Northwest MediaCity In 500Million Project
Salford-based MediaCity UK is a technologically ambitious, £500m project that will act as a hub for the UK's top media organisations.
Due to be completed in 2011, the BBC will be moving 2,300 staff across its Children's, Sport, Future Media and Technology departments to the site next year.
BBC North West is also set to relocate to the site. In addition, Salford University will take up premises in MediaCity to run courses and carry out research. The BBC Philharmonic Orchestra will also make Salford its new home, as will several media organisations.
It will also be the new home of the BBC's Future Media & Technology department. However, as far as other new media technology companies moving to the area goes, there have as yet been no big announcements, although MediaCity's owners say this is just a matter of time.
MediaCity has been developed by investment firm Peel Holdings, with phase one seeing the firm splash out £500m of which £50m has been spent on IT alone so far.
Paul Clennell, chief technical officer at Peel Media Group talked to Computing about the technology behind the venture and the company's plans for the remaining phases of the project.
"The uniqueness of MediaCity is in bringing all of those broadcasters together to share that infrastructure - this certainly hasn't been done before," said Clennell.
He explained that all connectivity across the site will be based on optical fibre and that the key objective for MediaCity is to remain on the cutting edge of technology. However, the largest barrier that he has faced, he said, has been trying to focus on priorities.
"There's huge opportunity - the number of possibilities are infinite - and working out what you need to deliver first and which features are more aspirational and to be installed at a later date is essential," he said.
More aspirational features will include provision for 3D and ultra high definition studios.
"I think there's a real danger when you've got something like MediaCity, which is so exciting and innovative, to end up spending all your time thinking about what can be done. It's vital to just get on and do it."
One essential aspect of the MediaCity infrastructure is that it will be tapeless. Traditionally, the broadcast industry has been heavily dependent on tape. A programme would be recorded on tape, then that tape would be sent to another studio or to post production, with broadcasters often ending up with multiple versions of the same content. They would also suffer degradation of quality as content moved through the different iterations.
All filming at MediaCity will be based on a "file based media workflow". Clennell explained: "With our studios, the data can be generated in the studio and fed directly into post production without the need for tape creation."
This enables programme makers to depart from the traditionally sequential process when producing TV programmes. Previously, they would record footage onto a series of tapes, physically record those tapes onto a system before they could edit them, then output the edited film onto new tapes before post-production, which may include adding graphics or a voiceover.
"Under the old process you were always reverting to tape and physically moving media from the workstation or from the production facility as a piece of physical media," said Clennell. "What the media production workflow enables you to do is record initially onto a server, which people can access via the network and then perform whatever job they need to do, this means work doesn't necessarily need to be carried out in a sequential order and can happen in parallel. This speeds up the process because you're not waiting for a person lower down in the chain to finish their work.
"With the file-based workflow, you ingest the data into a server-based system once and you can edit that from any network-based workstation, then deliver that in its final form to the transmission system, thereby making things much more efficient."
Key to this new type of workflow is a media asset management system. Although Peel Media hasn't selected a specific supplier or product yet, what is certain is that the software-based system will need to comprise a series of workflow rules to generate work lists and tasks lists for operators to follow, as well as file transfer rules, automatically configured to trigger the system to move the media onto the next person's system.
MediaCity is also focused on facilitating the production of 3D content. The facilities block at MediaCity is HD-ready and therefore, by definition, can support 3D. However, 3D is very bandwidth-hungry and few studios can adequately support its production.
"3D has some very specific requirements around the dual camera, dual lens stereoscopic capture of material, but ultimately, when it ends up in the file domain, it's a big file and to move that content around, a fibre-based infrastructure will be the facilitator; it's the great enabler," explained Clennell.
"So 3D can be produced at MediaCity. Because the studio block is very flexible, we're able to adapt studios and turn them into 3D production areas if the demand requires it."
Clennell said that the key strategy for MediaCity is to remain on the cutting edge of technology. Because the technology infrastructure is very centralised, with all content passing through a Central Technical Area (CTA), Peel Holdings will be able to swap out studios on a modular basis.
This is because the CTA, which is the main apparatus area, comprises two distinct rooms. One is a large highly secured apparatus room, containing broadcast equipment such as cameras and vision mixers as well as air conditioning equipment and power supplies.
Next door is the Master Control Room (MCR), which is more of an operational space. This is where all of the operational decisions are made. Operators in the MCR control the arrival and departure of content onto, and off, campus.
"It's the control centre for the distribution of content across MediaCity," explained Clennel.
He said that this will make life much easier when new technologies, such as the experimental Ultra High Definition format, gain mainstream acceptance.
Ultra HD is an experimental digital video format, currently proposed by NHK of Japan, the BBC, and RAI, producing an image of 7680×4320 pixels.
"So we can have six studios in HD, and a seventh in Ultra HD, if and when that comes along, because the connectivity between the studio and the CTA is fibre-based and that is very future proof."
He added that the firm can change the equipment within the studios, swap out cameras, change the kit in the CTA and introduce new broadcast channels and camera chains that support new technologies when they enter the fray.
"We've got a very aggressive refresh and depreciation policy here, so that we're able to replace technologies and buy the very latest on a regular basis and we're also developing our relationships with major academic institutions such as Salford University and the BBC's research and development department, because we want MediaCity to be a centre of innovation, where companies and organisations will showcase and try out new technologies - we expect to see a lot of firsts come out of MediaCity," Clennell said.
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