EcoWeek,  January 2003


Global's Digital Newsroom

Using technology to bring its journalists together

By Brad Fortner

Since its inception over twenty-five years ago, CanWest Global Communications Corporation has grown nationally and internationally through strategic purchases of individual television stations and networks. Today CanWest's operations in Canada are dizzying. The company operates the Global Television Network from eleven over-the-air television stations, licensed in eight provinces that reach 94 per cent of English-speaking Canada.

In addition CanWest operates three independent television stations under the CH banner, two CBC affiliate channels and seven digital specialty channels of which six originate out of its Digital Broadcasting facility in Winnipeg. The company has even added radio to its roster in Winnipeg with its newly added CJZZ 99.1 Cool FM. While new to Canada, radio is no stranger to CanWest's international portfolio. In New Zealand, the company operates a number of radio stations along with that countries TV3 and TV4 television networks. Its international television operations also extend to Ireland and Australia.

Back home in Canada each CanWest associated station has different obligations to the specific market it serves. As such, decisions relating to its technological infrastructure continue to evolve. Like most businesses CanWest strives to minimize duplication across its various stations. Its core business, which includes the transmission of pictures, the licensing of programs and the operation of local television stations includes a strong emphasis on news production. Technology investments at CanWest's Global Television Network are made on a case-by-case basis.

"We do not tell anyone in our organization that they absolutely cannot have something," adds Doug Bonar, vice-president of technology for CanWest who oversees equipment purchases on a company wide basis.

"The makeup and size of our company means that today we have the power of international purchasing. When we go to the table for technology we enjoy sizable discounts and service. The standardization of technology is dependent upon the situation. We will soon be making a decision that will result in a digital newsroom here in Toronto. Where we need standards and systemization is in the ability of the digital newsroom here in Toronto to talk and interoperate with ones that we may install at future dates. Hence, it's desirable that we have the same equipment for our next rollout that could take place in Vancouver because the exchange of information, data, ease of system operation and training is in our corporate interest," explains Bonar.

With its current emphasis on news production at its various stations the technology that the Global Television Network require for production has changed over the past twenty-five years. The network initially opened in January 1974. Its production centre operates in the building that formerly housed the Barber Greene steel factory in Don Mills, Ontario. In its production heyday, the location produced game shows such as Jackpot, Bumper Stumpers, and Pizzaz. Today, Second City Television is its most recognized production legacy. However, the networks shift towards the licensing of programs to independent producers has eliminated the need for production facilities on such a grand scale. Today Montreal's CH station is perhaps CanWest's busiest outlet in terms of production. This is because the Montreal station is focused primarily on local ethnic programming.

With CanWest's television holdings having effectively doubled in size over the past five years it has been busy times for the engineering department. Historically, on the technology front, the news department at Global's Barber Greene location was the first in the world to adopt the Betacam production format and has since remained aggressive technologically. Several years ago the news studio was equipped with one of Canada's initial robotic camera systems. The decision to go robotic was strictly economic. "It worked out quite well for us. We were pioneers in the world with mini-peds and the first on the block to make use of them. We we're quite ambitious with movement and the sets we used them on and today you'll find them everywhere," added Bonar.

Digital newsroom

With a digital newsroom installation on the horizon the group recently concluded a project that allows all of Global's newsrooms to make use of the reporters who work in the newspapers that CanWest owns. They installed remote controlled television studios in the newspaper facilities that range across Canada from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island. The remote studios can be accessed from any of Global's eleven broadcast facilities allowing for the provision of live or prerecorded reports for their various newscasts. The remote studios are routed via an 8-megabit data pipeline that connects all of CanWest's news operations. Camera and lighting control is provided via dial up modems. Reporters at the satellite studios simply clip on a microphone and fit their earpieces. Meanwhile all of the studio camera and lighting functions are remotely controlled from the television station.

Another area in which the Global Television Network took a lead was in the area of descriptive video. Descriptive video makes use of the Secondary Audio Program (SAP) during transmission in which action on the screen is verbally described in conjunction with the program audio for viewers who are visually impaired.

"We were the first network in the world to offer regularly scheduled prime time (descriptive) programming," explained Ed Holmes, director of broadcast operations who found the implementation to be more difficult than originally anticipated. "Educating the uplinks who provide the network with its American programming to include the descriptive channel (Channel 3) was a challenge. We had to reinvent the way we did things in-house such as enabling pass-through and activating SAP generators at our transmitters. Everyday there is another little piece we learn in enabling the service," he said. With an active inventory of 41 large transmitters and numerous smaller re-transmitters in operation across Canada, activating the descriptive service can be a challenge. "It's now launched in B.C., Quebec and Ontario and by September all stations will be transmitting the service." Holmes concluded.

With such a large number of existing transmitters in its broadcast chain, CanWest has been taking a "wait and see" position on digital transmission. It has been awaiting business factors that would drive the transition. While the ability to maintain simultaneous substitution remains an important element from a business point of view, local competition and the ability to deliver quality HDTV programs are also important transition factors.

"The most recent CRTC notice on DTV allows us to make a business case before implementing digital service," commented Bonar; "That is an important factor for us." In addition, the CRTC allows broadcasters to connect directly to BDU's to distribute HDTV programming in advance of changing transmitters. CITY-TV recently got its license to transmit in HDTV in the Greater Toronto Area.

They also reached an agreement with Rogers Cable to directly plug in and distribute some of their HDTV content in advance of operating their digital transmitter. It's most likely that HDTV rollout for Global would involve first connecting directly to the BDU for initial distribution and then following -- in a reasonable amount of time -- by lighting up digital transmitters.

"The advantage of connecting directly to the BDU's means that you can cover a large group of subscribers very easily and maintain simultaneous substitution. It's also important that we transmit quality HDTV materials. In viewing the feeds arriving from the United States the prime time programs transmitted in HDTV look great but some of the up-converted programming that occurs during the day can look pretty horrible. It's important that we provide good quality to our customers," says Bonar.

Since its inception The Global Television Network has been an active participant in advancing knowledge amongst the broadcasting community in Canada. In January Global's Barber Greene production facility hosted SMPTE Toronto's 16th annual satellite meeting by providing production facilities and satellite time.

It allows broadcast engineers in remote locations across Canada to interact with the meeting via telephone, which is always on an advanced engineering topic. Ed Holmes, who has sat on the Toronto Section Board for many years, including stints as Toronto section chair and SMPTE Canadian governor, helped organize the event. "We all volunteer for this event and we feel it important that we put something back into our community," says Holmes.

Likewise Doug Bonar sits on the board of directors of Canadian Digital Television Inc. It is a not for profit association that has been created to guide the orderly migration to advanced digital television services in Canada. It does its work through education to the broadcasting community as a whole. "Amongst the many important things CDTV did over the past year was the demonstration of HDTV to local area broadcasters in Toronto and has helped provide a focused voice on DTV policy issues. This has benefited the broadcast industry collectively," explains Bonar.

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