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Satellite Television’s Biggest Weekend: Live, Complex Millennium Networks

By | April 10, 2000

      By Robert N. Wold

      Those birds of paradise called geostationary satellites, invisible to the naked eye as they perch on the equatorial ring that circles the globe, were in especially good spirits. It was the eve, and then the day, of the new millennium. Seen on television, Planet Earth greeted millions upon millions of beings at sundown, at midnight, at dawn–in moods from mild to wild and quaint to quiet–from Taiwan to Times Square, Hong Kong to Hungary, Singapore to Senegal.

      Event For The Ages

      By one measure–London’s Greenwich Mean Time (GMT)–the first pints were poured in a “midnight” celebration for the laddies on camera from Tonga, Kirabati and New Zealand at 10:00 a.m. on Friday, December 31. Like a broken phonograph record, the pints and Auld Lang Syne continued until 10:00 a.m. or so on Saturday, January 1, 2000, when smiling Samoans were last to join the third millennium crowd.

      Global television coverage of this memorable weekend was bewilderingly long, yet overflowing with imagination and variety. It was a marathon of charming visits, country after country, westward ho we go.

      The millennium inspired a myriad of TV programming, some of it in development as early as 1996. The weekend’s fare was not just culture and entertainment; news-gathering preparedness shared the forefront. Venezuela was still having mudslides, hostages were released from an airplane, Russia’s president resigned, and four sets of twins were born with birthdays straddling two millenniums (in Indianapolis; Seattle; Enid, OK; and Berlin).

      It was a weekend in which cameras, reporters, satellite uplinks and transponder time were taxed to the limit. Communication satellites–those ubiquitous yet inconspicuous electronic freight forwarders–were as busy as could be, providing the networks with both contribution feeds (the in-bound assembling of program ingredients) and distribution feeds (the outbound delivering of finished content).

      Audience Counts

      The “2000 Today” show reached more than a billion people around the world, according to an estimate of the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC). The 25-hour production colossus was hosted and choreographed in London by the BBC, working closely with WGBH Boston, the concept’s original creator. It was, of course, beamed live to the United States where its marquee was morphed into “PBS Millennium 2000” for the Public Broadcasting System’s 348 member stations.

      ABC, according to the Wall Street Journal, estimated that 175 million people visited at least one portion of its 23 plus-hour marathon titled “ABC 2000.” Bridging news and entertainment, it was produced by ABC News and anchored by newsman Peter Jennings. According to Nielsen Media Research, “ABC 2000” was the week’s sixth highest-ranked commercial TV program and reached an average audience size of 18,550,000 viewers. “Millennium Prime Time” on NBC and “America’s Millennium” on CBS–much shorter programs–together reached an audience average of 18.2 million viewers, according to Nielsen.

      True sizes of worldwide TV audiences are difficult to ascertain. Global “viewer” counts, in the absence of definitive and validated audience research, often seem to be aggregations of the total populations of reached countries. For example, when NASA astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin visited the moon in July 1969, the live telecast sent down to earth for worldwide dissemination was estimated by Intelsat to have “reached” 500 million people, yet the five-year-old Intelsat had only 69 signatory countries in 1969 compared to the 143 it has today. Subsequent World Cup and Olympic Games, Intelsat estimates, have “reached” 3 billion people. For the recent telecast of Super Bowl XXXIV, the National Football League contends it globally “reached” 800 million people.

      Busy Satellite Carriers

      One measure of the millennium weekend’s satellite business was to count the occasional traffic that was millennium-related, over and above customers’ full-time leases. Among international carriers, Intelsat’s 18 international birds carried 30 supplementary channels representing over 1,650 hours. Panamsat announced an extra 1,300 hours of event coverage and approximately 300 transmissions among 40 customers using 12 of its then-operational 19 satellites. The Hague-based New Skies Satellite, with five birds previously owned by Intelsat, generated 687.5 hours of special traffic. Not included here are the millennium traffic counts for other major satellite carriers such as Asiasat, Eutelsat, Teleglobe, Loral Skynet, GE Americom and others.

      Cable News Network heralded its “Millennium 2000” project as “a most extraordinary programming initiative…the biggest journalistic undertaking in peacetime.”

      During 100 hours–spanning the entire four-day weekend–CNN delivered “comprehensive, global news coverage of millennium-related events and turn-of-the-century issues.” CNN and CNN International anchors “teamed” for the first time ever. Nine international and five U.S. domestic satellites were used for over 200 live shots from 73 locations.

