El Salvador's NDI® Video Revolution is Coming For You
June 04, 2018 by Brian Leopold
The revolution has begun, and it’s coming straight for you. Like many revolutions, this particular uprising started in a relatively obscure corner of the world, the tiny Central American nation of El Salvador, far from the established centers of power. But make no mistake about it, every day the movement gains momentum, grows stronger, and wins over more converts. So, while much of the world sleeps, head in the sand, resisting change, El Salvador’s grassroots revolution of innovation is spreading to every corner of the globe.
And if this revolution succeeds in changing the world, you can call Raul Dominguez ‘Generalissimo’, because he’s the guy leading the charge. A graduate of the University of Madrid, this native of Spain moved to Los Angeles to skill build before settling in El Salvador. According to Dominguez, your choices are simple; join the revolution or become extinct. Like any good leader, Dominguez believes the success of his video uprising is inevitable, and resistance is futile, even though he’s willing to admit that the video world is still largely populated by dinosaurs. He sees them at all the major video equipment shows, traipsing through the booths of those old, legacy manufacturers, the ones who’ve been around for decades.
Dominguez, Executive Producer and New Business Director at El Salvador’s premier network, TCS, puts it this way. “When I go to NAB, I don’t look at Sony or Avid or Grass Valley. All those old, legacy companies don’t have anything I want to buy anymore. When I go shopping for equipment now, I look only to manufacturers like Blackmagic Design, AJA, and of course, NewTek, because they’re the ones bringing the new technologies to video production. The people who buy that expensive, legacy equipment are just wasting their company’s money, in my opinion. These new manufacturers are changing the way production is being done. They are the future.”
TCS, where Dominguez works, is the largest television network in El Salvador, and arguably, the best equipped broadcast operation in Central America. The network runs three traditional broadcast channels in the Central American nation of over 6 million, Channels 2, 4, and 6, as well providing content to a number of cable channels and lots of OTT streaming video.
For the last five years, TCS has been engaged in a massive upgrade to their production facilities and not surprisingly, they’ve been avoiding those legacy manufacturers Dominguez rails against. As they reinvent their production workflow, TCS has been buying NewTek TriCaster® and IP Series Video Mix Engines to power their newly-constructed facilities. Currently, the network has two IP Series VMC1 switchers, two TriCaster 8000s, a TriCaster 460, and a NewTek 3Play replay machine.
“It all started five years ago,” Dominguez says. “We had a problem back then. We had three different buildings in the capital city, with three different kinds of studios, each with its own control room. Everyone had to move around from building to building. It was expensive and wasteful. So I got everybody together and said, ‘We need to put all the control rooms together in one building, so that one production team can work on any show.’ They told me I was crazy.”
But like any good revolutionary, Dominguez was undeterred. He stuck to his guns and moved TCS forward toward his vision for the future, IP-based production.
Initially, the network experimented using early IP equipment from Sony, but after learning about NewTek, TCS switched gears and settled on TriCasters and IP Series modules to power their new network control rooms. They’ve never looked back. The success of TCS’s consolidation of control room facilities in one location was made possible by NewTek’s revolutionary NDI® technology, which allows production switchers, capture systems, and media servers to access any video source, regardless of location, provided that source is connected to the network. With NDI, TCS’s TriCasters and VMC1’s can access cameras, graphic units and any other NDI video source in any of the network’s connected studio facilities. Making the jump to NDI has allowed TCS to save money, time, and equipment. Take their evening newscasts for example.
Three Newscasts, One Control Room
“We have three newscasts,” Dominguez says. “One on Channel 2, another on Channel 4, and another on Channel 6. Each newscast is produced on a different set, from a different studio. There used to be three different production teams producing those three shows, each team with seven people. Once we were interconnected on NDI, it was clear that one production team could handle all three newscasts. Once again, when I suggested consolidating the production crews, everyone told me I was crazy. But with NDI, I showed them that changing sources from one studio to another in one control room was no problem. It can happen very quickly. Then, they told me that they couldn’t load all the files they needed for the shows on the playout fast enough to facilitate the changeover between shows. So, we had to find a company with a product that would allow us to load new files in seconds. We found a product from Si Media in Italy. Now, there’s a single production team, just seven people total, doing the network’s three newscasts, using the same IP Series VMC1 switcher. After the first newscast for Channel 2, the crew closes the production session and loads the new one. They close the Channel 2 playout on the broadcast server and open the Channel 4 playout. That’s all there is to it. They’re ready to go. It’s saved us huge expense and consolidated resources tremendously.”
