In an exclusive interview with Vijaya Cherian, Mohammed Akhlaq, International Operations Director of Al Jazeera Network and Launch Technical Director of Al Jazeera America, speaks about the journey that led to the successful launch of the broadcaster’s channel in the US
On August 20, 2013, the United States of America saw the launch of a brand new independent channel from Qatar-owned broadcaster Al Jazeera Network that would compete with the likes of Fox News, CNN and MSNBC but on their home ground. It was no mean feat. In fact, with the launch of Al Jazeera America (AJAM), the Arab broadcaster had entered a market that many other international broadcasters with much longer legacies had failed to enter.
Al Jazeera had acquired Current TV, the cable television network founded by former US Vice President Al Gore, for an estimated USD 500 million in January 2013. Within six months, the new US network had more than 500 staff based in 12 US cities – Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, Nashville, New Orleans, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C. – where Al Jazeera had its bureaus.
Al Jazeera Network’s entry into America, no doubt, marked a huge milestone for the Qatari broadcaster but within the network as well, it meant a huge victory for the man who was tasked with setting the wheels in motion to ensure the creation of a full HD 1080/60 tapeless environment at multiple sites across the US.
Setting up a whole television facility that could staff 170 odd people within twelve weeks was daunting in itself, but having to also contend with securing permissions and finalising sites within the same timeframe, gives a good indication of the kind of pressure the launch team, headed by Launch Director – Technology and Operations of AJAM, Mohammed Akhlaq, was under.
Akhlaq has had a long career spanning more than 27 years with the BBC and other broadcasters. He helped to successfully launch BBC Arabic and its Persian channels before joining Al Jazeera in mid-2011 as International Operations Director. In his new role, he was tasked with delivering changes across the network’s bureaus and channels from an operational and technology perspective. Alongside that, he was tasked with getting AJAM up and running.
“At the time I joined Al Jazeera, the network was already in discussions about acquiring an American channel that would allow us to gain a foothold in the US. Many had tried and failed so this was a major opportunity and one of the highest priorities for the network,” says Akhlaq.
On January 2, 2013, Akhlaq headed for the US for what was meant to be a week. He eventually stayed on for eight months, scouting potential sites to begin operations and working towards a tentative launch date of mid-June. That date was further extended to August 20, when the channel was eventually launched.
“It was already mid to late January (2013) and we had no location, no studio, no requirements and no team. In short, we had absolutely nothing. But having been in the business for 27 years and most of it in a news environment, I knew that we would have to start with a search for premises. New York was our first choice because that is where most of the media are located and it has more than 200 facilities. Most of those facilities, however, were booked for long periods and most never had any production space to build a newsroom. We eventually narrowed our choice down to two potential locations that could fit our requirements although both would require intense work if we were to tailor them to suit our purpose,” explains Akhlaq.
Ultimately, Al Jazeera chose MCP, which is attached to the New Yorker hotel in New York.
MCP had only a small studio and no production area but it did have the core systems in place, says Akhlaq.
The deal was finalised with the help of Ted Nelson, CTO of USTV, a firm that provides television management services in the US.
“USTV used to deal a lot with MCP. Ted mentioned that the hotel had a bank space that was not used for years. So we had an empty and derelict place, which was separate from the studio. It wasn’t ideal but as an interim place that had to be fully operational by May 6, our target date to complete work, it passed.”
Akhlaq credits Nelson with having played a large role in helping to secure the premises and staff to man the operations.
“Ted’s background is very similar to mine – engineering and operations. He knew what we had to achieve with the timescale we had,” says Akhlaq.
Over the next few months, Akhlaq would find his mettle tested in several areas. Besides leading the team, he would also have to play the roles of lead negotiator, master strategist and diplomat when the occasion called for it. Through it all, we come across a person with strong leadership qualities and a very focused approach, determined to meet the goal he has been set despite the many challenges that constantly threatened to steer him off course.
One of the first things Akhlaq did was put together a small team with Nelson’s help. Together, they identified the staff they required and by Day 2, there were more than 100 people in construction, MEP and HVAC at the facility working 24/7 to meet the broadcaster’s ambitious launch date.
