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The Digital Dilemma in the Newsroom (Part Two)

The author's purpose is to help you make informed decisions about digital video acquisition. In this second part it offers a review of aspects related to the decision on video distribution and playback, and a final discussion on the current facts and the expected future.

Decision Point #5: Video Distribution

The decisions you have made so far will determine what remains to be made. If you chose the individual edition format, and equipment or formats from particular manufacturers, you will have to stand by that company's responses or its particular philosophy regarding sharing technology.

On the other hand, if you have chosen an "open platform" system, your options for video distribution remain open. And if you chose a central server system, they already decided for you regarding the video distribution topology.

Keep in mind that video distribution is still, so far, the biggest single problem that remains to be solved in the entire scanning process.

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The distribution of broadcast quality digital video in real time is not easy and the final solutions are not in sight. Compression speeds up the process into a smaller file from which some frames have been removed: not every image you took is necessarily there, but the program approximates the intermediate video and fills in playback.

Thus, while compression provides greater speed, it also lowers the quality of the image and introduces artifacts, a kind of "foreign bodies" (jumps, flashes, etc.). So, your best option is somewhere between maximum speed to minimum compression.

I will be brief in a discussion that is easily lost in acronyms and specifications that could dizzy the smartest or the most foolish who dares to venture into that terrain.

Digital video has 30 frames per second; uncompressed, with "broadcast" quality, requires 270 mbs (megabits per second) of sustained transmission speed, to make it seem "real".

Below I will expose some distribution options. Almost all the speeds indicated in the topologies are maximum and, due to the overall costs of the system, they actually perform at only 80% of their indicated speed, under ideal conditions and with only one transfer at a time:

Tennis Shoe uses removable media and manual delivery to the playback devices on which it is inserted or engraved. The speed varies depending on the "brand" and "motivation" of the human using it (this method can take multiple transfers at the same time).

Ethernet is the most common network architecture. It involves shared systems for the office and the newsroom, and comes in three types: 10baseT Ethernet, the network most would recognize in our "normal" computing world, whose average speed is 10 mbs. Ethernet 100baseT, faster version, with few uses in video and speed of 100 mbs. Ethernet 1 Gigabit, the latest version that promises faster production than ATM or FDDI, at 1 gigabit per second.

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ATM or Asynchronous Transfer Mode, is a transfer method that became popular very fast, since it is faster, 132 mps, than Ethernet while still being relatively economical.

SCSI , or Small Computer System Interface , was promising a few years ago, but its relatively low speed and short distances (3 to 12 feet) took away its value as a network transfer topology, although it is still an effective link between the server and hard drives. There are three types: SCSI, with an average speed of 10 mbs. Fast Wide SCSI, with a speed of 20 mbs, and Ultra Fast Wide SCSI, with a speed of 40 mps, and more than one simultaneous production channel.

FDDI or Fiber Distributed Transfer Mode, uses fiber optics to feed information at an average speed of 100 mbs.

FC-AL or Fiber Channel Arbitrated Loop, transfers information via fiber optics at one Gigabit per second, and uses smarter protocols and routers to gain speed. It is very popular and several large video providers give technical support.

HIPPI or High Performance Parallel Interface, has remained on the market but is sui generis for being the only topology that simultaneously provides two-way transfer (read/ write) by using two separate ports. HIPPI FP goes to 140 mps or 70 mbs on each track.

HIPPI 6400 is a new version that promises a transfer speed of 1.6 gigabits per second or 800 mbs on each track.

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These may not be all the transfer technologies and networks that are achieved, they are simply those that I know. In addition, almost all of them have two types of topologies: shared and switched.

The former "share" the bandwidth (available speed) with the other users of the network. (100 mbs divided by 4 equal to 25 mbs, divided by 5 equal to 20, etc.). The more users, the slower the network. The more traffic, the slower the network. The larger the files transferred, the slower the network (an elementary rule for calculating transfer speed is to divide the maximum speed – 10 mbs or 100 mbs, etc. – by the number of connections – users or devices – on the network).

A channel network uses isolated (point-to-point) connections, so that each "exchange" occurs at the maximum available speed. The number of users/devices, increased traffic, or file sizes have little effect on performance.

Make sure your decisions about editing software are based on what you do and want to get to do. In other words, choose software that fits your newsroom processes, not one that forces you to change a process that you, perhaps, don't want to change.

Decision point #6: Video playback (finally, automation).

Considering the choices you've had to make up to this point, and in the context of a sea of confusing technology, selecting your automation system is relatively easy. Almost all providers are known and have a history that you are, or may become, familiar with.

Reproduction is the end of the whole process of preparation by which a story goes on the air. The ability of providers of newsroom equipment and programs to control video playback varies greatly. Some cannot play the digital video, others can, and some more are able to synchronize the video playlist with their own editing.

In most newsroom systems (including ENR) it is not interested in which specific format or manufacturer you have chosen, as long as your choice allows remote control, through the connectivity of the equipment via programming interface, and your software provides the functionality you require.

Things to know

Rule #1: Your first digital gadget in your newsroom was, most likely, your computer system.

Rule #2: A digital device is a digital device, regardless of its platform, its hardware, its software, or its operating system.

Rule #3: A computer is a digital device and is capable of communicating with, and controlling, any other digital device regardless of its platform, its hardware, its software, or its operating system.

You don't have to throw away your current newsroom system to get a particular digital video product unless you want or need to, because:

• you are unhappy with your current provider of newsroom technologies, or

• he cannot give you the desired interface or functionality; or

• the selected digital product is completely particular; or

• the manufacturer's product does not allow remote interface; or

• the manufacturer refuses to provide interface specifications.

Facts versus the future

Since 1982, Comprompter has been one of the pioneers in newsroom systems. Over the years, we've learned that "product ads" and crystal-ball visions of trade magazines about the "newsroom of the future" are like margarita cocktails: they can only be swallowed with a good dose of salt.

Ads for "first products" are often nothing more than test darts released into the air to test interest or register a right to "be first", if such a product really exists.

Too often, journalists who cover the media fall into the trap of reading press releases and printing a "story" as if it were the gospel. Honestly, my experience to date leaves me very uncomfortable with the ability of any manufacturer to deliver a digital newsroom solution that now, or in the near future, will work as promised; be complete in its design and technology; be economical for the average market.

Once one manages to overcome the deceptive wedges of some marketers and the bellicose promotion of journalists, the digital newsroom turns out to be still in development and still lacks, in my opinion, a lot of evolution to become real and practical at the same time.

The unfortunate result of all this has been a sloppy distinction between real technology and future technology, creating an expectation, clearly false and unrealistic, that the digital newsroom is ALREADY here! If you've spent more than two weeks sitting on demos, getting data, and requesting delivery appointments, you know exactly what I mean!

Digitalization, as I see it

- The digital newsroom will exist in the near future;

- it will be better than the hodgepodge of means we have now;

- is and will be (in the short term) more expensive; but time and competition will produce a variety of solutions tailored to your needs;

- the combination of different equipment and programming will be created by this mixture and not from a single "vertically integrated" source;

- digital video equipment and programming are improving radically;

- most digital video manufacturers are agreeing to license each other's technologies.

The pieces of the puzzle are falling into place quickly, to access consortia of marketers that provide separate products, but with shared technology that allows the user to turn an intensely integrated newsroom into a news environment.

My advice is: do it, if you have a truly large pocket and are prepared to accommodate a still weak technology. But, for me, it would be better to expect a video distribution whose cost-benefit offers at least real-time speed. I know digital video is the future, but at what price?

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