Fast forward into a new century as TV tunes into the digital age 

11 June 2018

From The Times ‘Interface’ supplement for 11 September 1996

Inspector Morse, that old-fashioned detective from the city of dreaming spires, is about to become part of a revolutionary development in television.

Central TV, which has commissioned a new Morse thriller for this autumn, is going digital, and that will mean sharper pictures, more up-to-date news and sport and more money to be spent on better programmes.

Full details of the digital technology to be installed in Central’s new purpose-built centre in Birmingham will be revealed in Amsterdam today on the eve of the International Broadcasters’ Convention, but Interface has been given an exclusive preview. The project, the largest of its type undertaken in Britain in the past five years, will reflect the shift in broadcasting from tapes to disks. This will enable journalists to rough-edit film and sound’ as well as the written word and will create a completely automated station in which everything from remote-control studio cameras to the positioning of a satellite dish on the roof will be controlled by one system.

Replacing tapes with disks is already revolutionising the world’s TV studios

“This is an important step in enabling us to move towards our vision of a modem broadcast station with the flexibility to develop alongside changing technology and help us maintain our competitive edge,” says Rod Hemwood, Central’s managing director. The new facility will be used by 300 staff who are expected to move into the £15 million centre next year. They will be responsible for the commissioning, production and transmission of 700 hours of news and sport and 200 hours of regional programming. Shows will include Crime Stalker with former police chief John Stalker and the audience participation programme It’s Your Shout. Central also produces Soldier, Soldier and The Cook Report for the Independent Television network.

At the heart of the new centre will be a 3,000 square foot regional production studio linked to the most modern broadcast technology acquired from a number of suppliers, including Quantel. The installation of the digital system, which will be designed and managed by Tektronix, the international technology company, will begin next month and marks the first step, as far as British viewers are concerned, in the much-heralded digital television revolution.

The BBC has announced that it will be offering five digital subscription channels, including a 24-hour news channel, by the end of next year and BSkyB, which is 40 per cent owned by News International, owner of The Times, has talked of a staggering 500 channels with the first digital services starting in autumn 1997.

Digital broadcasting, which is based on converting sound and pictures into digits instead of the present method of converting them into electronic signals, will allow six video channels to be carried on the same bandwidth that now carries one conventional TV station.

The use of digital equipment inside the stations will allow TV companies to provide a more efficient and reliable service at a lower cost as well as prepare for the day when they can transmit several channels.

Two aspects of the Tektronix platform cause particular excitement among broadcasters: the Profile professional disk recording and archive systems and the space and time saved by storing as many items as possible on disk instead of tape.

TV4 Sweden: fully digital

“The person with the cassette in his hand used to be king,” says Olle Mossberg, technical director at TV4 in Sweden, Europe’s first fully digital station. “Nobody else in the station would be able to use it until he had finished. But the Profile system provides instant and simultaneous access to the same disk by up to four people.”

This means that within seconds of receiving a live football match transmission, one editor can start work on producing a highlights programme, another can be sending a short clip to news, a third can be snatching “stills” and a fourth can be arranging a delayed broadcast for transmission overnight or the next day.

The Profile recorders also act as a gateway to an archive system which provides more material more quickly for journalists and editors. At Central the news archive will store material in date order — up to 80 days at a typical 90 minutes a day — while a second archive will store up to 5,000 commercials. Journalists working on Central’s news and other regional programmes will have access to the Profile disks and archives and, by using new digital editing systems, will be able to carry out their own basic on-screen picture and script editing. “This better use of raw material has made us more competitive,” says Mossberg of TV4, which, less than six years after its launch, now attracts the biggest television audience in Sweden. The switch from tape to disk was greatly welcomed by Mossberg because his station was inundated with cassettes, mostly lasting less than two minutes and containing commercials, trailers and promotions.

“The ridiculous thing was that 90 per cent of the tapes covered only 10 per cent of air time,” he says. “Disks are also more reliable than tapes. They don’t suffer from mechanical faults like the tape jamming or the heads failing. Our first disk failure occurred after 21,000 hours compared with an average of 1,500 hours when we used tapes. We could, of course, suffer from a rogue disk at any time, so now we have introduced mirrored systems to cover that possibility.”

Brian Paisley, director of the Tektronix video and networking division systems group in Europe — and the brains behind the latest developments — says: “The days of tapes are numbered. Anybody whose business is based on tapes will be going out of business!”

He insists that the Tektronix platform will give Central both “creative edge and competitive advantage”. The first phase of the project, beginning next month, will provide all the infrastructure and a primary path for all inter-operational feeds in the television centre.

Paisley says the infrastructure has been designed “with conventional working practices in mind” but believes that television staff will soon be pleased with the extra opportunities it provides.

Because of the broadcast trade unions, words like “multi-skilling” are not being mentioned, but in the long run it seems inevitable that staff will be expected to be sound recordists as well as vision mixers and editors instead of possessing just one skill.

In phase two, Tektronix will implement the new MPEG 4:2:2 compression standard that will allow more flexibility in the management and storage of video material. The OmniBus automation system will then be the final piece of the jigsaw.

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