There were several conditions to meet.
Editorial pre-requisites, for one, meant the team had to build studios and full production systems at several sites including Newseum DC, K Street DC, San Francisco and 33rd Street in New York. All of these had to, in turn, be connected to the main AJAM operations at MCP New York.
One of the elements that came up for discussion was trying as much as possible to stick to a workflow that would be similar to the Al Jazeera Workplace Transformation (AJWT) project.
“There was no blueprint for AJWT yet at that point,” clarifies Akhlaq.
“Our primary goal was to ensure that we were up and running by the scheduled date, which was initially mid-June but that was later extended to August 20. But I tried to incorporate much of what I knew the general direction of the AJWT project would be so that when it did actually materialise, we could dovetail into them and our systems could be compatible and if it wasn’t, small tweaks could make it compatible.”
In the meantime, the requirements continued to grow. The main MCP studio was being used for news. A new studio was required for talk show programmes, sports and financial content.
A studio that Current TV had on a lease basis on 33rd Street, a couple of blocks away from MCP, therefore, was renovated, a new set was designed, new video walls, iNews, Interplay, a fully integrated news production system and five edit suites were built in there.
“Connectivity between the two sites was established using fibre circuits and one GigE circuit to allow staff to look into our assets at MCP so they could pull out the content they required. Although it was not ideal, from 33rd Street, they could use MCP’s news production system, which allowed for media assets to be shared across the network. The major issue here was that there were two programmes being produced from 33rd and these had to be ring fenced as Current TV was still on air. In effect, we had to build out 33rd with two systems running in parallel, one for the existing Current TV shows and the other for AJAM. So now, we had to install a new set for AJAM and in order for us to do this, we had to move the existing set to another facility and extend fibre connectivity back to the PCR (gallery) in 33rd Street, where we could operate the cameras remotely.”
Then there was the DC team that had a flagship one-hour show that was broadcast daily. They operated out of DC although the current Al Jazeera Network (AJN) DC hub could not facilitate this because they already had a couple of shows that were being run from there. The team found an alternative site at Newseum, which had a studio AJAM could use.
“Here again, we had to install a full news production solution, a Vizrt system and five edit suites and provide connectivity. However, we based this on the infrastructure that already existed at the Newseum site, which had more of a traditional news production workflow and required manual intervention.
“We designed our systems in such a way that our DC studio team could browse through all of our media assets in NY, and would be able to push and pull media, edit locally and transmit from their location with full Viz, playout, T/B, media management and other support. They were connected to New York but didn’t have automated Viz graphics. What they were allowed to do was browse through the assets in New York and request them. The requested files would then be fed via Signiant FTP to the staff at Newseum.”
A new infrastructure was put in place for iNews with six incoming circuits and four outgoing with full corporate IT infrastructure. Around 45 staff members now operate from this facility.
AJN DC K Street’s existing hub was supplied with extra connectivity to and from DC to New York and Doha. This area has been designed with additional floors for two extra edit suites and 45 staff with iNews.
All in all, the attempt was to create full functionality across various sites in the US.
One key aspect of the newsroom was the set design. AJAM wanted to incorporate two video walls – one huge 45-cube (9×5) wall and the other, a smaller 9-cube (3×3) one. The walls were specified and sourced from German manufacturer Eyevis, which manufactured the wall in Germany and was meant to freight the components to NY for assembly.
“The main issue here was that the large wall had a curve in it. This meant that the glass panels had to be cut to size to ensure the panel edges had the correct angles so that the curve was smooth and kept the joints tight and as thin as possible. The delivery date for the wall altered several times due to the above challenges, which actually put huge pressure on our final installation. Of course, this could not happen so the panel was eventually flown in to New York,” explains Akhlaq.
Another significant element of the programme schedule was to take AJE’s News Hours but incorporate AJAM’s graphics to make the programme more relevant to its American audience.
