivity
Comcast Technology Center is run by NBC parent Comcast and real estate investment trust Liberty Property Trust. Besides the stations, the other primary tenants are Comcast and a Four Seasons Hotel, which occupies the top of the building.
LF Driscoll is the general contractor of the building with Diversified handling the technical integration for the broadcast facility.
The broadcast facility will accommodate about 180 employees. An additional 60 employees, such as photographers and reporters, will mostly stick to the field.
The move into the new facility is allowing NBCU to further integrate WCAU with WWSI, which it acquired in 2013. “We’re taking it another step further here, and they are truly on the same platform,” says Plosz. “They have identical control rooms, the same technology in the studios, everything is the same. Before, so much was put together on the fly, while here we start from complete scratch.”
Another of the goals is to better integrate broadcast and digital production. Reporters, producers and anchors working on a show gather at a pod — one of several long narrow black tables topped by black monitors — where they can collaborate as they get closer to air. Steps away is the digital pod for both stations, and immediately behind that is the assignment desk.
“It’s all connected,” Harris says. “Weather, show pods, digital, assignment desk — all within steps of walking to one another.”
The open floor concept contrasts with the chopped-up configuration in Bala Cynwyd where Plosz says “everybody was in their own little corner or section. There’s no hunting for someone, all the core groups are on 12.”
Nestled next to Studio A — and a few feet away from a reception desk — is Harris’ office. “This is a microcosm of what the station is about,” he says. “There is a sense of connectivity. My office isn’t off in the hinterlands. I’m centrally located so I have access to our folks and the team has access to me.”
There are three studios. The 2,600-square-foot Studio A for WCAU, a 2,400-square-foot studio for WWSI and a 1,500-square-foot auxiliary studio with a large green screen that covers the entire rear wall, giving the station the opportunity to do full virtual set operation in the future.
Plosz sees that third studio as a “really flexible space” that will be used for special news segments as well as being employed by creative services to produce commercials for local advertisers.
The 13th floor houses back-office functions including sales and traffic as well as executive offices. The 14th floor contains the finance and human resources departments, a large conference room and the Central Equipment Room (CER), which represents the technical guts of the facility.
IP At The Core
When the stations did the technical design 2.5 years ago, Plosz opted to go with an IP routing core. But at that point the SMPTE 2110 standard didn’t yet exist, and vendors at the 2016 NAB Show were mostly talking about supporting the IP transport of content instead of actually doing it.
“When we did the proof of concept with Diversified in Atlanta, it was little different than traditional TV stations they had done,” says Plosz. “There were a lot of things that didn’t exist.”
Since he couldn’t design a completely IP operation in 2016, Plosz opted for an IP core, with no traditional SDI router, but “off-ramps to SDI” throughout the stations’ operations. The routing core is a Cisco 100-gigabit Ethernet “Fabric for Media” architecture that links to Grass Valley IPG (IP gateway) cards, allowing the stations to take video and “route it via IP to wherever it needs to go,” says Plosz.
“When we first started this endeavor, we didn’t know who was making what,” says Plosz. “There was [SMPTE] 2022-6, and 2022-7, but we didn’t know what would be compatible. Over the course of two years the design changed, as even more things went native IP.”
For example, in that time Ross Video’s graphics went from “SDI islands” to direct IP, he notes.
The Cisco routing switches are configured in a traditional spine-and-leaf architecture, says Plosz, with distributed routing across the entire central equipment room. That allows the station to easily plug in new equipment to the top of a rack and cuts down on overall cabling. There is no need to run cable to one back row, as the whole router is distributed across mulitple rack rows.
When Plosz began looking in 2016 at broadcast vendors to support the IP infrastructure, he quickly narrowed the choices to Grass Valley and Evertz and eventually settled on Grass Valley.
At that point Evertz already had some large IP installations at major broadcasters like ESPN, using its proprietary ASPEN video-over-IP transport protocol.
“They did so well before there were any standards created — they were moving IP packets and they had some mature product,” says Plosz. “But what was the difference between that and a traditional SDI router? They were moving IP video around, but it was still done through their own switch, and you couldn’t move other data through it. Did I really want to replace one proprietary router with another?”
In the end, Plosz thought that Grass Valley had a more comprehensive long-term vision for IP routing and would “be better partners through the science project.”
One of his design criteria was that if the station was going to build its routing on a COTS (common off-the-shelf hardware) switch, it still needed the full support of whatever traditional broadcast vendor was interfacing with it.
“Grass Valley is our ‘one throat to choke,’ so to speak,” jokes Plosz. “We have a great relationship with Cisco, but if we have any issues, we go to Grass Valley.”
In addition to the IP gateways, Grass Valley has also supplied its LDX 86 studio cameras. Besides Cisco and Grass Valley, other key vendors for the new facility include Dalet Galaxy asset management, Ross Overdrive production automation, Adobe Premiere nonlinear editing, Lawo audio processing and EMC Isilon solid-state storage.
Fiber, Fiber Everywhere
Being part of the Comcast enterprise means this new facility has an incredible amount of fiber-optic connectivity. That is important when housing a station in a skyscraper, notes Plosz, as he’s not going to place a microwave tower on the roof.
“This building is extremely well connected, and the levels of redundancy here are nothing short of staggering,” says Plosz. “There’s half a terabit per second of I/O in and out of this place, with two complete diverse paths.”
In all, there are 60 miles of fiber in the Comcast Technology Center with 1,100 access points. All the major wireless carriers have multiple transmitters in the building, says Plosz, and cellphones work even in the “deepest, darkest corner” in the parking garage.
“It’s a phenomenal data system,” he says.
All of the beauty cameras the stations use around Philadelphia now run on the Comcast IP network. The facility is also converting its studio-to-transmitter link to IP with two physically diverse 100-gigabit fiber paths.
The transmitter site is in Roxborough, northwest of downtown.
“There’s still some microwave gear there, and a little satellite farm,” says Plosz. “We’re going to extend our Media Fabric over fiber out to Roxborough and make it part of our [network], an operator here could pull from there and won’t know any difference. We wouldn’t be able to do that without the connectivity we have.”
The new broadcast facility is designed to be one of the most energy-efficient TV operations in the country. It uses heating/cooling and ventilating systems that improve indoor quality and reduce noise, and incorporates other green features like capturing natural light from its wall-to-floor windows, water and energy conservation throughout and automated window shades to reduce summer heat. The stations have also tried to use Energy Star-compliant displays and computers wherever possible.
The stations have applied for an LEED Platinum certification, which if approved by the U.S. Green Building Council, would be the first time a local broadcast TV station achieves the Platinum LEED level.
Another unique feature of the Comcast Technology Center is the sheer volume of broadcast service panels located throughout the building, including in the lobby, outside on the street, in the cafeteria and the building’s “town hall space,” and in several locations within the Four Seasons Hotel including the ballroom and restaurants on the top two floors.
“We already treat our newsroom as a fourth studio,” says Plosz. “Now the building becomes that fifth studio — there are so many places to easily plug in and go live.”
Kathy Haley contributed to this story.