And lest you think that the three newscasts are just rebroadcasts of the same stories, with different anchors, Dominguez begs to differ. “One of the news shows is done from a virtual set,” he tells me. “Our graphic designers used Cinema 4D (a Maxon application) to construct our virtual set, and then loaded it into NewTek’s Virtual Set Editor, and no one - and I mean no one - is able to tell the set isn’t real. We even built a green desk into the set, so when the host puts his tablet on the anchor desk, it looks like it’s actually sitting on our stylish virtual desk. Thanks to NewTek technology, we have become specialists in working with virtual sets. We do all the work in-house, saving lots of money, and our sets are absolutely flawless. I showed our virtual news set to some people from the University here, and I had to actually show them pictures of the hosts sitting on the green screen before they would believe it wasn’t a real set. It’s incredible.”
Step One: Just Find the Volcano
Once the IP revolution in El Salvador had taken control of the network control rooms, the next step for Dominguez was taking the battle to the streets.
“Three years ago, we built a Wi-Fi network all around the city of San Salvador,” Dominguez explains. “The network utilizes Ubiquiti antennas all around the city. So, we thought, ‘Why don’t we convert the video signal from our remote news cameras in the field to IP using the Internet with these antennas, and send the video signal through the Wi-Fi back to our control room? Network news reporters in El Salvador are now able to report live from almost anywhere, without the need to use expensive microwave technology.
“Before all this technology became available,” Dominguez says, “we would have had to install an HD microwave link, which would have cost us about $90,000, money we don’t have, but the Wi-Fi antennas cost us about $7,000, and now, every news reporter or anybody else who wants to do a production out on remote, can go out with the camera, an encoder, and a little antenna to connect to the Wi-Fi network. In the capital city, we have seven different Ubiquiti antennas on the side of the volcano. So, all the crews have to do is go outside and find the volcano. In the capital city of San Salvador, everybody can see the volcano.”
Sparking the Revolution with NewTek’s New Connect Spark(TM)
But Dominguez isn’t done trying to streamline the workflow for live remote productions in El Salvador. In the not too distant future, he plans to take this remote revolution to the next step, thanks to the release of NewTek’s new Connect Spark(TM). This new product allows users to deliver any video source to a network wirelessly, making that source instantly available on any NDI-compatible system.
“We are testing the device right now,” Dominguez says. “We’re certain it’s going to open a new world of opportunity for us, because we will no longer have to use an encoder/decoder to convert the Wi-Fi signals. With the Connect Spark, we will be able to connect the camera directly to the Wi-Fi network.” Another battle won, thanks to NewTek’s Connect Spark.
Satisfying a Nation of Soccer Fanatics
NewTek’s NDI technology has made an even more revolutionary (there’s that word again) change in the way TCS produces sporting events, which, of course, in Central America means soccer.
“Our success with NDI on news and other live programming, forced us to change our minds about how we wanted to do sports production,” Dominguez says. “We decided we could do the same thing we were doing with our studio and news productions in sports.” It helped that Millicom, the international technology and media company that offers digital services in El Salvador under the Tigo brand, had just undertaken a massive fiber optic installation program throughout the country. “Over 1,200 kilometers of fiber were put in place,” Dominguez says, “including all 13 of the stadiums where televised soccer games take place.”
Initially, TCS used their Sony IP equipment to send the games back to their television production hub over the newly installed fiber, but applying NewTek’s NDI technology has allowed the network to garner even more cost savings and efficiencies. But making the jump to IP technology hasn’t been easy for TCS’s engineers.
“In the beginning, it was hard for some of our engineers to understand what we were doing,” Dominguez says. “All of a sudden, we had every source available on the network at the same time, and it was intimidating for them. They’re used to dealing with microchips, and now we were asking them to learn how to work with networks, because today, everything is done on the network. We have over 40 sources coming into our building, and all of them are available now on the NDI network, so any control room can access them instantly. That is the real future.
