SIC: Leading the IP transformation in Europe
SIC, one of Portugal’s major commercial stations, started broadcasting on 6 October, 1992. Dated 8 December that same year, José Lopes joined the firm. Under his leadership, the station initiated an ongoing transformation process with the firm goal of leading broadcast innovation in southern Europe. We spoke with the Chief Operating and Technology Officer, SIC, in order to gain an insight on this firm’s current developments, which involve their new and much welcomed IP production centre.
You joined SIC little after the station began operations.
We understand this means you did not take part in the initial planning of SIC…No, I did not take part in the planning of the original infrastructure of SIC. But it is true however that I started out with a single general land broadcast channel in the analogue transmitter network and nowadays SIC broadcasts on 9 channels, even an international satellite channel. Since December 1992 I have actively participated in all projects, including the creation of a fully-digital 24-hour channel.
Which have been the most significant technological changes you have experienced in SIC?
In 1992 we were pioneers in using SDI. We had a mix of SDI with composite video. In 1998 we were the first to update video servers with multi-channel capabilities in order to implement a regional advertising system. We also anticipated developments and updated our automation and continuity systems, implemented a fully-digital platform in which journalists would edit 90% of content; we integrated all files in a Media Asset Management platform in 2016 and 2017… We did a lot of things! On the other hand, we were the first channel to set up a private satellite uplink infrastructure in Portugal. We are always moving forward. That is the path that has been followed in SIC: adopting state-of-the-art technology and integrating both advanced functions and devices. And this process has led us to complete a project for studios set up on an IP-core based platform.
As you have mentioned, you manage quite a few channels. Do you rely on several production centres in order to feed all these platforms?
At present, we are located in a building completed in 2002 that was initially thought out for bringing together the magazine and newspaper activities of the IMPRESA group. In 2013 our parent house decided to carry out our main activity in this building. We have a newsroom with the TV and the paper, post-production and video, playout, continuity, filing, self-advertising infrastructure, together with two news production sets and anything else required for digital content production. In the other facilities -rented premises- we have three studios for production of live entertainment programs.
What MAM system are you using for managing your content?
We are using a MAM that had been developed by a company that was later acquired by Harris Broadcast. In 2013 we started implementation of an Imagine system. And in 2014 we made the move to replace the legacy MAM, which had been discontinued. It was back then when we implemented a system from Imagine Communications called Invenio. Then came their Nexio® Motion™ workflow management platform.
The future of storage is a recurring topic in our discussions with broadcasters. Have you considered migrating to Cloud options?
For the time being we are using LTO libraries. Right now we are very much focused on adopting a new LTO version using different individual disks.
Have you assessed Cloud or Hybrid Cloud options?
Yes, they are interesting alternatives, but we must think about options ensuring integration with the content layer while offering reasonable retrieval times. This is not an option we will be using in the near term.
Once again regarding production, what types of formats do you record apart from news features and entertainment programs you mentioned before?
For instance, fiction production is outsourced from external producers. However, we play an important role in editorial definition and actor/actress selection. Furthermore, the business group owns an external media production company with mobile units and other equipment also on rental. Anyway all technical equipment for production such as camera chains, mixers and so on is ours.
We understand your current production workflow is HD.
Will 4K be the next step?
Thanks to the 4K core of or new production infrastructure, we are ready for the majority of parts for 4K broadcasting. But we are a private station: Everything depends a lot on the incoming we may get from the commercial side. We are at present delivering what the market is demanding. Launching these contents in Portugal is not feasible in the short/mid term. Portugal’s reality is different to Spain’s. For example, in regard to channel distribution, 80% is digital cable and only 15% or a little less is open digital terrestrial TV. The ones who are going to shape the arrival of 4K are distributors, content distribution groups. If we had the rights for the Portuguese Football League or for the Champions League, I think we would already have a 4K channel.
In regard to news programs, We have seen you have adopted videowalls and augmented reality applications. How do you manage those issues?
At project preparation stage, we work closely with our colleagues in the creative department. This is a team of very capable people that has designed our studios fully in house. Studio 1 is fully real, based on LED walls. Augmented reality is implemented in that studio. Some cameras feature a tracking system in all studio spaces, which helps with graphics implementation. The platform, which handles graphics, virtual scenography and augmented reality, is fully AVID. For supplying graphic content and the LED screens, we have a number of AVID PowerWall servers. They are six servers with SDI outputs in total, which feed processors that are half-way between these machines and the LED wall.
