With an audience reach estimated at 80% of television viewers across Iraq, Al-Sharqiya Group has created seamless collaboration with social media platforms following a recent upgrade at its London studio facility, which also included critical enhancements in storage and workflow efficiencies.
Like most news channels, Al-Sharqiya, Iraq’s first privately owned satellite channel, has long ceased to be a conventional news broadcaster and has integrated social media platforms as part of its news programmes. “We have incorporated social media as part of our news telecast for some time,” clarifies Ahmed Bin-Afif, long-term CTO at Al-Sharqiya Group. “However, the recent upgrade will allow for seamless multiscreen social media integration, creating more efficient and effective production workflows.”
While the ability to push a single live broadcast to multiple social media destinations was one of the reasons for the upgrade, the studio, last upgraded in 2010, needed enhancements on several fronts, Ahmed reveals. “We had several stages of facility and system upgrades since 2010. In 2015, the channel broadcasting system upgraded from SD to HD; in 2016, the studio floor layout changed and was enhanced with new décor; and this year, the newsroom system was upgraded to the latest Avid-based newsroom technology. We have been users of Avid solutions since 2010. Besides social media integration, the upgrade has allowed us to shift from SD to full HD, and that has meant a quantum jump in terms of the quality of our production.”
Launched in 2004, Al-Sharqiya (meaning ‘The Eastern One’) has an audience reach estimated at 80% of television viewers across Iraq, according to recent figures from IPSOS. The channel broadcasts a mix of popular current affairs programmes, satire and reality TV. With studios in Baghdad, Dubai and Amman, the channel’s UK operation is in west London and includes a three-camera studio, a master control room and an Avid 3D real-time and virtual studio system.
We caught up with Bin-Afif, who closely oversaw the upgrade that took place before and after the tumultuous Iraqi general elections in May 2018. As one of Iraq’s premier news channels, the period could not have been more critical, calling for zero downtime.
The team at UK systems integrator Altered Images worked with Bin-Afif to deploy the solutions. Russell Butcher, Media and Broadcast Solutions Director at Altered Images, summarises the upgrade: “Al-Sharqiya has deployed the Avid MediaCentral platform, integrated with Telestream Vantage and Woody Technologies that lend automation to certain critical processes. The deployment also includes Dell-based VMware hardware infrastructure.”
The project, which began in April 2018, was suspended briefly to allow the newsroom to cover Iraq’s parliamentary elections in May. It was an unusual challenge, concedes Butcher, as he reveals how they worked out a plan to allow the newsroom to function with minimal disruption.
“Al-Sharqiya’s engineering staff had to plan continuous operations around the installation. We supplied and installed the base equipment to allow ingest, edit and playout to replace the ageing infrastructure prior to the elections, without social media integration, and used existing workflows until the new solutions could be deployed.”
Acknowledging that planning around a live operational studio, election or no election, is always difficult, Butcher says the brief given to the Altered Images team was to “renew ageing infrastructure with a more efficient capture, edit, store and archive solution for a live news environment”. He adds: “The existing infrastructure had become difficult to sustain, given the demands on a live news environment.”
With the main production installation completed in time for the Iraqi election week, Butcher explained the various stages of deployment. “The new edit workstations were pre-configured along with the servers and storage at our headquarters, before shipment to the Hammersmith area in London where Al-Sharqiya is located. The primary and secondary Dell 3046 switches were integrated into the existing network topology.”
“[The aim was to] renew ageing infrastructure with a more efficient capture, edit, store and archive solution for a live news environment” Russell Butcher, Media and Broadcast Solutions Director, Altered Images
With the project about to be fully commissioned this month, Bin-Afif says:“The upgraded solution allows us to create and deliver breaking news in a quicker and more streamlined way. Most importantly, we can engage with our audiences seamlessly on the web, mobile and social media channels. Avid iNEWS integrated with Avid MediaCentral has streamlined workflows allowing multiple persons to connect simultaneously with the same media sources in real time, via the Avid NEXIS shared media storage platform.” The upgrade to software-defined shared storage solution Avid NEXIS | PRO had significant implications on the workflow, Bin-Afif says. “With the NEXIS | Pro bringing together media composers, DNxIO and ingest and playout systems, it allows our production team to work collaboratively in a speedy manner given our tight news-related deadlines.”