“Here, Ali El Husseini, our AJN standards and workflows manager, and a wizard when it comes to operating Viz and graphics, came up with the idea of installing a Viz engine in Doha. This would be triggered at the same time as the normal Viz engines for the lower thirds. The gallery would operate as normal but the system would also fire the graphics for the AJAM engine, resulting in two outputs from the gallery – one with AJE graphics and the other, with AJAM graphics. This allowed the content to be the same as the Doha News Hours but with our AJAM graphics. I believe this was a first and has never been done before,” claims Akhlaq.
In essence, the team built an entire newsroom with a complete news production system, fully automated and integrated Vizrt, with Signiant file transfer to and from all sites across all of its local and international channels and hubs with field crews having the ability to send and retrieve media. Other key solutions included Vantage for file transcoding and an archive system using Front Porch Digital integrated with Avid and a data cart from Spectra Logic. This entire system was to be seamlessly integrated with a fully automated workflow that required minimal manual intervention.
In the meantime, the clock was ticking. The contract was signed on February 17, 2013, leaving the team with 12 weeks to deliver a fully functional newsroom and studio to operate a 24-hour news channel – essentially, the team had to be ready both technically as well as operationally.
One of the big challenges Akhlaq’s team faced at this point was power. This required some out-of-the-box thinking as the team underestimated the amount of power that would be required to run such an operation.
“We had initially calculated a load of around 1400 amps but ended up requiring around 2000 amps. This was mainly due to the changing demands and the additional equipment we needed to add to ensure we could meet the editorial requirements. The plan evolved to install a separate supply from Comrad, the electricity supplier. In addition, part of our Disaster Recovery (DR) plan was to install a backup UPS large enough to sustain all the systems to minimise the impact to playout while also ensuring the ability to continue producing content.
“We built a power system that had a generator and mains that were routed via a change-over switch that would detect a loss of power from the main feed and switch to the generator. Both these power sources went to a UPS. This meant that in the event that we lost power, no loss would be experienced by the facility as it was on the UPS.
“The UPS could, by itself, supply enough power to sustain the facility for up to four hours before it needed to be recharged. The backup generator installed was specified to fire in less than three seconds from being triggered and stabilise within three minutes,” Akhlaq explains.
The system was tested successfully.
“Having come from the BBC, I was fully cognisant of the network strategy and objective. My remit, and the one that I set for my team, was to design a channel infrastructure that would allow full connectivity and sharing of media across the entire network.
For IT and broadcast, I had a small team of three – Miljenko Logozar, CTO of Al Jazeera Balkans; Mike Marno, Head of Engineering at AJE DC and Jeff Polikoff (VP of Operations AJAM).
Logozar handled news production systems while Marno was in-charge of broadcast infrastructure.
“We were under a lot of pressure to comply with the AJWT project, which was under discussion in Doha. AJWT is essentially a project to refresh the technology across the whole network. The problem was that we had no proof of concept yet; the workflow had not yet been defined. What we did, therefore, was build a system that we knew would work – Avid was a given and Al Jazeera Balkans (AJB) was the latest channel within the network that had a tried and tested news production system. The mandate for Miljenko and Mike, therefore, was to build a system based on AJB but with the latest versions and enhanced functionality, while also keeping in mind the network’s refresh plan. This would ensure that we complied with the AJWT project as much as possible.”
One of the major technical highlights of this project was the installation of Avid Interplay Central at the facility.
Akhlaq says this install initially posed a huge challenge but was also a substantial learning curve for both parties on how to successfully integrate the solution within a larger network.
“I think we are the first major broadcaster to use Interplay Central in its true sense by pushing it to achieve more in terms of both desktop editing and content generation, giving reporters the ability to edit stories ready for TX from their workstations within the newsroom,” says Akhlaq.
“We had to engage Avid fully to fix a product that didn’t actually meet our requirements, but I believe it was the perfect real life environment for them to test their product and address some serious concerns. They eventually sent a team of developers on site to monitor and fix the issues and we had 24-hour on-site support. I am pleased to say that we moved towards a proper partnership with Avid at that installation instead of merely having a vendor-client arrangement.”
