A Tour of the
Comcast Media Center
digital cable television operations center backing
A Comcast video
production crew with lights and camera equipment filled a
corridor of the sprawling Comcast Media Center as Mitch
Weinraub led a tour of what originally was the TCI
National Digital Television Center. "They're shooting a
promo," he explained.
As the senior director of new media initiatives for
the Comcast Media Center (CMC), Weinraub holds
responsibility for choosing and installing the digital
equipment used in producing and transmitting digital
programming to Comcast cable systems nationwide,
including HDTV content.
"The Comcast Media Center is engaged in the creation,
management and deliver of digital television content," he
said, adding, "The CMC's production services are among
the most extensive and advanced between Chicago and Los
The facility at 4100 East Dry Creek Road in Littleton,
Colo., has changed a lot since it's 1995 inception by
Tele-Communications Inc. Converted at a cost of $120
million from a building first constructed for Petroleum
Information, digital television operations now have
expanded from half the space into occupying the entire
350,000 square foot building.
After AT&T bought TCI, the National Digital
Television Center (NDTC) was expanded. Space that once
housed the J.C. Sparkman Center for distance learning
experimentation and training was converted for other
uses, such as editing suites. When Comcast bought
AT&T's cable holdings, the Philadelphia-based
multiple system operator decided to eliminate
redundancies and moved most of its
digital operations to Colorado,
renaming the facility as the Comcast Media Center
Comcast realized the facility had the advantage of an
ideal location. Linked by OC48 fiber to the Titan Road
satellite dish farm on Santa Fe Drive a few miles away,
the uplink dishes are at 105 degrees West latitude. The
Ku-band, Ka-band, C-band, and DBS satellites in
geosynchronous orbit overhead can transmit in a cone
covering the full continental United States (conus).
The expanded CMC has two levels. Downstairs are
production, post production and transmission facilities,
plus secure data centers for digital video storage and
streaming, as well as broadband cable modem services.
Half of this space has raised floors.
Upstairs are offices for the CMC, various cable
channels, and two independent production houses, High
Noon and Rocket Pictures, which mostly produce cable
series and assist on feature films.
The CMC not only shelters Comcast's digital
operations, but the operations of varied cable networks,
like Discovery, Lifetime, ESPN, and the Game Show
Network. Also here are core operations for the InDemand
video-on-demand system along with the HITS direct-to-home
satellite service. Another section of the building serves
at a garage for the 53-foot production truck for location
shoots, especially entertainment and sports events.
"We feed a lot of sports through the CMC," Weinraub
said. Last year the CMC transmitted nationally 52 local
origination pro and college games, mostly picked up by TV
stations in the home towns of traveling teams. They
further retransmitted dozens of games for DirecTV's
Sports Ticket service. One control room in the building
handles nothing but sports events.
Weinraub's major initiative at the CMC, he said while
winding his way through the crew shooting a Comcast
promo, is now HDTV production and distribution for cable
and broadcast networks.
He said Comcast is supporting the popularization of
high-definition TV by creating a video version of a
16-page brochure on HDTV by the Consumer Electronics
Association. The video brochure, shot in HDTV, will be
distributed in DVD to CE retailers nationwide.
On his way to the HDTV editing suites, Weinraub walked
through the CMC's five working studios, the largest being
64 by 100 feet. One of these was being used for set
storage, including a full-scale 1950's diner utilized
once or twice each year by the Food Network. Another set
stored there is employed frequently by Remax for national
sales training viewed by local realtors.
The studios boast Ikegami HK-388 studio and portable
cameras for 3:4 and 16:9 productions. The cameras can be
supported by 6-foot Cam Mate jibs. Overhead are Desisti
and Arri lighting systems with DMX controls.
Each studio has its own digital control room, equipped
with Grass Valley Group 4000 digital switchers,
Kaleidoscope DVE and Chyron Infinit. The 128-channel
audio boards are fed by 8 channel wireless microphones,
Digicart, Dat recorders, mini-disk, and studio sound
Weinraub said the facility has five Avid Symphony edit
suites. Three of them are online and the other two are
only for cuts. The nonlinear suites have A-B roll
capabilities, he noted, plus Chyron insert
"All of these online suites are interconnected to one
another and the various control rooms," he said, "so once
content has been created, we can access it anywhere in
the facility where it's needed."
Weinraub then stepped through a door into the HD audio
post production section where Bruce Marshall, chief
digital audio engineer, manages three ProTools suites,
including his own edit suite with 5.1 Dolby sound. A
fourth ProTools 6.2.2 suite is now under
"I just finished editing 50 episodes for a Discovery
series," Marshall said, "with four of them in HD. I had
to cross-pollinate audio between the formats, and using
the ProTools HD Accel plugin made it really
He said that Discovery supplied him with 8 track tape
that had distinct tracks for such elements as the
narrative voice over, music, and sound effects. "These
were separate because the series is being produced for
many different markets internationally, and Discovery
needed the ability to lift the narrative in one language
and replace it with narrative in another," Marshall
Marshall said that his primary ProTools edit suite is
"floating," isolated electronically and physically from
the rest of the facility to avoid any interference. His
exclusive air conditioning system has special sound
bafflers. His digital file servers reside within
soundproofed cabinets, so no machine hum or whirring fans
can be heard in the room. On top of the cabinet sat a
Weinraub exited the audio area and finally reached the
HD section of the Comcast Media Center.
First stop is an Avid DS/HD Express edit suite where
editor Lisa Boursch said she's using a system that can
handle almost any digital video tape format, including
Sony DVCPro and DigiBeta. She said the HDTV suites also
are equipped with HD-CAM tape decks along with both Grass
Valley and Pinnacle HD file servers that can store up to
three hours of HD content.
"I need different configurations for different
clients," she said, noting that Discovery HDTV programs
are in 1080i, for example, while ESPN favors 720p.
Within the CMC, Weinraub said that HDTV at 1080i
currently runs at about 17.9 Mbps, "but we're working on
preprocessing techniques to lower the rates." For
outgoing signals, the CMC can originate HDTV at speeds up
to 50 Mbps.
He closed the tour at the CMC master control center,
where 70 networks are transmitted and tracked
simultaneously. The trained operators sit before consoles
banks, monitoring every channel for quality assurance.
They do "a lot of live stuff" here," he said, "plus a lot
of programming fed by satellite or delivered on tape.
"For now, we're still doing master control the
old-fashioned way, but our new next-generation NOVA
master control center has virtual [automated]
administration, which is how all TV networks will operate
eventually. We're getting ready for the future