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When You Should Call a Systems Integrator

Careful DIY upgrades can save money

Production Control Room at the U.S. FDA’s studio in Washington

Big or small, government video production facilities are always “works in progress.” The latest change can be as small as a monitor wearing out and needing replacement, or as big as migrating the entire facility from analog to HDTV.

Either way, cash-strapped government video production managers are constantly faced with tackling such changes and their associated costs. This is why it is so tempting for such managers to do such upgrades in-house; relying on their own expertise to make the changes rather than paying extra to hire a system integrator to do the work.

Any homeowner who has personally screwed up a DIY (Do-It-Yourself) plumbing repair knows that sometimes it is cheaper to hire a pro at the outset, rather than bring them in after the second-floor toilet has broken off its base and leaking water is pouring into the plaster ceiling below it. The question for such a homeowner, as for a government video production manager, is to accurately assess what they can and cannot do before committing chaos.

Government Video cannot advise on when to call in a plumber, but we can give you some guidelines to determine when you need professional help, and when you do not.


The first step in deciding whether a facility upgrade can be done in-house or requires outside help begins with its manager candidly assessing his/her own capabilities and available resources. With this knowledge in hand, the manager can then figure out what is doable, and what isn’t.

For instance, in many cases a single piece of equipment swap-out is no big deal—unless the unit being replaced is electronically integrated into a sophisticated production or automation system whose wiring, pathways and configuration are a mystery to the staff. Such a mystery may not be an issue if the facility manager/engineer is knowledgeable enough to analyse the architecture, read the relevant manuals, and make the swap/refreshed installation without problems. However, if the job looks confusing, chances are that it is—and calls for an outside system integrator to do it right the first time.

When it comes to planning and executing the replacement/upgrade of an entire production chain—from video ingest through switching/mixing, recording/editing and playout/distribution—such a job should be left to the pros unless the in-house staff member is as capable and informed as the pros are.

In many instances, this is just not the case.

“Based on our experience, I would guess that maybe two percent of government facilities have any business trying to put together a comprehensive design and implementation, with attendant documentation,” said Rush Beesley, founder and president of TV automation/playout solutions provider RUSHWORKS, which also provides a range of systems integration services to its clients.

Beesley’s statement underlines the reality of many production systems upgrades: Doing them right requires planning that can include researching equipment options, compiling power, signal path and HVAC diagrams; and assembling system configuration data to ensure that the addition(s) work with the rest of the plant.

Production Control Room 2 at St. Cloud State University

“When you are working with a range of equipment vendors, you have to make sure that everyone’s equipment can talk to each other,” said Derrick Silvestri, TV studio manager/UTVS advisor at St. Cloud State University, in Saint Cloud, Minn. “The last thing you want to do is to install a new video server, then find that it doesn’t communicate with the other parts of your production chain.”

At the end of the day, it is up to the video production manager to decide what upgrades can be done in-house, and which require outside help. This is why an accurate assessment of your facility’s engineering capabilities and in-hose technical expertise is a must. Manager, know thyself—and thy staff!


St. Cloud State University is home to a sophisticated HDTV production facility that has remote links to the university’s football stadium, basketball arena and hockey rink.

“We have 144 single-mode fiber optic strands running through our campus, connecting these and other locations back to our production facility,” said Silvestri. “As well as sports, our University Television System (UTVS) provides educational programming to our campus and the St. Cloud Community, all produced by St. Cloud TV broadcasting students.”

Silvestri is St. Cloud’s sole TV production staff member. He is aided to some extent by professors within the broadcast school, but the bulk of UTVS’ workload is carried by the university’s broadcast students. This is why he tends to rely on an outside system integrator when upgrades are required; specifically Alpha Video of Minneapolis.

Josh Davis (left) and Brent Weber control live replays during a St. Cloud State hockey game in Media Control.

“We have a broadcast-quality facility that includes a Grass Valley Karrera video switcher, Grass Valley K2 Summit media servers, nine Grass Valley HD cameras, and an Evertz EQX router,” Silvestri said. “Add in the upgrades that had to be done when we renovated from analog to HD in 2013, and this project was too big to try and manage in-house. It’s not just a matter of wiring and configuring; just handling all the equipment we received here during the build was more than I could do personally—not to mention the number of tradespeople who had to modify the space.”


The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) produces a wealth of informational and training videos at its FDA Television Studio in Washington, D.C.

“We create videos for ourselves and a number of federal clients,” said Chad Heupel, director of the FDA’s digital communication media staff. “Our facility is one of the most sophisticated HD production studios in Washington. It includes a Grass Valley Karrera video switcher, six HD studio cameras—four with prompters—eight channels of HD playout/recording channels, a 30 x 30-foot green screen for virtual set productions, a 48-channel audio mixer, and a 96 x 96 video router.”

The FDA also has two portable production units, with access to eight HD field and six robotic cameras. Despite the complexity of this facility, and the fact that it was originally system integrator-built, Heupel prefers to do his upgrades in-house.

“I grew up on a farm where I learned to fix things myself; an attitude I took to my first TV production job at FEMA,” Heupel said. “A systems integrator had scoped out a rebuild of the FEMA TV facility there at $38,000, when I only had $28,000 in my budget. I asked him if he would do the job for $28,000 if I agreed to do the work under his guidance, and he said yes.”

MORE INFO Alpha Video:


FDA Television Studio:

Grass Valley:

St. Cloud University Television System:


The experience Chad Heupel gained in doing the initial FEMA upgrade, plus that engineer’s willingness to provide consultative help up on that job and successive projects, has allowed him to get the hands-on knowledge he needed to do DIY upgrades today. This doesn’t mean that Heupel would do every FDA upgrade in-house; some projects are too big and require the depth that a system integrator can provide.

“But it is amazing how much you can do yourself, if you acquire the skills and have access to an expert when you need help,” he said. “This has allowed me to keep my costs down at the FDA Television Studio; doing more with the money I have in my budget.”


There is no cut-and-dried way to decide when to go it alone on video upgrades, and when to hire outside expertise. The decision needs to be made on a case-by-case basis, comparing the government video facility’s available expertise, resources and assignable staff members to the scope of the upgrade, its complexity and the time frame in which it needs to be done. In some cases, doing the upgrade in-house will be entirely doable; such as switching out a dead monitor with a new one. In other instances, common sense will dictate that hiring a system integrator will cost less in money, time and production disruption than by attempting it on-house—and creating chaos as a result.

“Do your facility assessment carefully, and chances are you will accurately determine what kind of work you can do yourself and which you can’t,” said Silverstri. “This will allow you to balance the savings of DIY’ing it with the cost-effectiveness of hiring the pros when you need them.”