A second challenge was the playout and here again, Akhlaq’s team was faced with significant issues.
“For Press TX, we had to develop a remote control of our TX playout servers from NY to our service provider’s site at Stamford (Encompass), where our hardware systems were housed. Encompass did the uplink and distribution for Current TV. Due to time constraints, I decided to extend the contract and allow Encompass to continue running our playout and distribution services,” he adds.
AJAM’s scheduling and QC department in San Francisco would send a daily and weekly playlist for TX to Encompass. The Press TX at MCP would review it, validate and take control of the play services remotely from NY.
“We would always have the option to call Encompass and ask them to take control should we lose connectivity of control,” explains Akhlaq.
He credits the success of this project to the team he had with him including Mike Marno (Head of Engineering DC, AJN), Miljenko Logozar (CTO, AJB), Ali El Husseini (Network Head of Standards and workflows, SME Vizrt), Jeff Polikoff, VP of Operations AJAM, and Ted Nelson (CEO of USTV).
Besides the technical challenges, AJAM faced other issues.
For one, half way through the build, a big union issue cropped up at the site with the hotel and it appeared that AJAM would have to stop operations, although the channel had nothing to do with the union.
Akhlaq stepped in and led a crisis meeting with the chairman of the hotel, his lead advisors and the legal team.
“After an hour or so of debate and strategising, I informed the chairman that we would be restarting work with immediate effect and that neither the hotel nor the unions had any right to stop work on our site. You may think that this was harsh but my timeline could not slip and the chairman of the hotel was given a strategic advantage, which allowed him to resolve the dispute without too much pain. Eventually, it was a win-win situation and we now have an even better working relationship with the hotel.”
AJAM’s travails did not end there. Three days before launch, disaster struck. A water pipe burst on the fifth floor of the hotel creating a major water leak at AJAM.
Within minutes, AJAM experienced a waterfall feature in its newsroom.
Akhlaq recalls that it was the one time he panicked and “for the first time, saw real worry on the faces of our management team as well”.
“But after that initial hesitation, we quickly gathered our wits and everyone in the newsroom rallied through with coats and plastic bin bags to put in computers, monitors and so on. Within minutes, we evacuated the site as there was a real danger that the ceiling would collapse. I had the construction team, MEP engineers, HVAC teams, cleaning services, pumps, etc., on site within 20 minutes of making a call to my team and Ted from USTV. There was a real team spirit with everyone focused on fixing the problem,” says Akhlaq, playing down the huge drama that had ensued with the water leak.
Despite this, the whole set-up was revived within 12 hours.
“No one truly believed that we could get the newsroom operational within 12 hours, but we did it thanks to the fantastic efforts volunteered by our contractors and vendors. All of the major vendors called asking how they could help. It was amazing.”
Akhlaq recounts plenty of anecdotes that have all the makings of a motion picture.
From May 6, 2013, the team was ready for operations. To familiarise the teams with the editorial workflow so that there would be no hitches, Akhlaq started four weeks of technical rehearsals in collaboration with editorial leads.
“This proved to be invaluable as editorial workflows, system behaviour and training could all be compressed to work in parallel, thus saving time, which we simply did not have,” he explains.
Akhlaq’s team leads were the first staff members to come on site and help conduct the BAT (Business Acceptance Testing) and UAT (User Acceptance Testing).
“The leads were to define the basic workflow for their areas. This would test and ensure that the system behaved as we had designed it to and identify areas that may need to be readdressed. It was a real success because it gave staff ownership and when it came to training the rest of the team, the systems were well understood and where there were issues due to system or components not being complete, effective workarounds were put in place.”
With the channel now fully operational and staff in place, Akhlaq is back at Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha. But work on AJAM is far from over. The present installation is an interim arrangement until the network identifies a permanent site for its American operations.
“We are looking to secure new premises. We shall be ready to build a permanent multi-studio, fully functional broadcast facility for Al Jazeera America in the near future,” says Akhlaq.