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Advanced site-wide routing system is based on ‘automatic homing’

The relocation of the famous ITV Coronation Street Street lot, from Manchester’s Quay Street Studios to the 7.7 acre studio and production facility on the Trafford side of MediaCityUK, has brought with it a significant streamlining of signal flexibility, with BroaMan and Optocore fibre distribution devices playing a major role in the new automation system.

Set of Coronation Street, ITV, Coronation Street/MediaCityUK

Set in a fictional town in the north of England, what has become the world’s longest- running television soap opera is a British ‘institution’, having first been broadcast back in December 1960.

A unique, fully integrated transport solution was conceived by the show’s Technical Manager, Stan Robinson, in conjunction with project engineers Phil Cooper and Nigel Fowler from system integrators TSL. The design was based on meeting all Coronation Street workflow and system requirements.

Earlier, AVC Electronics, who had worked on the previous Coronation Street HD upgrade at the old studios, had been appointed broadcast consultants for the project, and their lead consultant Raz Khan had carried out technical evaluation and system configuration of all equipment to meet these requirements. Installation, testing and commissioning was then undertaken by TSL, the successful bidders, after the Optocore and BroaMan solution had been adopted.

“The broad design was based on the previous set-up in Quay Street with the intention of streamlining, and improving wherever possible,” stated Cooper. “This was carried out using a combination of contemporary technology solutions and TSL’s industry experience, along with the vision of Stan Robinson.” Robinson had wanted an advanced system that could transport all audio, video and data signals site wide over fibre, from any of the studios or lot. He had been introduced to Optocore by Dan Muchmore of Clear-Com while investigating talkback systems, and invited them to demo their optical transportation system in the presence of Jim Crothers the MD of AVC.

The show’s Technical manager Stan Robinson, ITV, Coronation Street/MediaCityUK

Street of devices (left:Optocore/BroaMan) ITV, Coronation Street/MediaCityUK

“I needed a solution that was not too taxing for the operational crew — little more than plug and play — and I also wanted a box that when connected by fibre and all the level signals would be there,” continued Robinson. “The ultimate aim was to come up with a system that increased efficiency, cut rigging time to a minimum and was sufficiently resilient to avoid production downtime; and irrespective of where the box was plugged in on set, the system would be intelligent enough to recognise it.

“Also with fibre we knew there would be no cable length limitations. Since HD-SDI would only travel 50m over the copper cable we had at Quay Street here we could transport HD-SDI from the central apparatus to the furthest point via optical fibre. “

With active support from the German fibre specialists’ Application Engineer, Maciek Janiszewski, Optocore loaned test equipment to establish proof of concept, with AVC Electronics installing a point to point system in Quay Street to provide single channel floor feeds. “We tested for audio and latency and everything was fine,” reports Robinson.

Thus the BroaMan and Optocore architecture forms the beating heart of the new broadcast network which has been constructed around ten BroaMan Route66 interfaces and two WDM frames. These combine to create one centralised router, feeding the ForA 96 x 128 matrix distribution unit, and forming part of the identification, CWDM and control to the Optocore router.

left: Optocore/BroaMan Rack; right: Stagebox Optocore DD2FR-FX & BroaMan Repeat48, ITV, Coronation Street/MediaCityUK.

Instead of having Optocore sockets dotted around the site TSL also noted that by using hybrid camera fibre cables they could have every Optocore point active through the site — simply by patching into the SMPTE 311M network. Robinson explains, “This gives us additional resilience. There are 100 camera points supplying two patch systems — one in the main building and one out on the lot, enabling patching to either Camera Base Stations or the Optocore Router.

“Each gallery has its own stagebox, and we simply wheel it to where we are shooting and plug in to our camera cable network. In effect, the whole site becomes our studio floor. Phil Cooper explains how TSL had implemented the system. “We knew that the ‘automatic homing’ of the Optocore system — whereby stageboxes will find their home gallery from any live connection point — would be a valuable benefit.

“However,” he added, “the main USP of this Optocore system is the ability to plug a stagebox in anywhere and be connected automatically to the correct gallery or OB van. Upon connection, the system discovers where the portable stagebox is connected and the central Video Router directs the assigned channels to the correct location.”

In addition to video, ITV can also route data and audio automatically since the stageboxes are a multi-faculty resource, which make connectivity available on set, whether in the studios, out on the lot or on location. This includes: Audio sources (boom mics) and monitoring returns; SDI monitoring and sources (from portable cameras or recorder playback); 4wire talkback circuits for boom operators and assistant directors; Router control panels to control SDI monitoring. There are five production control areas – comprising galleries and OB vans, each with a corresponding stagebox, incorporating Optocore DD2FR-FX and BroaMan Repeat48 rack devices. Having specified a Studer Vista 1 and D21m I/O interface in the two main galleries TSL deployed ten Optocore DD2FR-FX devices to transport native MADI over the fibre network.

The path is configured from the 15 connection points available from the Optocore system, with distribution to the portable stageboxes via the same SMPTE fibre infrastructure as the camera. Each gallery or van has a corresponding stagebox which can be connected to the core routing system (via a wallbox) or taken on location and connected (point to point) to a van – again, using standard camera floor cables.

Wherever the mobile stagebox is connected, the router will recognise the location and automatically patch the signal between stagebox and control room. “The key benefit of this stagebox system is reduction of set-up times,” acknowledges Cooper, and this is critical given the arduous production schedules. “With the exception of the cameras, all other crew equipment can be connected with local cables to a stagebox; so by plugging in one fibre cable they can start using it.”

“Expert on air”, Control Room, ITV, Coronation Street/MediaCityUK.

This elegant solution is a far cry from the traditional routine of connecting many long individual cables to the nearest studio wallbox and then patching every mic signal, audio return, talkback, video and control signal to the relevant gallery or van.

Production on the new Coronation Street set got underway in early January. “We were given a short lead time of just one week of rehearsals at the new site, so everything had to work first time and be operationally easy to use,” concludes Stan Robinson. “We are delighted with BroaMan and Optocore solution, which has offered us an incredibly flexible solution.”