BET bets on NDI for live production
Manhattan-based BET Networks has been using NewTek’s NDI IP technology for several years now – and they aren’t looking back
On the eastern edge of Times Square stands a towering glass and steel edifice which was, until 2013, known as the Bertelsmann Building, but is now simply called 1540 Broadway. Near the top of the building, BET Networks has its New York production facility where it produces television for its primary and four sister channels. Targeting a primarily African-American audience, BET emerged initially as a Nickelodeon segment and became an independent channel in 1983. The channel is now distributed internationally to the UK, France and Canada via satellite, as well as online.
Stuart Brewton is BET's director of technology management: “My job is production - the live production and show delivery. I run a team of six people and my team of techs handle securing of freelance personnel on some of our shows, we'll book mobile units, we'll procure resources for our studio shows as well as our remotes.”
With a background in sports television, Brewton worked as a vision mixer through the late 1990s, a time of complex engineering demands as the SD to HD transition began. “I used to work with Yankees and Mets Television. And I would do games, hockey, and basketball for the New Jersey Nets before they went to Brooklyn.” After leaving the world of sports, Brewton worked with NBA Entertainment and for the Madison Square Garden network before joining BET.
NDI accepts a degree of image compression, and is therefore able to use conventional networks with considerably more flexibility
Brewton's interest in NewTek products predates the introduction of NDI. “My initial thought was let's use a TriCaster for a small show we were doing, back in 2005 or 2006. I rented a TriCaster Broadcast for about six months and we did a show and it worked very well.”
Having developed a “love for Grass Valley switchers and Sony switchers,” Brewton admits that “I had my hesitation about anything that had a Windows OS, but we completed six months of day in, day out stuff. That was a live-to-the-network show and it worked out very well.” This positive experience “got me into the world of knowing what TriCaster was and what NewTek was doing.”
The rise of NDI
NDI, for Network Device Interface, is NewTek's system for sending broadcast video over conventional computer networks. It's one of several implementations of video-over-IP, where IP is the Internet Protocol which routes traffic around the global internet. At least within a building, and perhaps further, NDI allows cameras and switchers to use conventional computer network infrastructure. NDI contrasts with other technologies associated with companies such as Sony and Grass Valley, who have concentrated on high bandwidth and often uncompressed images. These systems are intended to replace conventional cabling and routing, and can require costly high-powered networking hardware. NDI accepts a degree of image compression, and is therefore able to use conventional networks with considerably more flexibility. While NDI does not follow the committee-driven standards of other options, the technical details are published and compatible third-party products exist.
BET are enthusiastic adopters, using NDI extensively in the production of as-live material, often shot on the office floors of 1540 Broadway and switched and recorded in control rooms above. In this environment, NewTek's system has relieved many of the restrictions imposed by operating in a building intended as conventional office space. Brewton could run, he tells us, “a very limited amount of coax before I got the word ‘Don't run anything in our ceiling, this is not a broadcast production centre’.” But by adopting NDI, he was able to utilise the existing conventional network infrastructure. “The whole floor opened up for me. Everything inside of our 1540 Broadway work area is NDI-based.”
“We have production areas all around the floor,” Brewton continues, “and we're going right to our control room. The IP series switcher is the heart. It's an NDI island - everything comes in to that spot. From there I can send it out to edit, or in my office I have a laptop on that network and I can view things.”
Beyond production, the low impact nature of NDI makes it easy to provide feeds to producers and journalists in their offices. “Case in point,” says Brewton, “if BET News is doing something and they needed to look at a live inbound satellite feed, I'd pipe that over a live NDI link to their laptop. They can look at anything that comes into my NDI world. I don't have to run coax to every office, but I can get everyone in that office looking at any of the inputs and outputs.”
If BET News is doing something and they needed to look at a live inbound satellite feed, I'd pipe that over a live NDI link to their laptop"
“I've done some BET News specials,” Brewton remembers, particularly citing the opening of the African American museum in Washington, D.C. in 2016, where NewTek's 3Play replay system was used. Entertainment news content includes the channel's BET Breaks interstitials, of which eight are produced each day between 6am and 11am. “Every one of the music specials that we do has some studio shoots that we use, we package it and we'll send that out to a third party that's running that show, or we'll deliver things on hard drive.”
Beyond the studio, BET is keen to use their location, occasionally shooting things “outside of the studio in front of the Broadway window that overlooks Times Square and we'll pipe things from that area via IP. Typically that's four cameras.” The four associated BET channels, three covering music as well as the female-targeted Centric, also use the facility, shooting anything from small remotes, ENGs, to studio sitdowns, virtual sets, and talking heads shows. “That stuff we do five days a week.”
An NDI Superbowl
BET's biggest mobile NDI deployment was for the BET awards, which Brewton describes as the “Superbowl” of the network: “That's our big to-do, a large show where we have four days' worth of production happening in the LA area at the LA Live complex.”
While the broadcast also involved traditional outside-broadcast trucks, Brewton was able to use the ability of NDI to carry multiple channels over limited infrastructure to run an extensive network of digital signage. “I was able to bring in [a TriCaster] 8000 and involved my IT department. We put in [networking] that went from building to building, and I put in an entire digital signage network. The year prior I was paying lots and lots of budget to string lots of fibre from one complex to the next to fill various screens. This year when that same team came to me I was able to say I could target all those individual screens, I could just put it all on the same [network] and push out many streams.”
Brewton's background in more traditional approaches lends credence to his enthusiasm for NDI, and he's philosophical about the emergence of this new contender in the field of broadcast engineering.
“Traditional broadcasters will shy away and say 'Yeah, well for years we've been using Grass Valley, for years we've been using Sony'. Even Ross is making some big inroads now. But I've looked at certain things and there are things that are coming with the TriCasters, the 8000 and the IP series, and these switchers which make it a bigger bang for your buck in certain instances.”
Given the cost advantages and, perhaps more particularly, the flexibility of an NDI infrastructure, it seems set to continue tempting broadcast engineers away from the traditional.