Nick Ross

don't watch tv. make it.

Filtering by Category: CitrusTV

CitrusTV Video Wall

Walk into nearly any television studio (local news, network news, sports, etc.) and you'll see video walls are staple of television production in 2017. These large displays (made up of many smaller televisions) are used to play video, display graphics, or become interactive elements of a telecast. As the general manager of CitrusTV, I'm always looking to the industry to see what trends are taking hold and how we can best prepare our members for what they'll experience in the workplace while simultaneously upping CitrusTV's production quality.

The vinyl "night" backdrop left something to be desired...

Originally, I intended to replace one of our aging standard-definition flex plasma screens with a new 70" LED TV. This would certainly have improved things by itself, but I quickly realized this new monitor would still be placed in front of our "B" set which is used for interviews and other segments that don't wind up on the desk. This "B" set used a backlit vinyl backdrop which was originally stapled into place but later made into a velcro removable vinyl which could be swapped between a morning or night skyline scene. This left something to be desired and looked, frankly, horrendous on air. You could clearly tell it was a wrinkled vinyl and despite much fiddling and cursing, we could never seem to get a satisfactory look with no wrinkles using the velcro method.

Immediately my thought went to a video wall. This way, it could serve as a "monitor" into which we could display video or graphics as well as solve the issues with the backdrop. As I began planning and sketching what this could end up looking like, I ran into a few problems.

  1. The "B" set sits about 6 feet away from the nearest wall. This was originally done to give space for the fluorescent backlights for the vinyl backdrop as well as to allow for storage space for cases, shelving, etc. in the studio. This space gap meant that all of the monitors in the video wall would have to be ground supported or flown from the grid above rather than being easily wall mounted.
  2. The opening where the backdrop sat was 94" x 47". If you're good at math, you'll know that that's not even close to a 16:9 aspect ratio meaning I had to get creative with with the configuration of monitors. (If you're keeping score at home, it's actually a 2:1 aspect ratio). This meant that using four, or even six TVs arranged in a horizontal grid would be problematic and not adequately fill the opening without losing a ton of screen real estate on the top and bottom.
  3. I needed to be able to feed the display with a simple AUX bus from our video switcher without the need for any sort of controller software or any need to create video content specifically for the wall. In other words, if I wanted to roll a video on the air or roll it in the wall, I should be able to utilize the same piece of video.

With those goals in mind, I began looking at cost. I quickly realized that so-called "video wall displays" which have bezels only a few millimeters wide would be prohibitively expensive. With panels ranging from $5,000 to $10,000, such units would be difficult to fit within my limited budget. Plus, I had to keep in mind my odd dimensions where video wall panels are typically designed for normal landscape orientation.

I began looking at who made a television with the smallest bezels. I found some consumer-grade panels from Samsung, LG, and the like, but I also wanted to consider longevity. Since these would be used in a broadcast environment, I wanted to ensure that whatever panels we used would have good guarantees and appropriate duty cycles. After careful consideration of dimensions, I figured out that the best thing to do would be to use three large televisions mounted in portrait orientation. The panels I used are NEC 65" TVs which are commercial grade panels (albeit at the lower end of NEC's line) with a decently narrow bezel for the price. With the panels picked, I had to figure out how to give them signal and mount them. The dimensions of the televisions actually meant that when it was all said and done I overextended the opening by about 2 inches on both the left and right and about 5 inches on both to the top and the bottom.

As mentioned previously, these panels could not be mounted flush against a wall; they had to be freestanding. This meant I'd have to anchor them to the floor or fly them from the grid overhead. I quickly ruled out flying the panels since I'd have to use impossibly long poles to get them close to where they needed to be coupled with the fact that the spacing of the grid put the nearest possible hanging point about a foot away from where the wall needed to sit. I instead went with the floor mounting option. I'm a Chief mount guy through and through (always well built, easy to install, easy to adjust) so I looked there first to see what options they had. Chief makes a number of multi-display mounts which support various configurations of video walls. They did have a 3x1 configuration (which would have worked with my design), but it was more than $2,500. So, I elected to use some Peerless A/V mounts wherein I'd be mounting each TV individually and then the TV would mount on poles. This worried me a little bit because if I didn't space the floor pieces exactly right, these mounts allowed for no lateral movement. I could easily move them up and down on the poles, but if I was even a little off when I bolted the mounts into the concrete floor I'd be in for a lot of headaches.

