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‘Virtual’ Monitors are Here

Dec 20, 2004  •  Post A Comment

By Vince Patton

Special to TelevisionWeek

It had to be a joke, I thought. The control room remodeling was done, they said. But all that sat in front of KGW-TV’s brand-new digital switcher was a blank white wall and two TV monitors. How can a director switch a newscast with only two screens? After all, the old control room had nearly 50 monitors.

“Do you want me to turn them on?” a director asked me. Turn what on? The bare wall? Sure enough, that’s exactly what he had in mind.

With the flick of a switch, the wall suddenly jumped to life, covered with what looked like clusters of small TV screens. The “virtual” control room has arrived. Two projectors and an Evertz MVP multi-image video processor now throw images of dozens of monitors in front of the director’s eyes. Every live feed, every camera, every satellite signal coming into the station gets routed into a separate virtual monitor.

Because a computer sits behind this wall of projected beams and mirrors, it’s infinitely adaptable. If more feeds come in and the director or producer needs to see them, the computer can add more “monitors” to the wall. The operator can control their layout, placement and even how they’re labeled.

This system isn’t what KGW’s engineering staff originally planned to purchase. They explored many options, focusing mostly on LCD displays. Every one of our old CRT monitors needed to be replaced. Many of the screens dated back more than 15 years and constantly needed repairs. But other stations reported their LCDs turned dim in only a couple of years. CRTs cost less, but begin to require maintenance after only five years.

The idea of having a system that would require no monitor maintenance at all impressed KGW Technical Operations Manager Walcott Denison. The projection system “definitely gives us a lot of flexibility,” he says. All the monitors appear in color with colors perfectly in sync. During installation there would be no need to run miles of cable to hook up each individual monitor.

It also generated lots of skepticism. Director Chris Pausz immediately wondered, “What if the projector goes out? Do we lose all our monitors?”

The short answer was “Yes.”

That would spell catastrophe at news time.

Many stations have begun to use these projection systems in settings like master control, but few use them for live production. Our solution: install two projectors in each control room. One throws the director’s feeds up, the other throws up the producer’s. If the director’s projector fails, the computer can quickly reroute the director’s images through the other projector.

Plus, two traditional CRT television monitors remain for the main “preview” and “line” switching. This was important because the projection monitors still are not quite as sharp and clear as traditional ones. Small fonts in a graphic on a reduced virtual monitor can be a bit fuzzy, though that’s a matter of how high-end a projector you buy.

And, they’ve taken the most basic precaution. There are always three fresh projector bulbs standing by in each control room.

“It’s worked out really well,” Pausz says. “I like it. We get to see more of our sources right in front of us without manually rerouting signals.” The old wall of TVs was almost exclusively black and white. “Now you can see everything in color,” Pausz says.

In the future when the station goes high-definition, it won’t cost an arm and leg to update the control room. The Evertz processor can handle HD inputs too so there won’t be any expensive wall of monitors to swap out for HD sets when that time comes.

The perfect chance to test it all came on the night that drives every newsroom crazy: election night. That night we report “live” from far more scenes simultaneously than any other night. In the past, producers could see only a portion of those feeds; the station just didn’t have enough physical monitors to display all the incoming reports.

This year, our engineers simply went to the computer and created an “Election Night Control Room” with even more “monitors” displayed. “Voila,” says Denison, “they had every live shot labeled with the name of the reporter feeding in.” With nine live feeds pouring in from around Oregon and Washington, this was the first time KGW’s producers were able to see all their reporters standing by simultaneously.

This new system has an added benefit: a huge cut in energy consumption. Gone is the wall of 50 TVs sucking down power 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Gone too is all the heat those TVs generate. Those savings helped convince Denison the system would cost less in the long run, and require far less maintenance a few years down the road. Directors turn off the projectors between shows to save bulb life.

Living here in Portland, Ore., where green-building, energy-saving, resource-conserving matters, it’d be nice to boast we made this change for the environmental reasons. Actually, it all came down to saving money. In this case, the best business decision and the best environmental moves happened to be the one and the same. n

Vince Patton is a reporter for Belo-owned KGW-TV in Portland, Ore.