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Multichannel monitoring at Sinclair’s new ST 2110 media operations centre.

Sinclair Broadcast Group has built a new 25,000 sqft, SMPTE ST 2110 media operations centre for Sinclair’s regional sports networks with cloud-hosted disaster recovery channels, and a large-scale ST 2110 production facility for its Tennis Channel that has a cloud-based environment for pop-up live special events.

Don Roberts, VP of sports engineering and production systems at Sinclair Broadcast Group, said that both business and technical requirements are driving Sinclair’s transition to IP connectivity and software-defined architectures – and particularly cloud deployment. “This transition cannot be a simple lift and shift of legacy systems. It is an opportunity to take a fresh look at the way a broadcaster operates,” he said.

“We have to start from good user engagement, to understand what will change at each step,” Don said. “The transition to IP and the cloud is transformative. We can’t just flip a switch – we have to redefine how the business works.”

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The Production Control Room at Tennis Channel.

IP Stepping Stone

Over the last few years, Sinclair has become an effective supporter of the SMPTE ST 2110 standards. Following its 2019 acquisition of regional sports networks from Fox/Disney, Sinclair had to quickly develop a new playout strategy and decided to build an IP-based facility from the ground up to serve as a future-proof hub for the new regional sports networks. The Atlanta facility was built in partnership with systems integrator Encompass and includes Imagine Communications hardware and software – the Versio integrated playout platform, Selenio Network Processors and Magellan SDNO control system.  

“Armed with that experience with IP and our technical relationship with Imagine, we decided that our first step was to develop an on-premises system for the new sports networks,” said Don. “We also developed options to put some of the functionality – like the archive and disaster recovery playout – into the cloud. This means we can use the Atlanta facility as a stepping stone, continually refining the workflows and business cases that will help us transition to a hybrid approach that balances capability and cost.”

At the same time, Sinclair was developing a platform for its Tennis Channel, a service that features detailed coverage of the top 100 tournaments in the sport and related content. The channel has a master control centre in Santa Monica, California, which uses the Versio platform, both on-premises for primary origination with Imagine’s ADC automation, and as software instances hosted in the AWS cloud for pop-up special events under the control of the Versio Automation system, optimised for cloud.

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The Master Control Room at Tennis Channel in Santa Monica.

Agile and Responsive Playout

IP connectivity allows simplification of the hardware architecture, for instance, through the virtualisation software features of Imagine’s Magellan SDNO to create virtual patch panels, router paths and workflows. Its router control system manages SDI and IP matrices simultaneously. As a path from SDI to IP and UHD, Magellan can achieve the scalability and efficiency of IP-based systems using existing infrastructure investments, and utilise COTS IP switching and late-generation IP routers.

The Tennis Channel project presented Sinclair with a new set of technical, operational, and business challenges.  “Tennis is live and unpredictable, so we need our playout capabilities to be agile and responsive,” Roberts explained. “Software solutions like Versio give us that agility ― the ability to make a decision and have it on air virtually instantly. And because it can be hosted in the cloud, we simply spin it up at the beginning of each tournament and close the software when it ends.”

Going Live in Miami

Central to the architecture at the Santa Monica centre is Imagine’s Selenio Network Processor. Each 1RU SNP device hosts four independent, software-defined processing channels.  At the Tennis Channel facility, the SNPs act as IP gateways and support format conversion, which allows the facility to operate primarily at 1080p, but accommodate 4K and HDR UHD when needed, such as for the French Open Tennis from Roland Garros in Paris.

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Sinclair's Central Equipment Room incorporates 84 racks.

The facility also uses the new SNP-MV multiviewer personality, establishing tactical multiview displays wherever they are needed in the workflow. Each processor supports up to nine input signals rendered into one or two UHD displays. Latency from input to display is extremely low, typically one frame-time, and it has a full 10-bit processing pipeline that includes HDR-aware colour space conversions.

The new Tennis Channel ST 2110 infrastructure debuted in December 2020. Sinclair then went live to and from the cloud during coverage of the 2021 Miami Open in March, one of the first times that a broadcaster had supported a high-profile live sporting event via live cloud playout. The combination of cloud playout and on-the-ground master control stood out especially in a time of COVID, which has challenged media companies to continue producing quality broadcasts, while ensuring a safe work environment for operational staff.