Thankfully, finding a way to drive the wall was much easier than physically putting it together. My requirement for controlling the video wall was I didn't want to have to have a complex process to drive the wall. In other words, I didn't want to have to make graphics and then have to rotate them to fit the portrait orientation or worry about using a specific piece of software to drive the wall. I wanted to be able to send it a simple AUX bus from our switcher and roll whatever content we wanted in the wall. I found a neat little device from Black Box Networks called the VideoPlex4. It takes any standard video signal in and allows you to display it on up to four monitors. Each output can be independently cropped, rotated, and positioned. You could duplicate the display four times, crop it into four even pieces and more. I was able to use it to chop the images into three pieces, rotate to portrait and account for the bezel widths (more on how I did that later). The VideoPlex is a cool device because it can actually take a 4K signal, so if you were splitting in the input into four pieces it wouldn't have to upscale the image at all. In our case, we're sending it 1080i, so it upscales the image to fill the monitors.

Installing the wall went better than expected. I used a Hilti hammer drill to drill 18 holes into the concrete studio floor. I was concerned about cracking the tile, but with a sharp bit, the holes were clean and precise. I used a shop-vac next to the hole to keep the dust to a minimum and kept a bucket of water to cool the bit. After some careful measuring, everything ended up lining up pretty well and getting things leveled turned out to be pretty easy. The biggest problem was actually that the studio floor turned out to be just a little bit out of level on one end, so I shimmed it with a few washers under the front side of the floor plate.

Photos above during the install process.

Using the vertical pattern to compensate for the width of the bezels.

Once the wall was installed and cabled, I had to set up the controller. This required a little bit of math, but essentially I used two patterns to aid in setting up the wall. One that has lines every 10px horizontally and the other that has lines every 10px vertically. This way, I could see exactly how much of the image I had to lose to make everything line up in one seamless image. Then, I could simply enter coordinates into the video wall controller software to make the images match.

I also used the 10px patterns to see how much of the wall I was losing on the top and bottom as well as where the individual displays lined up. Using this information, I created a Photoshop and After Effects template with guides to show where to build graphics. Our sports department, for example, created a cool graphic to compare three players where each one appeared in each physical monitor and as they talked about each the other two were blown out of the space and video took over the other two panels. It looked very cool and it added a neat visual element to their show.

Overall, I'm thrilled with how well the wall came out. It came in well under budget and added a tremendous amount of value to our shows. It looks better and performs better than walls I've seen that cost well in excess of $100k. 

The finished wall

The finished wall

BTS: The CitrusTV 2016 Election Special

I was stressed leading up to the election. Stressed, not as most Americans were about the outcome, but stressed about the production of what would be a first for CitrusTV: a three-and-a-half hour live election special. This would not be the first election special the station had done, but it would be the longest and the most involved. From my perspective there were two distinct moving parts.

Live Hits

As we look to stay competitive with other college television stations across the country, we see who's winning awards and what they're doing. We had a one-hour special in 2014 for the mid-term elections, but that broadcast didn't receive a single nomination for any of the awards we submitted it to. It wasn't a bad broadcast, but there were other election specials from other stations that did win awards. A common theme we noticed was live hits. Pulling the coverage out of the studio into the field makes it more immediate and more representative of what's actually happening. With such an historic election, the pulse of the nation on election night was definitely an important concern. Our live infrastructure has long been a stumbling block for us. We've used Streambox for some time (and still continue to do so), but I've always been disappointed in its reliability, stability, and complicated UI. After spending many hours tweaking streaming settings, I finally got what I thought to be a usable image out of the unit. When we did a dry run the Sunday before election night, we experienced almost a 10-second delay bringing me back to the drawing board for my encoding settings. After tweaking more, we got the delay down enough to be usable. The issue then became talent cueing. Streambox does not have a built-in IFB solution unless you use their IFB server which we don't own. So, we had the talent plug a standard IFB earpiece into their cell phone which we made a phone call to and sent a mix-minus feed down the line so they could hear program. The drawback becomes no ability for the producer to cue talent, but as long as they could hear the toss and any questions from the in-studio talent, it worked just fine.

