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Behind the scenes secrets at Sky TV

09 Oct 2014

It’s just after 10am as my taxi slips through some nondescript brick gates. I’d assumed these belonged to a Mt Wellington housing development. They don’t.  They mark the beginning of Sky TVs Auckland campus.

In the reception area, I’m told I’ll have to sign into a visitor’s book old school style as the power outage means they cant print me a badge.

It’s an interesting day to visit New Zealand’s largest pay TV provider. 2 days earlier cables at a Penrose substation went up in smoke leaving large swathes of Auckland in the dark and creating pandemonium at Sky TV.

As I’m pondering this, Kirsty Way, Sky TVs Director of Corporate Communications appears. I’m on a behind the scenes tour with technical production director, Kerry Phelvin.

Things kick off with a visit to the back lot. Several large satellite dishes are there that beam shows to the satellite that feeds our skyboxes. There’s a strict no fly zone over the site as the transmission power of the dishes is such that planes could end up microwaved mid-flight.

I avoid making jokes about airline food and notice black smoke and engine noise emanating from a building. It turns out that Sky’s massive 1500 amp diesel generators and power backup system also live in the back lot. They’re running full-tilt.

According to Kerry, their fuel tanks hold a massive 310,000 litres of diesel. Its a large amount but is only enough for 48 hours of power. I head inside the generator building. The noise is deafening, as a set of massive bulldozer yellow generators churn away to keep the sky on the air. Kerry says They’ve already burnt through an astonishing 10,000 litres of diesel.

The show must go own, but the cost of running these massive generators must be huge.

We head inside down a darkened long corridor (a lot of lighting is off to reduce strain on the generators). Kerry’s encyclopedic knowledge of the tech powering sky is boggling and my head is already spinning.

I’m shown through high-tech edit suites and facilities that resemble the bridge of a starship rather than a TV studio.

Much of what Sky does is digital. Content comes in from offshore using fibre optic feeds and satellite.  Some content comes using couriered tapes (I’m shown a tape archive room with over 180,000 tapes).

A huge part of what Sky has to do behind the scenes involves converting overseas content into formats that’ll work locally. US shows produced in NTSC are converted into PAL colour for a New Zealand audience.

Material that airs on an HD channel often has to be up-scaled from 720p to 1080i and surround audio is also checked. It’s a big job and all this content takes up a huge amount of space

I ask Kerry how much storage Sky uses. “Oh it’s in the petabyte range, but that changes as licensing means that some content is also deleted after a certain date”.

His reply leaves me gob-smacked.

Seagate or Western Digital must love these guys. 1 petabyte (PB) is 1,000,000,000,000,000 bytes or a 1,000 terabytes. That’s a colossal amount of hard drives, not to mention a whopping amount of storage.

In hindsight this isn’t all that surprising. Sky runs over 115 channels. Their 24/7/365 operations means they’re airing thousands of shows every week.

The huge volume of content that Sky receives from overseas is also added to with local content.

I’m shown into a studio where the Crowd Goes Wild gets made. Its floor shiny and smooth so that cameras can move with no bumps or jarring.

There’s also an improbable amount of lighting suspended from the ceiling. This is followed by air conditioning, which helps to keep things cool as several thousand lights blaze away.

Next we head out to the production/edit areas. It’s hard to believe this is a TV network and not a set out of the latest Star Trek movie. Screens and technology are everywhere and there’s a constant buzz of activity.

Sky runs on Gigabit Ethernet. TV production is almost completely digital. From video archives through to digital edit suites, vast volumes of data get hurled around sky’s LANs on a daily basis.

Amongst all this cutting edge digital technology, the one machine that stood out for me was their robot tape silo. It holds old school tapes and can grab a tape, load it into a tape machine and cue it to play. Watching it in action as it juggles several multi-part shows and commercial breaks is almost hypnotic.

Next up we head to a door that has dire warnings of restricted access as well as a sign forbidding any USB storage devices.

It turns out that this is where all the servers and other tech that stores and plays everything lives.

The noise created by tens of thousands of cooling fans is phenomenal. Huge bundles of Ethernet run between huge racks of servers.

Chatting with Way reveals there’s some big stuff underway. Sky are gearing up for a huge online play they're calling SVOD (which stands for subscription video on demand). Once live, it will allow even non sky customers to subscribe to TV shows and movies online.

Old school set digital top boxes are also being replaced with decoders like My Sky boxes.  This is a massive undertaking as there are whopping 400,000 set-top boxes to be swapped out.

At the moment Sky are transmitting on two separate but parallel platforms. One for digital legacy set top boxes and the other for My Sky units.

Once they’ve consolidated back to broadcasting on a single platform they'll have doubled the amount of available bandwidth. This could in theory allow them to broadcast in ultra HD.

My Sky is also set for some spit and polish too. Its (operating software is getting an upgrade which will see its electronic programme guide get a major upgrade that should change its look and feel completely. Upgraded My Sky unites will also be able to be internet connected to access video on demand content.

There’s a lot happening and wondering through their campus, I’m convinced most of it seems to be happening at once.

Before I know it we’re back in the cafeteria (who do a great flat white) and are meeting with Lisa Franklin, the head of Publicity for Sky, Katie Fisher, the Publicity Manager for The Zone and SVOD plus Chris Philpott, channel Manager for the Zone.

This catch up is particularly poignant. I’d launched an online petition several years ago in a bid to persuade Sky to launch a science fiction channel. The US has long had SyFy and even the Aussies have a sci-fi channel on foxtel, so why couldn’t we do something similar?

The petition generated some publicity and attracted over 2,100 signatures. Now it appears that it didn’t escape Sky’s attention after all.

The great news is that New Zealand’s first sci-fi channel, The Zone will occupy channel 16 and launch at 4pm on November the 3rd.

From what I was able to see, there’s some great shows lined up.

Starting with serenity/firefly, The Zone will air big-ticket Sci-fi shows including Defiance, from dusk till dawn, the strain, helix, the latest season of grimm and teen wolf. There’s also a solid roster of cheese-tastic movies going to air on Saturday nights including culty sci-fi silliness such as Sharknado.

Other big shows will include falling skies, hemlock grove and the ultra cool Canadian time travel series Continuum.

Making sure they’ve got the attention of sci-fi geeks up and down NZ, The Zone will also kick off Weekend Box set sessions where series such as misfits, Dollhouse, Alphas, Eureka, Warehouse 13 and Battlestar Galactica and several dozen other shows.

Retro sci-fi fans will also be pleased as shows such as Space 1999 and Knight Rider plus Star Trek (the original series), Buck Rogers, Stargate SG-1 and even Buffy the Vampire slayer are also getting air time.

As stoked as my inner sci-fi geek is, it is soon time to leave. Now the long countdown for November the 3rd is underway.

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