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Bricks and broadcast

With a new surge of building in the broadcast sector, Kevin Hilton looks at how radio and TV complexes have developed in recent years and highlights some leading projects, including MediaCityUK and the redevelopment of BBC Broadcasting House.

With a new surge of building in the broadcast sector, Kevin Hilton looks at how radio and TV complexes have developed in recent years and highlights some leading projects.

Broadcast studio centres are much more than merely places where television or radio programmes are made and transmitted. They can be a symbol for a nation or a region of a country. To underline this, the building where they are housed is often an extravagant architectural statement, defining the era and aspirations of when they were built.

Ultimately they embody the state of the technological art for the time they were planned. This can mean that after only a few years what was once a brand new, up-to-date, ahead-of-the rest facility can begin to fall behind and is no longer a representation of the future but a snapshot of technology, almost frozen in time like an insect preserved in amber.

Which is why broadcasters can never be complacent about their headquarters, regardless of how groundbreaking and technologically advanced it was to begin with.

The 21st century broadcast complex has to be much more than a building where radio or TV programmes are produced. The nature of broadcasting itself has changed; the web, TV over IP and distribution to mobile phone and other handheld electronic devices, as well as TV and radio, all have to be considered today and accommodated within any serious broadcast facility.

Which explains why new facilities are being built across Europe. In some cases, most notably BBC Broadcasting House in London, the core of an original building has been kept. In others, such as the Danmarks Radio BYEN development in Copenhagen, designers have started from scratch.

Any new TV complex has to be high definition, which invariably means 5.1, even if transmissions are not routinely in surround sound for all broadcasters in all countries. Interactivity and multimedia is another serious consideration, as it is for radio as well.

Building new facilities – by their very nature capital-heavy projects that take many years to complete – in the teeth of a global recession is not a good idea. Sometimes broadcasters have no choice; a project may have been given the green light before the economic meltdown, so has to continue, while other organisations need to push ahead or suffer the consequences of struggling on with technology and facilities ill-suited to the times.

Keith Watson, marketing director at Soundcraft Studer, says broadcast was the worst hit of all markets two years ago but now its recovery is the most notable of all. “Audio has picked up generally and broadcast demand is strong generally now,” he observes. “We have been engaged on several very large European tenders recently and also see high demand in the Middle East, Asia and South America.”

Like many companies in the broadcast audio sector, Calrec saw a slowing in sales during 2009. Head of sales and marketing, Henry Goodman, says major international broadcasters reacted to the financial crisis and credit squeeze by imposing spending freezes on larger capital items, such as mixing consoles, and deferring plans to purchase or upgrade their equipment and infrastructure. “However, our major clients began placing orders again in late 2009 and this ‘recovery’ has gathered speed since then,” he comments.

Regardless of economics the changes in how broadcasting is done these days has altered the way many broadcast centres are designed and built. A great many TV services are now controlled by so-called publisher broadcasters, which commission programmes from independent companies and farm out transmission to third-party play-out centres.

In radio the creation of massive media groups operating numerous stations – in the UK this is typified by Global Radio, which bought the already huge GCap network – has led to ‘colocation’, with services sharing one or two broadcast centres rather than having a facility to themselves.

Lars-Olof Janflod, international sales manager at Genelec, is seeing this gradual shift towards smaller, more specialised broadcast facilities: “We are seeing an increase in projects but they may not be as big as they used to be, although maybe the number of smaller projects makes up for the smaller size. In some cases there are new centres being built rather than refurbishing of old premises but I think there is more refurbishment going on.”

Genelec has been successful in the broadcast sector with its products, notably the 8200 Series of DSP systems, with sales to RTL in Luxembourg, Belgian broadcaster RTBF, Swedish TV and the BBC.

The days of the big broadcast centre are not over, however. Gargantuan edifices are popping up all over Europe, keeping old traditions alive. There are changes, of course. Not all of these are for public broadcasters and there is more sharing between radio and television, embracing the ‘cross-media’ approach.

Among recent and ongoing installations are centres for the ProSieben Sat 1 group, Electronica Industria in Italy, TV4 of Sweden, TSR in Switzerland, the ZDF play-out centre in Mainz, France 3 and the massively controversial but impressive Danmarks Radio BYEN, whose name emphasises its sheer scale (‘byen’ means “city” in Danish). Recently announced projects include work at ORF in Austria and the ARD Hauptstadtstudio (capital studio) in Berlin.

Four projects currently underway in Europe highlight the different needs of modern broadcasters, with each typifying a specific aspect of the modern approach to building a major broadcast centre.

Broadcasting House, London

The West 1 project is an ambitious undertaking now into the second phase of a rebuilding and refurbishment programme that has retained the grade II listed facade of Broadcasting House while expanding and updating the facilities inside considerably.

BH will still be home to four of the BBC’s non-digital national networks, and most of its digital radio production but a significant video presence has also been established for the broadcaster’s TV news output.

