Case Studies

Thinking inside the box

MBC Group recently transformed a 25,000sqft soundstage in Dubai Studio City into a multi-tiered TV facility that doesn’t just run some of its channels, but also connects with its main building in Dubai Media City. Vijaya Cherian goes on a tour of the facility with MBC’s senior tech team and discovers a TV centre that reflects a visionary outlook and futuristic design

I recently went on a tour of one of the GCC’s state-of-the-art studios, along with a few CTOs and other senior executives from both regional and international broadcast stations. Seeing how most of them gushed eloquent about the studio, Nick Barratt, Senior Manager, responsible for MBC Group’s broadcast technology, whispered conspiratorially: “Wait till you see what we have done!”

As I walked into MBC’s new facility at Dubai Studio City – a closely guarded secret until its launch in March 2017 – I could see why Barratt and his team were so proud of what they had achieved. MBC took the 25,000sqft soundstage space launched by Dubai Studio City in 2013 and transformed it into a multi-tiered TV facility combining the finest of broadcast and LED technologies with contemporary design, not just within its studios and the galleries but even within the office environment.

“This studio complex highlights MBC’s commitment to producing engaging, informative and innovative content for our viewers,” explains Barratt.

“It also demonstrates our drive to maintain our position as one of the best places to work in the Middle East by providing an open, collaborative and, most of all, inspiring work environment.”

The 19,957sqft facility at Studio City is the new home of MBC1 and MBC3. It has three studios, large movable LED walls, social towers that go all the way from the studio on the ground floor to the studio on the top floor, two galleries, two voice-over booths, editing suites and a very modern newsroom that can accommodate around 180 employees. The facility, dedicated at present to news, sports and children’s programmes, has been built within the existing soundstage like a building within a building.

“We have built the whole facility in one of the existing pre-made spaces, which is why it’s like a ‘box within a box’,” explains Raed Bacho, Broadcast Manager at MBC Group and the man who led this project.

“It was previously occupied by MBC’s sister company, O3 Productions, for a joint venture with Stargate.”

As you walk into the main studio, which occupies about 575sqm and has an 18m ceiling, the first sight that greets you is a massive double-size LED wall.

The LED wall is more than 60sqm with fine 2.5mm pixel pitches; in total, the facility has in excess of 300sqm of LED. The LED wall features the skylines of various countries in the GCC at 4K resolution, and it appears as though the whole experience is live.

The illusion of depth is created by the way in which the screen has been fitted, explains Bacho, taking us to the back of the wall and proudly pointing to the massive steel structure that holds the LED wall together.

But this is only one of several screens of various sizes that brighten up the studio. A large second curved screen – a huge design challenge – adorns a side wall, while a kitchen set occupies the opposite side of the studio. A number of touch screens and interactive technologies surround the sets, and the work space and the possibility of interconnection between the sets give a sense of free boundaries.

The set idea was conceived by Clickspring Design, an American firm, and executed by Zen Studio, a local company, Bacho says.

“The selection of LED specs, the choice of brand and the method of installation was not easy to achieve. We continuously checked specs and did factory surveys to secure what came closest to the MBC vision. Once we identified Qstech, a manufacturer in China who could deliver, we went there several times to inspect the brand and the quality before we finalised the product. Even after that, we had to test the LED in front of the studio cameras and check several other variables before we were happy with the end result,” he explains.

MBC’s technical team also approved two specific models – the Barco 55” for the MBC3 studio and the NEC 55” series for the office areas, which were proposed by two Middle East technology firms, Intertech Vision and Four Dimensions, with whom the network worked on different aspects of the project.

“The Barco and NEC displays are designed for the rigours of 24/7 operations. Advanced technologies of this model include direct LED backlighting for improved uniformity, full 1920×1080 HD resolution and a 3.5mm distance bezel width with matte surface to suit the camera shooting and avoid any light reflections,” explains Bacho, adding that Intertech LLC committed to installing the LED and LCD walls within a very tight timeline.

“Several video wall layouts installed at our studios in DSC, such as the 3×2, two 4×1 and the 2×2, were done by them. Each video wall is driven independently by an IPTV source and the video processors, such as Datapath, are fed by Vizrt engines. The studios share NEC 5 touch screens of 84” size mounted in landscape mode and driven by a high-end Vizrt GFX engine.”

In addition, products from Lindy Electronics were used to build the video infrastructure’s core connectivity, such as fibre cables, DVI, display port extenders and patch panels, as well as the other connectivity required to deliver a high-quality video signal and control. Four Dimensions was responsible for delivery, i.e. supply, installation, testing and commissioning of NEC and Lindy products, within the time schedule.

The facility also houses 13 cameras with the flexibility to route them to any of the two galleries. A wireless camera and crane complete the set.

This studio is used primarily for filming the daily two-hour MBC Morning Show and the Nine O’Clock News. Other shows shot here include MBC in a Week, which highlights social media trends in the Arab world; a show with Saudi writer and novelist Badriyah Al-Bishr; Bil-Mokhtasar, a live chat about Arab personalities who are considered pioneers in their field; and Ma Lam Tarra. A major element of this studio is a social media tower that runs messages from MBC’s social platforms.