“For sports broadcasts, we equipped one of our control rooms with a TriCaster 8000, and the other with a smaller TriCaster 460. Even though over-the-air broadcasting in El Salvador has yet to make the jump from standard definition to high definition, all of the sports broadcasts we produce are now done in HD. We launched a channel on the cable system called TCS-HD, where you can get many of our programs in high definition. Four years ago, we broadcast the first World Cup soccer games in HD in El Salvador. It was like the change from black-and-white to color. Once people saw soccer in HD, they didn’t want to go back. Tigo Sports, the cable provider’s sports channel, was able to say to its customers, “Hey, we have soccer in HD now. Can we change your package to give you those games? So, as a result of our NewTek equipment, many people spend more now to see the games in HD.”
Three Soccer Games, One Control Room
These days, the network only sends cameras to the soccer stadiums; no remote truck, no switcher, no graphics unit, no audio board. All the switching, replays, and graphics are added at the network’s central control facility. For the time being, the network is still using its Sony and Hitachi cameras to shoot the games, Dominguez tells me, it’s a workflow inefficiency he’s hoping to streamline soon.
“We still have to go through the camera CCU,” he says. “Then to SDI, then to the Sony NXL–IP 55, and from there, via fiber to our control room. What I’d like to do, is go directly from the cameras to the NDI network. It will save money, save time, save equipment. You don’t have to have an encoder/decoder, you don’t have to go through a Blackmagic Video Hub. You eliminate cables. You eliminate problems. Every step in your network is another potential for a problem. So, my idea is to take out all the routing systems, and go directly to the network with NDI once that opportunity becomes financially possible for us.
“But we’re already saving money by not sending a whole crew to the stadium. You don’t have to pay a TD to drive to the location and drive back. He’s not tired from travel. He can do a game, take a ten minute break, and then do another production, from another stadium.”
One Channel, Four Different Web Profiles
In addition to over-the-air broadcast and cable, all of TCS’s channels including soccer broadcasts are also distributed over their web service, and on social media. There is other exclusive content only for digital. But this presents a unique challenge in a country like El Salvador where the lack of reliable bandwidth throughout the country makes delivery sketchy. Dominguez explains. “In the beginning, we were only encoding one profile for the OTT, 720P. But we learned that that wouldn’t work in El Salvador. We had to have different profiles. Now, we use NewTek’s MediaDS system to simultaneously send the Wowza server four different profiles; 720P, 480, 360, and 160. All four of our channels are provided in these four profiles, so at any time, we’re sending out a total of 16 streaming signals in the Wowza server. That way, even if your Internet is terrible, you can at least see something without buffering. And if you have a good signal where you are, you can see everything in 720P. Using the MediaDS for that saved us lots of money, and it does exactly what we need to do.”
Rooting for Manchester United in Central America
But local games aren’t the only soccer broadcasts TCS provides to El Salvador’s rabid fan base. In addition to their own local soccer teams, El Salvadoran viewers enthusiastically follow the fortunes of such teams as Real Madrid, Juventus, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, and all the other teams in the UEFA Champions League. TCS broadcasts many of these European games for El Salvadoran viewers, as well as World Cup matches, with the network inserting their own graphics and announcers into the satellite broadcasts. All the UEFA and World Cup games are all produced using the network’s TriCaster 460. “The 460 might be a smaller box,” Dominguez says, “but we do big things with it. The rights to the Champions League cost us millions of dollars a year, so it says something that we trust the TriCaster 460 to do the production of the shows.”
In addition to broadcasting the games on their broadcast channels, the Champions League games also have an OTT component, with pre- and post-game shows thirty minutes before and after every game. “And because of NDI,” Dominguez says, “those shows can share the same cameras, video sources, and graphics as the game broadcasts, saving us lots of money.”
Live Reality Is the Best Reality
But what else is on the air in El Salvador, you might ask? Not unlike television in Europe and North America, primetime broadcasting in El Salvador features many internationally-franchised reality programs that are licensed to TCS. Many of those programs are familiar names around the world, the El Salvadoran versions of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, and Top Chef, for example. The difference is, in El Salvador, the network programs are produced locally, and for the most part, live, using NewTek TriCasters. And no primetime show is more popular then Calle 7.
Can You Tell Me How to Get to Calle Siete?