It would be all well and good if we had more than one Streambox encoder license, but we had only one and the producers wanted four live hits in the show. One each for the Democratic and Republican HQ's in Syracuse, one at a polling place on campus, and then the reporter at the polling place would go to a campus (non-partisan) watch party after the polling place closed. Fortunately, we'd made some investments in live remote infrastructure earlier in the year by setting up a dedicated computer to receive video Skype calls. I, like probably everyone, have a love/hate relationship with Skype but it worked alright for this purpose. That Skype machine has no video return, but does receive a true IFB feed (in that it is interruptible by the producer) with mix-minus program audio. Again, we ran into trouble with Skype because we only had one Blackmagic UltraStudio MiniRecorder which we used to get an HD-SDI feed from our cameras into a computer via Thunderbolt. Thus, the last remote hit would have to be done via an iPad on Skype. The issue with an iPad becomes audio (both audio from a "real" handheld microphone and IFB audio through an earpiece for the talent). IK Multimedia makes as device called the iRig which lets you plug an XLR mic and standard headphones or IFB into an iPad. It costs about $150 and because I'm cheap I figured I could build my own iRig. While it wouldn't have a pre-amp, I figured I could get enough gain out of the iPad's pre-amp itself to at least be usable. After some Googling, I figured out those old RCA camcorder cables that you could use to plug a camera into your TV actually used a TRRS connector (the same as the iPad) and that the yellow and white RCA's were audio right and left out of the iPad and the red RCA was microphone in. I just so happened to have one laying around and after trying it out with some adapters and having success, I cut the RCA's off of the cord I had and soldered on a female XLR for the mic and female unbalanced 1/4" for the audio out. It would have worked great if not for one minor mistake I didn't know about until after the special was over. When the remote reporter took the iPad out, they neglected to take the case off of the iPad. Because of the case design we have on our iPads, it doesn't let the connector seat fully meaning we got the internal microphone back on the iPad. It wasn't the end of the world (I always say, I'd rather have something that's ok than nothing at all) and we still got through it. The whole Skype thing was something of a pain because I had to keep connecting and disconnecting the two people who were on Skype -- we only have one computer set up to be a Skype endpoint, but at least we still had both Skype reporters.

Photos: Stills of the live hits from the night. Rob is on Streambox, Jamie and Nicole are on Skype calls.

Overall, the live hits performed flawlessly. No awkwardness, we could hear everyone, they could hear us or at least get a cue and one of our live reporters even got a live one-on-one with the Democratic candidate for congress from Syracuse's district. Not something that happens every day on student television. 

Graphic Design

I knew that we needed to develop a distinct graphics package for the special. Our normal graphics are newscast-specific so I elected to design a new package. We took inspiration from NBC News' election package and used our election theme from 615 Music (part of their Right Here, Right Now package). Originally I wanted to have a ticker at the bottom of the screen that would display races as they were called. My idea was to have the data for the ticker pulled from a DBLinked Excel file and have that message be persistent in the Chyron. The issue was I couldn't figure out a good macro that would keep running and keep updating the ticker while other things were going on, so I scrapped it. It was a good thing, too. Our Chyron began having issues the week before the special and we ended up running with only one channel of output for our graphics which would have made a persistent ticker rather difficult.

A "Too Close to Call" fullscreen from the election package.

A "Too Close to Call" fullscreen from the election package.

The most involved thing I did do was create fullscreen graphics for each state that could be used to call a race for either Trump, Clinton, or be "too close to call" if we just wanted to look at a state without calling it. The fullscreens gave a nod to our News Angles package from our News Live at 6:00 shows which I also designed and the election fullscreens came out looking pretty nice. I obviously didn't want to build 150 separate graphics for each eventuality and each state, so I got creative with macros and DBLinking. I built an Excel file that had the right data for the fullscreen in it (percents, votes, etc.) and a special field called "call." In this field, the newsroom would enter either a 0, 1, 2, or 3. They would enter 0 if the race had not been called, 1 if for Trump, 2 if for Clinton, and 3 if the race was too close to call. Whenever the message was recalled in the Chyron, an input box was used to allow the operator to select the right row from the Excel file (1 through 51 for each state and D.C.). That updated all the DBLinked fields with the right information including a "blind" field which contained the "call" field. Then, the macro looked at the blind field (so called, because it doesn't display onscreen) and had conditional statements to show or hide the three groups of the fullscreens which contained the fields and images for each eventuality.