Good old sound radio is still the main business of the place, though, and work begins later this year on new studios for BBC Audio and Music. VCS is now the BBC’s automation system of choice and this continues to feature round BH, supported by Studer consoles and Delec intercom.

Among the many systems integrators and contractors involved are dB Broadcast, IPE Systems and Aspen Media. John Chalmers, managing director of IPE, says this is commonplace today, with “more threads” to deal with and “different skills” involved for the varying aspects of a build and installation.

BSkyB Harlequin 1, London

Sky TV might not be the most conscious or philosophy-driven broadcasting organisation in the world but its new broadcast centre, being built in west London near its current base, is based on the principles of sustainability.

The futuristic glass and metal structure has been designed by Arup Associates, with the brief from Sky to use “every viable natural resource on the site and to radically minimise energy use throughout”. This means the broadcast and sports news departments, eight HD/5.1 studios and offices will be ventilated naturally, with material stored in free-cooled data rooms.

Phase 1 of the broadcast installation involves five Calrec Audio Apollo consoles, with a Hydra2 network, going into the studio production centre and postproduction facility being built by systems integrator ATG Broadcast. The stated aim is for the centre to be completely tapeless, as well as environmentally friendly.

To deal with the expected high volume of audio ins and outs running through Harlequin 1 Sky has bought two additional Hydra2 routers to support those already integrated into each of the five consoles. The Sky network has approximately 15,000 I/Os, so the standalone Hydra2 units have been extended to accommodate 32 fibre optic connections, each one able to handle 512 simultaneous channels (incoming and outgoing) of audio I/O.

Sky engineers worked with Calrec to develop protocols that will integrate the audio network into Harlequin 1’s broadcast control structure. This will cover studios and production areas on all five floors of the centre. “Together we’re building many of the protocols, workflows and technology that will drive this facility for the next few years,” comments senior sound supervisor Martin Black, who has special responsibility for the H1 project.

MediaCityUK, Salford, Greater Manchester

This is that strange beast, a private sector development that was initially driven by the changing needs of a public broadcaster. The BBC had been looking to expand its presence in the north of England and decided to move BBC Children’s and Learning, BBC Sport, Radio Five Live and parts of BBC Future Media and Technology out of London to the MCUK site at Salford Quays.

The development, on former docklands, will also be home to local radio and parts of BBC Audio and Music already housed at New Broadcasting House in Manchester city centre; HD TV and radio studios, post-production suites and dubbing theatres for the University of Salford; and the production, studio, play-out, teleport, engineering support and master control room departments of betting industry TV programming and data provider SIS. Just before Christmas, after months of speculation commercial TV network ITV announced it was to move production and management
departments and regional news operations to the site.

MCUK is made up of many studio blocks, each with a specific purpose. Block D is the commercial studios centre, although much of the seven-studio HD/5.1 facility is already spoken for by the BBC. Lead integrator on this is TSL, which has so far installed Calrec Apollo desks into Studios A and B, with an Artemis in E and a Yamaha DM1000 for F. TSL’s audio applications manager, Martin Dyster, says flexibility has been built into the centre by being able to run any studio from any of the galleries.

Also in Block D are the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra’s new recording and rehearsal room and a multipurpose audio studio, which is able to handle drama production. Both have Studer Vista 9 consoles and were built by IPE working with acoustic consultants Sandy Brown Associates.

Blocks B and C will house studios for Radio Five Live, parts of Audio and Music (local radio and network programmes previously produced in Manchester), Sport and Children’s. Facilities include DJ studios, a general-purpose news studio and TV sound stages. IPE is working on the radio side, installing Studer OnAir 3000s and VCS automation, while Dega Broadcast Systems handles the TV equipment, including Calrec and Yamaha consoles. A Stagetec Nexus router, supplied by Aspen Media, will distribute audio throughout these buildings.

Süüdwestrundfunk (SWR), Stuttgart

SWR has two major broadcast responsibilities; to its core audience in the south-west of Germany and to the country as a whole, supplying regional input into the ARD network. After reassessing its technological and operational needs the broadcaster is building a new centre for its TV facilities, while refurbishing the radio operations, which remain in their existing building.

Systems integration for the TV centre is by MCI, with audio consoles supplied by Lawo. Four mc266 HD cores will be installed for the four networked studios; three for mc266 consoles, the other as a central router.

SWR’s aim is to create a fully tapeless production chain combining HD video and 5.1 surround sound, which is distributed as embedded audio. Distribution will be carried out through a Nova73 HD router, with a DALLIS system running 3G SDI boards that will enable 16 channels of audio and full-screen 1080p images to be embedded into a video stream.

Communication systems for both the TV and radio centres will be provided by Riedel. The TV installation includes three Artist 128s networked over fibre, with over 120 control panels. Radio is to use a single Artist 128, with more than 90 control panels (a mixture of 2100 and 2000 Series modules).

Commissioning of the TV studios is scheduled for March, with broadcasting from the new centre planned from June onwards.