Calle 7 is a locally produced reality show licensed out of Chile. The program is a cross between Gladiators and Survivor, with competitors facing off in a variety of complicated physical challenges with the hopes of staving off elimination from the game. The program airs every night in El Salvador, Monday through Friday, for two hours, and it’s all produced live, using the network’s TriCaster 8000. “We use the 8000 to its maximum,” Dominguez says. “We use the buffers, we use the DDR’s, we use the iso-recorders; we use it all.”
But even two hours a night of Calle 7 isn’t enough for some El Salvadoran viewers. “We also have a thirty-minute Calle 7 pre-show available on our OTT service, and a thirty-minute post-show as well,” Dominguez says. “Those shows utilize the same cameras and other sources used in the broadcast show, but from a different control room. And that’s all thanks to NDI. During the actual broadcasts, whenever the on-the-air channel goes to break, the OTT platform goes live from the set with additional material while the broadcast channel is in commercial break. That’s a huge opportunity for us, and because of NDI, we can do it with far fewer resources.”
Surprising Uses for NDI
TCS has also been able to utilize NewTek’s NDI technology in some surprising ways as well inside their broadcast hub. For example, the NDI Studio Monitor application allows network executives to keep an eye on what’s going on in all their various studios. “The VP’s can monitor any camera, anywhere, to see how the hosts are behaving when they’re not on the air,” Dominguez says.
“We also use NDI to streamline our legal recording of the broadcast channels. The people who confirm that everything ran correctly on the air, and all the client spots aired properly used to have an inexpensive analog recording that they had to watch. It looked terrible, it wasn’t reliable and it wasn’t cost-effective. Now, all four channels are recorded 24-hours-a-day in HD, with one cable and the signal looks great.”
On the sports side, the conversion to NDI made one of TCS’s most onerous tasks much more cost-effective and easier to accomplish, cutting highlights of all the soccer games.
“We want to turn around every goal on the website and for social media immediately after it happens,” Dominguez explains. “Before NDI, it was terrible. Now, we have an editor sitting down with an iso-recorder, watching the game. Using the NewTek Live Panel for the IP Series VMC1, he can clip every goal for the web, or send it to YouTube, or social media or whatever he needs to do, and then, a moment later, he’s ready to record again.”
Today El Salvador, Tomorrow All of Central America
So, thanks to NDI, TCS continues to advance their video revolution in El Salvador, enabling the company to increase quality, maximize their flexibility to push out content to a wide variety of platforms, while at the same time saving money. And according to Raul Dominguez, the El Salvadoran revolution is spreading throughout Central America.
“We’re already providing content for Honduras” he says. “And with NDI, there’s no reason we can’t expand this function. It’s like Amazon in the retail world. Ten years ago, all you could talk about was Macy’s and J.C. Penney’s and Sears, but now, all of those companies are going away because Amazon has taken all their business.”
Dominguez insists that the same thing is happening in the world of television production, and all those legacy operations still buying their expensive, legacy equipment are destined to go the way of brick-and-mortar retailers like Sears, marching down the path to obscurity.
“Whatever you do now, you have to think about social media, cable, and other OTT platforms,” Dominguez says. “You can no longer think, ‘this is for broadcast, this is for cable this is for web.’ Today a producer has to produce for every platform all at once, and to do that, you need NDI. If not, good luck.”
A Revolutionary Future: Calling El Salvador
And what does Dominguez see for the future? Like any good revolutionary, he sees himself taking over the world.
“In El Salvador we have lots of international call centers now, making calls to over 140 different countries throughout the world, because we have the people who can speak all these languages, and because it’s much cheaper for a company to hire us to do all their calls for them.
“With NDI, I can do exactly the same thing in video. We can create new productions here in El Salvador for every country in the world. Just send me all your cameras on the network, and I can produce your show for you. I’ll switch the show, add your graphics, insert pre-recorded pieces, and do it all for five times less than the cost to do it in your own country. Then I can send it back to you, and you can put it on the air. That could be a very good business for me, don’t you think? So, NDI is not only opening up workflow for me here in El Salvador, it might be opening up a whole new industry.”
So, if you’re the video equivalent of a J.C. Penney’s or Sears you’d better be looking over your shoulder. Watch your back, world. It won’t be long before Raul Dominguez’s revolution comes for you.