Early in the year SIC implemented a state-of-the-art IP production centre in Portugal based on SMPTE 2110. This complex installation took the company to the world’s technical forefront. José Lopes gave us a full account of what he experienced in the installation stage and how it is being implemented at present.
The team comprising technical staff and engineers made a decision -both technical and strategic- move onto IP. A great deal had been discussed on how to look at the future, but as we were going to move into a new building, there was much talk about at what point the forefront of technology is. We knew that this could entail a risk, but also that the opportunity was lying before us. Eventually, we made the decision to implement an IP core under the ST 2110 Standard, and then we started serious work. The engineering group in the broadcast area knew what functionalities would be needed. I actively participated in the preparation of the technical sheet with our requirements. Then we proceeded with the market analysis work.
First of all, we requested offers with all components and at a second stage we shared orders and separated what we called “audiovisual core” -which included capture, cameras, mixes, multi-screen, network, management and monitoring- from all other components: the graphic platform, the news production platform, the whole intercom system, live, the business management system area or the newsroom software system. Being aware that we would ourselves have to take care of certain areas, we should have as well reliable partners who could ensure at least two paramount things to us: that all parts and operational components we were putting together would be interoperable; and integrating our new TV production and multimedia on IP infrastructure. And, of course, ensuring that the infrastructure would be compliant with all 2110 requirements and, above all, 20227 network redundancy. After all this the decision-making stage was finally over. We decided to accept the offer made by Sony, which came with Telefónica Servicios Audiovisuales (TSA), in their role as system integrators. All AV core components such as cameras, mixers or monitoring systems are from Sony. We also implemented all the Lawo side with V__matrix and their powerful VSM control system. We chose a Calrec system, playout servers by Harmonic, AVID platforms and the intercom from RTS.
We began deploying cables by late August 2018 and implementation lasted only 4 months as by 9 January 2019 we were already performing integrated production tests for final go live on 27 January. As for difficulties, we experienced them every single day. Above all, we had to fit all parts to get them communicate with each other. In the end, everything was solved through great exertions from all engineers: lots of evenings, many weekends there. It was four and a half months of hard work. We really got involved in the project. Nowadays we are gradually exploring all possibilities at our disposal. We did the coverage for the EU Parliament elections without any issues. We are also configuring everything to have the activity taking place in all three studios from a gallery. We have three studios, each with four camera chains and we can work live with studios 1 and 3 from the first control room. As for setup changes, everything is quite handy.
We would like to talk about the issue of outside broadcasting. What are your resources in regard to mobile units?
As I have already told you, our group has an intermediate company called GMTS. Their role is to explore production means, being responsible both in the technical and in the operational side. We have four mobile units with four cameras each, one mobile unit with eight cameras, another one with 12 and last, one comprising 22. We also have four DSNG vehicles with redundancy.
Do you also use transmission backpacks?
Yes, we were the first ones to use backpacks in Portugal as well. We have been using them for 7 years. We made a thorough analysis of mobile network coverage in Portugal back then, when 3G was in place and 4G was just emerging. We started with 6 units and now we have 35 channels with expansion prospects. We are using them for live news production, entertainment… Another very important line is the applications for smartphones in order to do worldwide coverage. We have more than 100 phones with LiveU applications. Our journalists are located in Brazil, England or Portugal and, by means of a wireless microphone and gear kit they do their live broadcasts with no need of cameramen or operators.
Backpacks are also from LiveU?
We started with Teradek 7 years ago. We also purchased TVU with linker system and codecs for mobile units. Afterwards, we began to include LiveU, thus expanding our portfolio.
As shown throughout our conversation, one of your main purposes is the quest for staying at the forefront. Is there any other relevant technology that you are now implementing, such as AI or Big Data?
With regards to digital production we are now beginning to do things. For example, many things are being done with 360º cameras. We are watching for trends to make productions with systems such as Automatic TV and in the field of face detection for content production. At the last IBC fair, we were also interested in other areas such as compact solutions for sports production, automation of robotic production, options for distribution of content through streaming, Cloud storage…