CBC/Radio Canada: the public broadcaster of The True North
CBC/Radio-Canada was founded in 1936 as the public radio station of Canada.
CBC and Radio-Canada’s first television stations began broadcasting in 1952. By 1955, CBC/Radio-Canada’s television services were available to 66% of the Canadian population.
Since then, CBC/Radio-Canada has become the largest public broadcaster in North America, facing the technological challenges of an immense country and transmissions in both French and English.
Nowadays, this public broadcaster is moving all its infrastructure to IP.
We had the opportunity to talk about these current challenges and the future ones with Maxime Caron, Senior Director, Architecture & Strategic Development and François Legrand, Senior Director, Core Systems Engineering.
Over the past few decades, what have been the main technological challenges facing the company?
Maxime Caron: We have been transitioning all our equipment from an SDI system, which was introduced in the 1990s, to HD, which was introduced in 2006, to the point where everything is now HD in terms of news and TV production.
The biggest impact on our activities in the past ten years has been our digital transformation; we offer digital services through our video streaming services, CBC Gem and ICI TOU.TV), and our websites (CBC.ca and Radio-Canada.ca). Recently, transitioning to IP is the biggest project we are undertaking.
François Legrand: We went through a bunch of different transitions. I was there for the transition from analog to SDI, which was easy, because although SDI is digital, at the end it doesn’t change the workflows or the core technology.
IP is more than a lift-and-shift operation, because we are turning circuit switching into packet switching. This gives you flexibility and agility, but it’s also very complex. This transition into IP has been a very interesting journey.
We have a large project right now in Montreal to move to IP in our newest facility, the new Maison de Radio-Canada, where most of the production and distribution for CBC/Radio-Canada’s French-language services happens. Our radio operations have almost completed their move into the new building, and our TV operations are following suit. There has been a lot of learning during the deployment of the 2110 technology (SMPTE 2110) on this scale.
How many production centers do you have across the country and how is work organized between them?
MC: We have 76 production centres across the country and a few around the world. We also have foreign bureaus in Paris, London, Washington, New York, Beijing, and Delhi.
These centres are all interconnected in terms of video, audio, phone systems, internet and IT type traffic flows through a network we call NGCN (Next Generation Contribution Network). We have two main facilities: one in Toronto for English services and one in Montreal for French services. We also have a large site in the nation’s capital, Ottawa.
Canada is a very large country, what are the challenges you face in terms of content distribution and workflow? Do you reach the entire country?
MC: The answer is yes. Our radio, TV and digital coverage extends from major cities to very small towns with less than 500 residents. Our radio stations reach 98% of the Canadian population.
We have transmitters in Northern Canada and, actually, they are key to providing people in the North with the only signal that they can get. We have a strong presence from coast to coast to coast, and we are the only Canadian broadcaster in more than 60 locations across the country.
FL: Providing our staff in the North with proper internet access or means of communication for their work is also challenging. We have a very close eye on the new LEO constellation to help us, but right now it’s not fully available in that part of the world, it’s still too far north. We have to rely on our own satellite means to bring connectivity and internet to our employees in the North because without that there’s just no connection available there.
MC: Most of our radio transmitters are fed via satellite dish because the fibre optic is not available and it would be too cost-prohibitive to install it.
CBC/Radio-Canada is a public broadcaster. How does this affect its broadcasting activities? What are the main challenges associated with this?
FL: Being a public broadcaster means that we are governed by very specific rules defined in federal legislation, namely the Broadcasting Act.
We also face competition from networks in the United States.
Because Canada is a bilingual country, you offer content in English and French. What technological challenges does this entail?
FL: There is one corporate technology team and a common set of infrastructure that delivers functionality to both of our networks, CBC (English) and Radio-Canada (French). Each network creates content in various locations throughout Canada. Both networks use the same editing tools, but each has its own process for distribution.
MC: Each network’s distribution is centralized in one location: for CBC, it’s Toronto, and for Radio-Canada, it’s Montreal.
FL: Most regions have their own local TV and radio channels. For example, Radio-Canada’s main TV channel, ICI TÉLÉ, has 13 local channels across the country: there’s ICI TÉLÉ Montréal, ICI TÉLÉ Québec City and so on.
Also, Canada spans six time zones across four regions. We therefore need to create a time-shifted version of the content. Each region has local news and advertising. In some cases, we create local or regional programming that is then broadcast nationwide, while other shows air only in certain regions.
Which is the main equipment you are using in your studios? Could you give us an overview over the main providers the company uses in terms of cameras, microphones, etc.
FL: We have 76 production sites. Although we try to standardize equipment as much as we can, it’s not always possible. For the new Montreal building, our main studio camera provider is Sony and it’s pretty much what we are using across the country, with some exceptions.
The production switchers we use are Grass Valley, Ross, and Sony. We use all of them depending on the location and the needs of our teams.
With respect to the audio consoles, we use Calrec and LAWO, depending on the location. For microphones, it’s a mix of Shure and Sony. Our playout system is iTX from Grass Valley. The IP infrastructure is managed by VSM from LAWO over Arista networking equipment.
