Fair Lawn Spotlight: Transition from Analog to Digital
by Dimitry Mikhaylov, Vice President, Fair Lawn Television
We in Fair Lawn were just dreaming to switch our old analog plant to digital. In fact, the digital upgrade didn’t begin until 2019 when our old Leightronix server was suddenly dead, and we got a chance to replace all our outdated equipment at once. As late as 2019 seems, there are some surprising advantages to coming late to a new technology. Digital workflow was a mature, robust system that was adopted by broadcasters at every level, and we had the advantage of learning from all those who were on the bleeding edge of adoption.
The town management authorized a modest budget to accomplish our conversion, but as a small PEG channel we surely couldn’t afford the same equipment as the broadcast stations around the country. We knew that we needed to work with someone who truly understood the marketplace, someone who could design a facility that would do what we needed to do within our budget. We began talking to Varto and Yervant at Varto Technologies about our needs and it soon became apparent they understood both the technical requirements and the financial constraints that faced our project.
Our analog control room was in the basement of our Municipal building, but the meetings we needed to cover were on the second floor. This immediately presented a challenge. How could we get the video and audio we needed from the council chamber back to our control room without pulling multiple cables. Varto introduced us to the concept of using NDI technology. It would allow us to send all the video and the control signals to and from the three cameras in the council chamber to the control room on just one Cat 6a cable.
We purchased three PTZ Optics cameras for the council chamber and the Cat 6 cable allowed us to run power and pan-tilt-zoom control remotely from the control room over the same cable. To ensure reliable signal flow, Varto designed a standalone IT network to carry the Video over IP signals without relying on the existing network within the building. Once the signals reached the control room, they were converted to SDI and routed to a Black Magic 12X12 Router Switch and sent to a Tricaster Mini with an outboard control surface and Skaarhaj controller that is the heart of our studio. We added a 50-inch Samsung LCD Monitor as a multiviewer that allows us to monitor the feeds from the cameras and the preview and program feed from the Tricaster.
We were faced with a difficult decision regarding the nature of the audio feeds from the council chamber. We could have run them digitally over the IP network, but that would have cost a fair amount of money and required us to purchase a new audio board. We already had a single analog line that carried the mixed signal from the PA system in the council chamber to the control room so we decided just to use what was already there. We ran that feed into a Shure 6-port portable mixer and then into the Tricaster. This audio mixer was the only device we were able to use from our previous control room. Although our audio is still analog, the IP network that Varto installed will allow us to deliver digital audio to the control room in the future.
We also purchased a LiveU 2000 server in anticipation of the day when we will do remote productions in other places around the town. We experimented with the LiveU cell phone app, but we have not purchased a professional transmitter yet.
Now that we could produce a complete show with our new equipment, and we needed a new server to schedule live and pre-recorded programming and to run our community billboard. This was one of the most difficult decision we had to make. After carefully reviewing the marketplace, we decided on a Cablecast VIO server. As you know, there are many servers on the market and they all will allow you to program your station and send a signal to your cable provider. It became a matter of which system was easiest to program for our staff. The Cablecast interface was intuitive and the billboard was easy to program. In addition, while the pandemic hadn’t started yet, we were able to program both the station and the bulletin board remotely. Of course, this feature proved invaluable during the pandemic. While we liked the TelVue system a lot, the Cablecast server also turned out to be a bit cheaper than the other options. Their billboard software seemed to be a bit more advanced and the additional bulletin board services such as weather, news and traffic were included in their price. The other suppliers required additional payments for these services.
Ironically, now that we can make beautiful, digitally created HD pictures for the channel, we have to downgrade the signal with a Black Magic converter to a 16X9 SD signal to supply to our Altice cable provider. Luckily, we don’t have to downgrade the signal for our Verizon FIOS feed anymore. Hopefully we will be able to provide Altice with an HD signal too in the very near future.
Two additional points: Thanks to the team from Varto Technologies – the entire job, from the cabling to powering up the equipment, was completed in just 5 days. Of course, with all this new equipment, we needed training, and again Yervant provided us with necessary training until we were up to speed on the operation of all the new gear.
In addition to our linear cable channel, we now stream our council meetings live to Facebook once or twice a month, and we also now produce and stream a daily Russian Language program. In the future we hope to purchase a Cablecast Streaming server that will allow us to stream all the programming on the channel 24 hours a day.
Luckily, the entire job was completed before the COVID pandemic and with the new equipment, we can run almost our entire operation remotely. Physical presence at the station was needed only during live or zoom council meetings and for daily streaming.
While the upgrade was long overdue, we now have a digital facility that makes beautiful HD pictures at a price that we could afford. The installation was done professionally. All wiring was neat and the connections in our council chambers were all made with decorative wall plates for an aesthetically pleasing finish. Upgrading a facility is always a challenge, but with the help of the team from Varto Technologies, the process was painless, and the results were just what we needed at a price we could afford.