TVNZ is months away from making a switch from analogue to digital news gathering in a project costing $7 million.
The project is the less-well publicised part of the SOE’s conversion to digital, which has mostly focused on television signal transmission.
In the background, TVNZ is converting to a server-based digital newsroom. This will more closely integrate TVNZ’s news production with its website, Nzoom.com, and the free-to-air digital channels set to be launched in October. Nzoom’s news team is already installed in the Auckland Television Centre’s newsroom.
“For the broadcaster, moving to a digital production focus is actually a bigger job than viewers imagine,” says digital server project manager Steve Browning.
The replacement of analogue tape cameras is complete in Christchurch and Wellington — Auckland will take another year — and TVNZ will be installing a Quantel server, with numerous desktop editing suites in the newsroom. All TVNZ programmes will start to be recorded, edited and, eventually, transmitted in a purely digital fashion, starting with the midday news bulletin. Every day the server will store up to 100 hours of MPEG 50i video, the highest bit rate on the market.
The prime software contractor will be UK-based OmniBus Systems, which has done extensive software developments for the BBC and ITN. The latter uses four copies of the system TVNZ is buying on its 24-hour news channel. OmniBus will allow journalists to edit video and sound content. “You’ve always had to go to an edit bay and have a craft editor do that for you,” says Browning. Editing is an opportunity that no doubt some journalists will relish more than others, since it will involve a significant amount of retraining and a massively increased workload.
The whole concept of the server-based newsroom springs from various sources, says Browning, including the progression away from analogue tape and the efficiency of digital editing systems. “But those alone weren’t enough for us,” says Browning. “The key thing is the ability to repurpose our content; for example, as was recently announced, as in-flight bulletins for Air NZ.” TVNZ will be able to sell the same piece of content multiple times for multiple outlets. By focusing on these diverse avenues, TVNZ may be able to make up for its fragmenting advertising dollar, which has reportedly slipped 28% since December.
Browning says that most of TVNZ’s plans are modelled on the activities of CNN in the US. CNN is teaming up with IBM to create a permanently online, publicly-accessible archive of all its footage and scripts, but unlike TVNZ, is starting the project by digitising all its analogue tape first. Here the transition to digital news-gathering will be rolled out from September to January of next year.
Camera crews will offload digital tape on to the server, housed in the newsroom-based “media hub”, where it will be available to be simultaneously edited and “re-purposed” for as many outlets as required. That could mean anywhere from standard analogue broadcast, to digital TV, to web-based streaming. When the footage is past its use-by date, it will be dumped back onto digital tape and sent down to a planned tape archive in the Avalon studios in Wellington.
Browning says it is a big job. “To move away from the tape-based analogue world to the digital one is a huge change. TVNZ is only 10% of the way there,” he says.
And while Browning admits that, yes, there are “loads” of potential pitfalls ahead, TVNZ is fortunate in not being the first to walk down the digital conversion path. The major networks around the world are all at similar points to TVNZ. “And they’re the ones who’ve had to break their backs doing it.”