In 1980, BET (Black Entertainment Television) became the first television network in the United States devoted primarily to African-American viewers. In 1991, the network's then-parent company became the first black-owned company to be traded on the New York Stock Exchange. And recently the network scored another first, this time in technology adoption, enabling it to stake its claim among the pioneers of IP-based production workflows.
The groundwork for the BET Networks production workflow was put in place a few years back, according to Stuart Brewton, director of technology management at BET. "We've always been very resourceful with equipment, manpower and funding to [broadcast] the best possible programming representative of our brand with whatever resources we could afford," he says.
They started with NewTek's TriCaster 8000 in 2012, using it to produce video programming and drive the greenscreen stage and some virtual set segments. Over time, the team began pushing out content through more channels as social media platforms became easier to use and they could take advantage of the ability to stream live.
BET purchased one of the first NewTek IP Series production systems for its main studio.
Brewton and his team explored all the capabilities of the system, and created workflows to leverage as many as they could to enhance their programming. "We basically said, 'This is our production Swiss Army knife.' We would use it to drive screens on set. We would use it to do small [ancillary] shoots on larger productions. If we needed to do a social media execution, we would put a guy there with a TriCaster and let him drive the whole thing."
And crucial to a technology department focused on providing the maximum capabilities to its team without the usual associated expense, Brewton says, "If I sent one of our guys to cover an event with a TriCaster, I didn't need to bring in another production truck."
Four years, a new studio location and several remote TriCaster systems later, if you ask Brewton how production has changed at BET, he answers with three words: "Volume of work."
At budget time in 2016, he found himself looking at the mountain of production that required his support in 2017 and realized he needed to bring on another unit. "I had the 'home base' TriCaster 8000 I needed in the control room, and I had a few remote systems, but I needed another Swiss Army knife-type box for the cases where we have multiple remotes happening at the same time with similar needs," he says.
BET technical director Anthony Valley
Brewton says everyone on his team realizes the worth of these systems. "We look at upcoming productions we need to do and say, 'If we had a TriCaster here, we could do this. Too bad ours is on a shoot in another location.'"
He decided he'd purchase a new TriCaster system and use it as a swing unit assigned to production wherever it was needed, whether in a remote production, a major event, alongside a regular broadcast, or at neighboring MTV studios, BET's fellow Viacom network across the street in Times Square.
His timing could not have been better. When he learned that NewTek would be shipping its hybrid IP/SDI production system, the IP Series, just a few weeks later, Brewton was able to change his order with his reseller, Varto Technologies. "I can't remember when I got the e-mail announcing the IP Series," says Brewton. But by the time he finished reading the announcement, Brewton had decided he would put an IP Series in the BET control room as the home unit, replacing the TriCaster 8000, which would become a swing unit out on the road.
It was all about building for the future, says Brewton. At the time, he knew that 4K was on the horizon; he just had no game plan for how to approach it. "But knowing NewTek, I knew that 4K was something they would build into the future, and when I saw the IP Series, I figured that's their way to do it." (Brewton's prediction came true in April 2017, with NewTek's announcement of IP Series' support for 4K.)
What's more, he gained the ability to go IP, which he says opened up an entirely different world. The IP Series makes BET's spur-of-the-moment segments and uniquely dramatic settings possible. As long as they have an Ethernet connection in the wall and access to the network closet, his team can patch things around from the control room to any other location that can connect. "That made it pivotal for us, and it's one of the advantages we saw with the IP Series."
In order for BET to transition to IP video, he says, he had kept his eye on a couple of companies dabbling in various technologies, and watched as the industry debated standards. "But for production, NDI was here, it was ready, it was available, and it was affordable."
BET's new IP Series—jokingly referred to as having serial number 001, since it was the first commercially available system—included a NewTek NC1 input module and output module, the base NewTek VMC1 Video Mix Engine, and NewTek 4-Stripe Control Panel. This allowed the baseband I/O count to remain the same in the new setup as the one it was replacing: eight ins and four outs.
Additionally, the IP Series uses the same software-driven production workflow as TriCaster systems, with a common interface to all sources and functions. The IP Series delivers a familiar workflow with very little ramp-up time, so anyone on the production team who had used the TriCaster could easily switch gears and run an in-studio production on the IP Series.