In my testing the macro worked great and updated correctly every time. The issue was that I didn't have the fullscreen done by our tech run-through. That meant I didn't get to test in the exact way it'd be implemented on election night and a couple of things failed. First, I didn't carefully test all the fullscreens, so I had one field mapped incorrectly for one of the eventualities. That meant the wrong percentage was going to the wrong place and the wrong thing was showing up in the data. This was quickly fixed once I figured out what was going wrong, but it was still a simple error that could have been prevented. Second, the computer in the newsroom the staff was trying to open the Excel file on had an odd issue with locking/permissions. Every time they opened the data file, it thought the same user was already editing the file and tried to open as a read-only file. It also somehow corrupted the file when it opened the first time. I had to re-create it and use a different machine. The different machine was a Mac which seemed to have some issues with locking in the Finder. It didn't always let the Excel user save the file immediately (they sometimes had to wait 15-30 seconds) so this slowed production. Third, we never explicitly established the workflow for calling states. This sounds so simple, but we had called races coming into the control room where the data hadn't been entered or saved in the newsroom. Thus the control room would call up a fullscreen for a called race, and it'd be blank. This was a personnel error and could have been corrected with more forethought and planning.

The massive team that worked as talent, crew, researchers, and more.

The massive team that worked as talent, crew, researchers, and more.

Overall

Overall, things went extremely well. I watched other student-run broadcasts that were riddled with errors, technical glitches, and more. Above all, talent and content was the biggest issue. There were others that I thought had better graphics or the like, but we had so much better talent. Our moderators provided insight instead of just facts, we explored issues around the world, we explained common questions voters might have, and the broadcast was extremely well-produced as a whole. I couldn't be prouder to lead this station during this once in a lifetime experience and I'm proud of what our team was able to accomplish.

 

Breaking News

We hear breaking news all the time nowadays. CNN has more "breaking news," "happening now," and "developing story" graphics than you can shake a stick at. Most local news stations actively promote their breaking news coverage and why you should choose to watch their broadcast over their market's competitors. Most simply, people want to be informed. No one wants to seem out of the loop and when an organization can bring that to the people for which it matters most, that's important.

Bringing the news to the students of Syracuse University is exactly what CitrusTV News did on the night of October 14th, 2015. At 8:29 p.m., I received the Orange Alert e-mail that DPS was investigating an off-campus incident that was believed to be a shooting. The campus was to shelter-in-place. I immediately called our news director Lauren Anderson and began tweeting the information we had. Neither she nor I could do much since we were both in our residence hall, but she began making phone calls and trying to learn new information as I monitored social media. Since CitrusTV broadcasts on OTN, we wanted to get a live broadcast out as soon as we could. Sports shows were in production at our studio and OTN was already taking the Watson Hall fiber feed from one of Z89's shows. Sports was able to quickly get some news on the air by switching the feed and breaking in with our coverage. They produced the following brief update:

After that broadcast, we quickly hit a wall as the Z89 programming expired and no one from OTN was in their master control location to allow us to continue broadcasting on the campus cable system. Lauren and I met up in our dorm while sports made do using Periscope to keep bringing updates and information while I continued to monitor five different streams via TweetBot and kept tweeting the latest information we had. Then, we started getting pictures and video from one of our anchors and reporters, Hunter Sáenz, who lived close to where the incident happened. At that point, Hunter sent us the media he was able to gather and rushed to the studio. He had a friend of his stop by my dorm and take both Lauren and myself to our studio where we began to make preparations as the situation continued to unfold.

I immediately began thinking of the fastest way I could get us live on the internet. I thought I remembered that CitrusTV had a Ustream account, but I couldn't find anything at all. Then I remembered YouTube live streaming. I quickly downloaded the free version of Wirecast from YouTube and (mercifully) found that YouTube had made getting a stream up much easier than before. It's no longer necessary to create an event and set encoder settings, YouTube just listens for your encoding software (in our case Wirecast) to stream live, and then it turns on the broadcast. One of our computers in the control room was still equipped with a (unused) BlackMagic DeckLink SDI capture card. I was able to take an SDI program feed from our distribution amp into that machine and use it as a source in Wirecast. Thankfully, everything worked and we began a live broadcast.

