Background

The Turner Broadcasting System, part of the Time Warner corporate family, is among the largest and most diverse media companies in the world, including not only CNN but also such familiar U.S. cable brands as TBS, TNT, Cartoon Network, Turner Classic Movies, and truTV, as well as a host of media websites and cable operations in every part of the globe. Headquartered in Atlanta, GA, the company maintains a state-of-the-art production operations facility, "Turner Studios," on its Techwood campus. The facility's staff is responsible for providing 24-hour production and technical support for sports and entertainment programming, including NBA, NCAA, NASCAR, Major League Baseball and more. As Technical Supervisor of Studio Events, Mike Mough is among those tasked with keeping the huge range of TBS productions running smoothly, an essential element of which is ensuring easy and flexible communication not only within the Techwood production center itself, but also out in the field and between the field and production facilities.

Challenge

While matrixed systems like the industry-standard RTS ADAM provide exceptional intercom capabilities in fixed installations or on specialized production trucks, extending those capabilities to cover temporary locations typically presents significant logistical hurdles. Engineering may be asked to enable two-way communication to locations that have no supporting infrastructure, such as audio tie-lines. That necessitates the laying of dedicated lines, and can leave productions dependent on the staff at sporting facilities, hotels, or office buildings, who may not share the same expertise or priorities. Alternatively, communication may be required with a location, such as a studio across town or across the country, that is intercom-equipped but beyond the reach of locally laid lines, requiring the unwelcome expense and hassle of renting and wringing-out phone lines. In short, extending intercom to locations that are either distant or not appropriately equipped requires engineering to devote disproportionate time and money that would be better spent on other aspects of production.

Solution

For Mough and his colleagues at TBS, the key to moving beyond the limitations of locally wired intercoms was RTS VLink (Virtual Linked Intercom), a new DHCP-compliant Voice over IP (VOIP) intercom system enabling full two-way connection to existing RTS intercom systems. VLink builds on technology proven with the RTS Voice over Network series (RVON), which has long allowed full integration of intercom systems via Ethernet over IP-compliant local-area data networks (LANs). RVON also supports a VoIP Virtual Keypanel (VKP) that instantiates a virtual intercom keypanel on any Windows PC, eliminating the need to provide dedicated hardware for each end-user.

With VLink, the network-enabled connectivity enabled by RVON has now been expanded to encompass the entire Internet. The basic RTS VLink-LE system is a standalone software/server-based intercom providing limited interconnect functionality into any existing audio feed, while the premium RTS VLink system provides intelligent trunking links into an RTS intercom matrix, enabling full support for standard communications workflows. TBS recently served as a real-world test site for the new VLink system, deploying VLink both internally and in major remote productions.

Results

Within the Techwood campus, VLink has been implemented in a number of production areas, including video editing suites and voice-over rooms. "The virtual intercom is used to talk to the voice talent in the booth," Mough says. "They tend to put the voice-over rooms in somewhat out-of-the way places, so using a virtual intercom saves on the cost of cable as well as the labor of pulling cable and installing cable trays. It's all going through the trunk master and working beautifully."

As for the editorial suites, Mough says that the intercoms, while necessary, tend to get less constant use than in production. "It's usually just to call a tape room. And since the editors are increasingly surrounded by devices like tablets and computer monitors, it doesn't make sense for them to dedicate a lot of room to a 1RU rack mount that sits on the desk with a little speaker-phone. So a virtual router allowed us to free up some room for them in their space. They have a minimized intercom panel and a minimized router panel right there on their desktop, and they can just pull them up whenever they need them. "

Based on their in-house experiences, TBS had enough confidence in VLink to deploy it as part of the joint production effort with CBS Sports to cover the 2011 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship, the grueling 65-game tournament known as March Madness. "When you're doing big events, you can spend a lot of time faxing out coms," Mough says. "VLink takes a lot of that out of the way, and gives us more time for the other things we've got to do. Plus I had zero complaints about the quality of the sound, and the level is completely consistent: if you put unity in you're going to get unity out."

One use of VLink for the NCAA tournament was for TBS's communication links to CBS. "It was very quick to establish," Mough says. "It only took us about three minutes to walk through and check out each line to see if it was working — we never found one that wasn't — versus a half-hour or 45 minutes to get all the phone lines working with TIF. And we didn't have to worry about issues like TIF-dropping or bad patches or bad phone lines. VLink was always very stable, and it maintained over the entire month without any problems whatsoever."

TBS also used VLink to establish intercom to a monitoring suite that was set up in New York for executives from NCAA and the networks. "The executives like to sit in different rooms in different buildings," Mough says, "but still have the ability to talk to the control room or talk to the truck, in this case from New York. They wanted a keypanel, and to be able to hear the director in the control room, but there was no way I could get them a physical keypanel, because the room they picked was in an executive building and it had no connectivity at all other than Ethernet. So it was immensely helpful to be able to use VLink and the virtual keypanel in that monitoring room."

Craig Hey, Turner Studios Sr. Vice President, adds " RTS VLink was truly one of the unsung heroes during the NCAA March Madness event, providing seamless communication across all of our production operations both in-studio and on location, enabling all of our broadcast and new media production team to collaborate effectively."

Even where Ethernet isn't available, VLink over Wi-Fi makes it possible to bring the benefits of professional intercom to formerly seat-of-the-pants situations. "Online content is becoming more of a major business with companies paying for sponsorship," Mough says, "and that means there now has to be effective communication with all the field locations in order to do a clean, professional show. On our streaming sites, for example, TNT Overtime on NBA.com, we had two cameras at the remote site that had to talk to the integration room back at Turner. We will also be trying it out this coming season with TNT Race Buddy on NASCAR.com, where we have people out in the field with their cameras and their laptops anywhere that they can get a Wi-Fi signal. So they don't have an intercom keypanel like they would have back here in the building, but they need to be able to talk back to the integration room, where their material is streamed from, and they want to do that over com rather than using their cell phones."

In response, TBS is testing deploying VLink on the laptops of the roving reporters for their online sites. "That's a new area that we are starting to use VLink for," Mough says. "Oftentimes the people gathering the online material are younger and they don't have a lot of experience with traditional intercom systems. But they know how to do things on computers, because they've grown up with them. So VLink works well for them, and it's foolproof because they don't need an engineer out there with them. As long as they can log onto their laptop, I can manage the VLink configuration from back here to make everything work."

By building on existing infrastructure while extending capabilities into new areas, VLink appears to be a natural fit for a future in which the media industry will be called on to generate more and more content with ever-greater efficiency. And VLink's reliance on ubiquitous data networks fits prevailing technical trends as well. "Everything is going by network now," Mough says, "and that is saving us immensely. The network infrastructure is already in place, so you don't have to put in a cable tray and bore holes through concrete. With VLink, it's now very easy for us to get intercom anywhere."