What is your technological state in the graphics section? Have you tried developments in augmented reality?
FL: Our graphics are a combination of Vizrt and Ross Xpression.
MC: We have virtual sets, but the main portion of our studios is conventional studios.
What’s your opinion on 5G and how will it affect the industry?
FL: Many TV/Radio production use cases don’t need 5G to work. There is already technology available that can be used with the existing cellular or wireless infrastructure to make it happen today.
5G is going to help us to improve our workflow, but it’s not going to be a game-changer because a lot of what 5G will enable is already possible today. Yes, with a bit more latency. Yes, maybe with only HD quality, not 4K. But for 90% of the applications, it works. Lightweight technology to easily transmit video or audio signals more cheaply than via satellite or truck is here to stay. But I believe that we could be doing a lot more now with just 4G. We don’t need to wait for 5G.
MC: Adding to François’ point, the 5G announcements of the telecommunication companies in Canada are in densely populated centres such as Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. What we are also watching closely is the LEO (Low Earth Orbit) satellite constellation, such as the Starlink service from SpaceX. If we can leverage that for mobile and fixed remote applications, it’s going to make it easier for us to cover other parts of the country for news gathering, especially in the North.
What do you think about cloud-based productions? Is something that could happen in the future?
MC: 98% of our digital client-facing services are running in the cloud. Our websites, our video streaming platforms for content distribution, are all running in the cloud, either in Azure, Google Cloud Services or AWS.
When the editor is working remotely on the system, it uses a low-resolution version on the cloud with fast access, but the final result is a high-resolution version. It’s a hybrid model that we tested that works well and we are looking at deploying this concept for a large-scale project.
Which is the distribution standard you are applying?
FL: We use more than 700 transmitters to cover the entire country.
MC: We use 27 ATSC transmitters. The fraction of the population that receives it through the airwaves is quite low because most people leverage cable/satellite distribution for home use. That’s where the core of our TV distribution happens. We have direct connectivity to the cable distributors to give them the signal.
FL: Something interesting is that we reach a substantial amount of viewers through our own video streaming services. There are two, one in each official language, CBC Gem in English and ICI TOU.TV in French. Through those platforms, we distribute a lot of file based and each one of our live OTT feeds is also available.
Which image format does CBC/Radio-Canada use? Are there any plans for 4K? What is your opinion regarding the deployment of this technology?
MC: Two elements should be taken into consideration: the format we use internally for production and what gets distributed to viewers. Those might be two different formats. I will give you a good example. In SDI, our old building in Montreal was built with 1.5 gig equipment. It could not even pass 3G 1080P everywhere, so production was done in 1080i, but for various reasons, distribution was done in 720p. In the new Montreal facility with IP, everything becomes bytes and a question of bandwidth. We decided to keep 1080i for the production path, mostly to remain compatible with our nationwide file-based workflows, but we have many pockets of 1080p or 4K/UHD.
FL: Another great example is the output of the multi-viewers. You create a lot of small tiles, but if you want to maintain a good picture quality, it makes sense to use them in 4K. It is HD in, but it is 4K out. With IP, you get that flexibility to be able to have a mixed infrastructure where everything can work together nicely.
In terms of content creation, everything we bought recently is 4K ready. For the new building in Montreal, the cameras and the production switchers are 4K native. Of course, the IP network has plenty of bandwidth to carry those 4K signals.
Looking ahead, where is the TV broadcast industry heading? What will be the main trend for the next few years?
MC: Part of our strategy for technology is making tools available and accessible from anywhere. Any type of remote editing web-based tool is a big part of our strategy going forward. That includes our IT-type applications, our editing platform and these production tools.
More IT-type tools and software is a big driving force of the future. One of the reasons why we went IT was to leverage the software-based applications so that we have quicker and flexible access to the market. That comes with the fact that our staff need to change to more of an IT-type approach.
Another one is leveraging data as much as possible. Make better business decisions and leverage our technology tools through data. I’ll let François talk about the challenge around security. Security is probably the topic we talk about on a daily basis.
FL: Security is a big concern for us and I believe it should be a concern for the whole media industry. We’ve seen a few broadcasters that were attacked during the last months and years, but I believe it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
I believe that the media industry doesn’t take the security aspect with enough rigor. Last year, we spent a lot of time trying to work with vendors to bring to the market good IP solutions. Now we want to work with them to bring secure products.
Also, I believe with COVID we were forced to experiment very quickly with remote workflows and we found out that we can do a lot more than what we thought with an infrastructure that was not necessarily built to enable work from home. At least in our case, it took a few days, or a week in some cases, and people were back to normal working from home.
In the future, by building systems natively designed to be remotely accessible, we’ll be able to get a lot of very efficient and very interesting workflows. We have servers running software to execute demanding workloads, as well as hardware solutions. ITX, our playout system, TAG, our multiviewer, and various others are software-based. At least for us, we will always prefer a software-based solution than a hardware-based one for the same application.