Hunter (who was back in studio by this point), Seth Quam, and Gabriella Rusk anchored an hour and seventeen minutes of live coverage throughout the night. The YouTube realtime analytics showed that over 1,300 people tuned in during the course of the broadcast and that's not counting locations like the Hergenhan Auditorium in Newhouse where our broadcast was being streamed to several hundred students. Lauren was incredible at her job and produced amazing coverage as members of our sports department filled crew positions. I continued to monitor Twitter and tweet new information. Others at the studio worked with Lauren to call police, DPS, students at various locations across campus, and more. This is the full archive of that live broadcast:

The next day, we didn't stop our coverage at all. Carling Mott, executive producer of our Thursday News Live at 6:00 show, planned an amazing broadcast. Lauren had gone earlier in the day to a DPS press conference, so we had good sound and confirmed information to report. Max Darrow (one of the Thursday anchors) and Gabriella were live from Hope Ave with Hunter and Mike Riccardi field producing the coverage. Their report was absolutely amazing. Not only did our remote live-hit software perform flawlessly, Max broke down a full timeline of events and Gabby expanded upon exactly what a shelter-in-place really meant. We created custom half-screen graphics for the layout of the timeline of events and rolled in great video where we had it including reactions from Scott Shafer and students who lived closest to the area where police had established a perimeter. Jessica Mendelson (our other Thursday anchor) anchored the entire show solo tossing to various interviews and segments. Another of our reporter/anchors Jacob Reynolds was also in studio doing a live interview with members of the Syracuse Youth Development Council about events that tied into the situation that had just unfolded the night before. The entire broadcast is here:

Later that Thursday night, we decided to create a promo that could run on our shows and the web promoting our breaking news coverage. It aired during the Friday news broadcast.

We've put a renewed focus on our news department's coverage this semester, branding ourselves Your Campus News Leader. I am unbelievably proud to work with such an excellent network of talent, producers, and crew members who produce the news each and every day at CitrusTV. I can't wait to see what we'll do next...

See Something Different

Hey there again. Writing is hard. No one tells you that when you have the unfortunate idea to start a blog on your website. However, when something big happens for me, I still like to take the time to come here and share it with everyone. The last time I posted, I had just been accepted to the position of Web Developer for Juiced Magazine. Serving in that role has been awesome and the rest of the staff is just the best. Now though, I'm taking on another new position that's even more in tune with what I hope to do in my professional career.

CitrusTV is the on-campus, all student-run television studio at Syracuse University. They produce nearly 15 shows per week covering everything imaginable including daily news, entertainment, sports, and food. With close to 350 members in the organization, it's one of the largest student groups on campus. After applying, interviewing, and being accepted, I'm excited to take on the position of Operations Manager for the upcoming year. What does the Operations Manger do? Well, kind of everything. It was described to me that "if it uses electricity, you help make it work." That basically means everything including broadcast technology in the studio, cameras in the field, IT/server-side applications, workstations, editing computers, audio systems, and lots more.

If you know me well, you know that this is what I love to do. For some reason, I love tech problems and love figuring out how to solve them. I think my general anal retentive attitude and (often excessive) attention to detail help to make me good at this type of work. Among other things, I see this as a chance to improve what I'm already good at and to always continue to better myself. I've not even been with Citrus for a full semester and I've already learned so much. I don't anticipate that learning will stop.

There's a great deal of talent at CitrusTV. Both on-air and off, people have some incredible skill and I hope to be able to support that. When technology works, it makes creating all the great content we produce so much easier. My goal is always to make sure technology gets out of the way. When it doesn't work or people don't know how to use it, that stifles creativity. The cool thing about CitrusTV is that since we're entirely student run, students are free to explore new things. My goal for the next year will be to make sure that the tech we have on hand supports their vision as much as possible.

Well, that's about it for now. See you all in another month when I decide blog again. Maybe before then. Who knows?

Stay fresh.

Copyright 2018 by Nick Ross