A second 180sqm studio dedicated to sports includes a large movable LED wall. This studio is used for the Sada Al-Mala’eb programme, which focuses on the Saudi Football League and hosts stars from the world of sport and entertainment.

A third colourful 200sqm studio set has been created primarily for MBC Kids, though other programmes are also shot in the space. The studio boasts multiple LED and LCD screens and enables the production of games and entertainment with content suitable for the whole family. Shows like Tasaly and Khatawat Na’aema and brand-new entertainment content used between shows, are also shot in this studio.

Lighting plays a significant role in these studios. Almost 3km of LED strips from Rosco have been laid all over the studio. Dubai-based lighting specialist Oasis Enterprises was responsible for its supply, installation, testing and commissioning.

Oasis also supplied motorised hoists and pantographs as well as LED fresnel lights and LED soft lights from Desisti, an ETC console, Rosco Braq Cubes and I-Cue moving mirrors. Oasis undertook the lighting integration, ensuring the power and DMX distribution was efficiently organised. The Braq Cube provides a smooth effect for low-ceiling applications, while the flicker-free RGBW strip from Rosco illuminates the decorative set.

“When we designed this facility, we had two objectives. One was to build facilities for MBC1 and MBC3, and migrate the production team from DMC to DSC. The other was to ensure that this site could serve as some sort of a DR unit and we could maintain connectivity between the two facilities. The rest of the facility is an island, where news, sports and entertainment shows are handled independently,” explains Bacho.

“The more interesting bit is the IP installation, which helps connect both sites. We have a decent network connectivity to ensure a smooth file-based handshake between the two sites. Both sites are baseband fibre-linked with more than 17 lines. MBC was the first in the region to implement Avid Interplay | Delivery as a media service that links workgroups and enables multi-site workflows by smartly handling the transfer of media, sequences and shot lists between Interplay workgroups on both the DMC and DSC sites.”

Barratt explains that this new facility is a reflection of the team’s larger vision to be able to connect with its different offices.

“Along with providing MBC with a new production environment, this project has enabled us to prove that centralised core broadcast systems can operate effectively over distance. This is the first step of many into moving towards a more distributed working mindset allowing us to utilise all of the creative talent available to us, along with helping us provide cost-effective business continuity systems.

“We don’t want people to worry about the underlying technology; the systems should be invisible to the end user and automate laborious time-consuming tasks, allowing them to get on with what they do best and continue producing the best content.”

MBC’s workflows are standardised across both sides.

“We consider it as an expansion set-up of the existing topology or additional floor to the MBC HQ building,” explains Bacho.

This project can be split into two aspects technically. While the studio design, LED walls and sets were undertaken as a whole, the other broadcast element was integrated by TSL Middle East.

“TSL’s Dubai office worked closely with MBC’s engineering team to build an extraordinary design along with the challenges of multi-site based workflows,” explains Bacho.

The project involved the design and installation of the three studios, two galleries, two audio control rooms, three CARs (central apparatus rooms) and an MCR (master control room), within a new building that was being completed simultaneously. In order to meet the deadline, TSL pre-built 80% of the system off-site and then relocated it.

The system was configured and pre-commissioned off-site, with the majority of the equipment sourced from different manufacturers including Avid, Axon, Clear-Com, Evertz, Sennheiser, Sony, TSL Products and Vizrt.

“The core ingest and playout of the newsroom remains integrated by Avid with Vizrt graphics. Thirteen Sony HD cameras and vision mixers form the baseband core in both the galleries, along with a redundant vision mixer from Ross Video. The studio HD cameras and CCU monitors are Sony as well, locked by a different range of HD Canon lenses. In addition to the infrastructure, the video router and the multi-viewers are from Evertz. This ensures that there is video routing flexibility and distribution along with a monitoring system for all of the incoming and outgoing sources in the galleries, the MCR as well as the displays on multiple screens. Axon provided the glue for the video signal distribution as well as other processing. With regards to audio, Studer Vista serves as the main audio console, with a Yamaha mixer providing redundancy,” explains Bacho.

It’s not just the three floors of editorial office space, the private offices, the hot-desk workstations, the conference areas, the editorial suites and the quiet environment that are appealing. The attention to detail in the way LED screens are used to announce each floor, the picture of MBC Chairman Sheikh Waleed al-Ibrahim on a column that can be seen only on a frequency device, and the use of light boxes rather than traditional lights – these all add to the sense of creativity.

“Raed and his team have done an amazing job under challenging timelines and constraints. The team showed amazing commitment and we are obviously very proud of what they have achieved. They thought out of the box to build a box in a box! This new facility is the latest in a long line of innovative, complex studio and other projects that highlight the superb in-house technical resources available to MBC, preparing us for the future, ensuring we are always pushing the boundaries,” concludes Barratt.

• Client: MBC Group
• Location: Dubai Studio City
• Design concept for studios: Clickspring Design
• Objective: To build a state-of-the-art TV facility that includes production and broadcast operations and connects well with MBC’s HQ
• Key suppliers: Qstech, Barco, NEC, Lindy Electronics, Avid, Autoscript, Axon, Clear-Com, Evertz, Sennheiser, Sony, TSL Products and Vizrt.
• Key systems integrators: Intertech Vision, Four Dimensions, TSL Middle East