Underscoring Altered Images’ 10-year relationship with Al-Sharqiya Television, supplying and supporting technology across the EMEA region, Butcher says: “We are an approved Avid Elite Reseller. We have trained ACSR engineers who are qualified to support these news environments. Since we have supported Al-Sharqiya’s older infrastructure for many years now, we are a trusted supplier.”
While the main delivery was done six weeks from the placing of the order in April 2018, the project continued for six weeks after the election in May. The main delivery was handled by the Altered Images team of engineers, with manufacturer support with iNEWS and MediaCentral.
The upgrade addressed the all-important ingest technologies to ease workflows. Eschewing multiple tools required to ingest media, the Iraqi broadcaster has opted for platform-agnostic Woody Ingest to automate ingest feeds of selected news stories from Reuters and other FTP sources. Recognising that on the studio floor, non-engineering staff generally manage workflows, a new Telestream Vantage ingest encoding server was deployed to replace ageing Telestream Agility.
Commenting on the choice of technology, Bin-Afif says: “We now have better control of our VOD processing. The manual effort is reduced, and the team is a lot more efficient with the reduction in multiscreen media transcoding times. The new technologies give us exciting opportunities going forward.”
“Besides social media integration, the upgrade has allowed us to shift from SD to full HD, and that has meant a quantum jump in terms of the quality of our production” Ahmed Bin-Afif, CTO, Al-Sharqiya Group
The reason to opt for a disc-based archive server to replace the LTO archiving system, in Bin-Afif’s words, was because “it was cost-effective and to ensure quick turnaround of media”.
Overall, Butcher says the client was getting a more efficient workflow, coupled with technical engineering efficiencies that offered lower total cost of ownership over a five-year term. “We have a support contract with them for five years to help ensure news delivery at a certain cost,” he adds.
The systems have been installed at the Iraqi broadcaster’s studio in London within the central apparatus room (CAR), the gallery, edit room and newsroom. The most critical upgrade, apart from the key kit that included solutions from Avid, Telestream, VMware, Dell and HP, was the move from Avid Interplay to MediaCentral.
Butcher explains: “All functionality is integrated into the MediaCentral platform operator’s graphical user interface (GUI), allowing easy searching for material and creation of news stories. Another solution had been considered, but it was felt the technology was too early in its lifecycle to implement in short time scales.”
With the new system, Bin-Afif says his team can break stories across web and social platforms from a single interface as they unfold. He explains: “The team can access media from any location, create better on-air graphics, increase productivity through more efficient workflows and, most importantly, it allows us to interact with our audience, which is critical for any news station today.”
Throwing light on some of the unique aspects of the upgrade, Butcher says: “The existing iNEWS journalist system was moved into the new solution, so largely the same design remains in terms of operational use, making it easier for the team to migrate to the new system.”
Butcher also highlights the VMware set-up, designed and deployed to minimise server footprint and back-up. Multiple services can be deployed on a smaller number of servers using VMware, which helps not only with deployment but also software back-up and reduces cost.
On training, Butcher says: “New software technology integration always requires specific configuration by the manufacturer, and access to sensitive network knowledge can be time-consuming in a live studio environment. Both online and one-to-one training is being provided by Avid and the Altered Images teams, covering operational and engineering aspects of the solution.”
Without revealing the cost of the upgrade, Bin-Afif underscores the importance of keeping up with technology despite a difficult economic environment for broadcasters. “We had a few challenges along the way with the upgrade, but the system is 95% complete and will be commissioned pending a final training session. Our channel is considered an icon among Iraqi broadcasters. Unlike most other channels, we try not to interrupt our programmes with too many advertisements. Our Ramadan serials are especially popular for this reason. While the market overall is challenging for the broadcast industry, we have to keep up with technology and ensure the best broadcast quality and content for our audiences.”