      “Getting satellite feeds around the world that weekend was an exceptionally difficult task,” said Dick Tauber, CNN’s vice president for satellites and circuits. “If we hadn’t blocked out satellite time months ahead, we would have been in trouble.”

      CNN also used a variety of ground equipment to get the job done. For its exclusive among Western media on the release of airline hostages at Kandahar, Afghanistan, CNN’s reporter used store-and-forward data technology and Inmarsat satellite telephony routed through London en route to Atlanta. For Larry King’s interview with Tibet’s Dalai Lama, a flyaway uplink was shipped to India from London.

      The “2000 Today” Consortium

      “It was history’s longest-ever continuous live broadcast,” said a BBC executive in London, in reference to the complex “2000 Today” production, which the BBC managed for a worldwide consortium of countries and broadcasters. It lasted exactly 25 hours and 28 minutes, tempting Fleet Street journalists to append “The Big Broadcast of 2000.”

      The concept for “2000 Today” surfaced in May 1995 at WGBH Boston, the U.S. public broadcasting station known not for live productions but for filmed series such as “Masterpiece Theater.” An accomplished WGBH producer of documentary films, Zvi Dor-Ner, had proposed a sweeping 24-hour chronicle featuring countries in all 24 time zones as the new millennium arrived for them.

      With approval from WGBH management, Dor-Ner began soliciting countries and their local broadcasters to join the consortium. One of his first calls was to the BBC, the world’s largest non-commercial broadcasting company. For months he discussed the concept with BBC’s film documentary group until everyone realized the program would best be all-live. By the autumn of 1997 he was selling the BBC’s live-event group, which included veteran producer Neil Eccles and veteran satellite wizard Brian Elliott.

      A quick study by Elliott determined that satellite time for the millennium weekend was already in great demand. He recommended making early reservations and, envisioning traffic jams ahead, recommended also the establishment of regional foreign-based sub-switching hubs for the voluminous contribution traffic that would otherwise deluge London’s teleports and BBC’s control center. The concept soon took shape.

      One hub was managed at Sydney by Australia’s ABC (Australia Broadcasting Co.). It coordinated all the Asia Pacific contribution feeds and sent two streams to London by diverse paths. A second hub, located in London but separated from BBC’s central control, coordinated feeds from Europe and Africa. The third hub, collecting contribution feeds from South America, Latin America and North America, was established in Toronto at Canada’s CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Co.). This hub was interconnected with fiber paths to a sub-hub at WNET, the PBS member station in New York and “country control” for “2000 Today.”

      WGBH had arranged for the non-commercial PBS network to be a U.S. member in the consortium. When ABC News, which was planning a major millennium program of its own, learned of “2000 Today,” it bought exclusive U.S. commercial rights. “2000 Today” in London and “ABC 2000” in New York literally swapped the use of numerous program segments.

      In the final consortium count, “2000 Today” had 81 broadcaster members in 80 countries. Fifty-seven broadcasters contributed content, and the remaining 24 were “receive-only.” Twenty-one satellites were used for contribution backhauls from the 57 locations, but only three satellites–and some trans-Atlantic fiber paths–were needed for relays from the hubs to London.

      One remote feed came from Antarctica, relayed via TDRS 6 to a NASA facility at White Sands, NM, from where it was second-hopped via GE 2 to New York for a third hop to London, all in real time.

      An especially busy period in London was at 11:00 p.m., when European countries celebrated midnight. Sixteen satellite feeds, from most of the capitals of Europe, had to be received simultaneously.

      For the outbound global distribution of “2000 Today,” six satellites were used to distribute to the other 79 member countries. They were Panamsat 3, Panamsat 5, Eutelsat W3, NSS 703, Asiasat 2 and Intelsat 701. The program itself had a modular format that enabled seamless cutaways for local hosts and commercials. Other elements crucial to the international success of “2000 Today” were a live English-language “guide” audio channel from each remote site (productions originated in more than 30 different languages) and an Internet Web site called Livescript which enabled broadcasters to coordinate in real-time with the BBC’s program production rundown and timings.

      Eccles, the co-executive producer along with Dor-Ner, said, “Not one satellite feed was lost. This was truly amazing given the huge number of live feeds that came in from all over the world. The program went fantastically well, exceeding the expectations of all who worked on it.”

      Elliott added, “It was probably the most complex program the BBC has ever mounted. And I suspect it was the most complex satellite project we have ever put together. What made it different from programs such as the Olympic Games was that it had contributions coming in from many diverse locations, in addition to and simultaneous with the outbound distribution.”

      ABC 2000

      The ABC project, produced by ABC News, was also a complex challenge. David Westin, the president of ABC News, called ABC’s production “technically the most complicated thing anybody here has ever been involved with up to and including the Olympics.”

      Preston A. Davis, president of ABC’s broadcast operations and engineering unit (BO&E), said, “Our role is to provide the technical services. Our people began to work on this with ABC News 10 months ago. They did a Herculean job and we’re mighty proud of them.”

      The production center for ABC 2000 was located at the newly constructed Times Square Studios (TSS) at 1500 Broadway. An auxiliary switching center was located at ABC’s TV3 studio at 47 West 66th St., interconnected by fiber with TSS.

      ABC established 53 remote sites including 13 “A” news remotes, 24 “B” news remotes and 16 “Entertainment” remotes. Needless to say, all required broadcast-quality production and either satellite or fiber links into New York. To ease congestion at TSS, where director Roger Goodman and anchor Peter Jennings were located, only the “A” remotes went directly there; the “B” and “Entertainment” remotes were controlled at TV3.

      The “A” remotes were constantly “up”–for several hours of rehearsal followed by the entire 24-hour program. They came from six foreign and seven domestic sites, one of the latter being a New York helicopter. Whether it was Sam Donaldson in Washington, or Connie Chung in Las Vegas, or Barbara Walters in Paris, or Cokie Roberts at the Vatican, all were prepared to be called upon at any time.

      The “B” remotes totaled 10 international and 14 domestic sites, where correspondents were on specific schedules. Some of the sites shared satellite transponder time in “round robins” with other sites. All but one of the “A” and “B” correspondents were from ABC News; the lone exception was TVNZ correspondent Susan Atkins, who reported for ABC from Auckland.

      Because ABC News is not normally in the “entertainment” business, Gary Smith of Smith-Hemion Productions was hired to be responsible for business issues and the entertainment segments of ABC 2000. He negotiated with the representatives of music rights holders and entertainers such as Barbara Streisand, Billy Joel, Neil Diamond and Barry Manilow for selected one-time TV performances, remote-fed from audience performances at arenas, hotels and casinos.

      Of the 16 entertainment remotes, all except one were from U.S. venues scattered in nine different states. Due to the time difference, Aerosmith was taped at Japan’s Osaka Dome and then double-hopped via satellite to New York. Thirteen of the 16 remotes were live.

      ABC used eight different satellites for its contribution remotes, including both Telstar 4 and Telstar 5, the same birds that are also used for daily distribution of programming from New York to owned and affiliated ABC broadcast stations.

      Digital Compression And Fiber

      Richard Wolf, vice president for telecommunications and distribution services at ABC’s BO&E, said that ABC was dependent on, and successful with, widespread use of digital compression for its in-bound contribution feeds. The average data rate, he said, was about 7.5 Megabits per channel, which he feels was “being conservative.”

      On ABC’s full-period 36 MHz transponder from London to New York, he noted, the network normally uses two compressed paths of about 12 Megabits each. When ABC News requested a total of 10 paths from London to New York, BO&E pushed the full-period transponder to six compressed paths “without any difficulties.”

      According to Brian Elliott, BBC also used digital compression for many of its links. “Because there was a shortage of international transponders that weekend,” he said, “we used a lot of digital compression for the simple reason that it gave us more capacity.”

      Fiber transmissions, in point-to-point situations, also worked well for contribution feeds of both networks. Elliott pointed out a classic example of fiber as an alternative. For protection from possible Y2K and other problems, he decided to use diverse paths for contribution feeds from the Sydney hub to London. He routed some of the traffic directly to London via the New Skies 703 IOR satellite at 57 degrees E. The remaining traffic was routed from Sydney via Intelsat’s 701 POR satellite at 180 degrees to Teleglobe’s downlink at Lake Cowichan in British Columbia. From there, this traffic was carried by Teleglobe fiber across both Canada and the Atlantic Ocean into London.

      Another Round?

      There were two other global network projects for the millennium weekend. From the United Kingdom, the “Yes 2000 Global Project” was supported by a consortium of 16 countries assisting in charity fundraising. The countries were interconnected by satellite with live “midnight” content contributed to, and distributed from, London.

      A U.S.-based project, “Millennium Live: Humanity’s Broadcast”–also known as the “Millennium TV Network”–failed to get all of its funding and collapsed in late December. Its enthusiastic team has suggested, however, that it might return at the end of this year, since many people around the world believe the “true new millennium” will begin on January 1, 2001.

      Please stand by.

      Robert N. Wold is a contributing writer for Phillips Publishing. He is based in California and may be reached by e-mail at: robertnwold@home.com