AS/400 Plays Starring Role At Discovery Channel

We tend to think of the AS/400 as a blue collar kind of machine, its natural home in the heads-down, 24-hours-a-day manufacturing world, where reliability counts for more than flash.

Other industries, even flashy ones, value reliability too, however, and none more than television. At the Discovery Channel's Latin America Division (DLA), based in Miami, the source of all Discovery Channel programming into Latin American, Spain and Portugal, an AS/400 is the heart of a highly automated cable broadcasting operation.

Established in 1994, DLA has grown rapidly, from 50 employees to 300 today, with most of its growth over the past year. Ten separate cable feeds originate from DLA in Miami and are transmitted via satellite to the consumer countries, which means ten different shows on the air at any one time, day and night. Some shows originate in Miami, and some are provided by the domestic U.S. Discovery Channel, headquartered in Bethesda, Md., with translation and subtitles provided by DLA. .

According to Kelly Smith, systems administrator, a single application runs on DLA's AS/400 9406 Model 50S: the Broadcast Management System (BMS), from Enterprise Systems Group, based in Colorado Springs. BMS produces quarterly logs, or broadcast schedules, timed down to the second, of every element of every show that DLA broadcasts. The information that goes into BMS are from two sources, the traffic, or the programming, department, and from ad sales.

Gabriel, a scheduling system, produces spreadsheet-like grids of scheduled shows for each of the ten feeds. It's more complicated than it sounds, Smith says. "A show isn't just a single half hour," he explains. "It will be a five- minute segment, then a commercial or a promotional spot, then another segment. The system keeps track of all that information."

Open time spots available for ads, called "avails", are sold to advertisers. DLA's six salespeople use an ad sales package from Princeton, N.J.-based Nesbit Systems Inc., running on a Sun platform, to negotiate and finalize the sales. Both the schedules from Gabriel and the ad information are interfaced into BMS through a data exchange interface, DEI, from Enterprise Systems Group.

"The AS/400 is the main hub for everything," Smith says. "The final schedules, or run logs, that come from the AS/400 tell exactly what goes out on the air, and we use them to do final ad billing."

The log file from BMS also controls the actual broadcasting, an entirely automated process. All the visual and audio content is digital, stored on seven Hewlett Packard media servers, not on tape. "We work four or five days in advance, putting out ten different feeds a day," Smith says. "It's all automated, there is no operator pushing buttons. The system does it, and it's coming from the log file that BMS creates."

One of the reasons DLA chose an AS/400 as its first platform in 1994 (a 9402 Model 200, since upgraded twice, most recently to the 50S in March, 1997) was software. "We got the AS/400 originally because there are only three or four developers who write the kind of software package we needed, and two are only for the AS/400 platform," Smith says. "Although we've modified it heavily, Gabriel was the best choice for a small operation traffic system."

The other reason for the AS/400 was reliability. Smith notes that broadcasting is a 24 hours a day, seven days a week operation, with no leeway for down time. In addition, in a small broadcasting operation like DLA technical resources are typically next to nonexistent.

"Until May last year we had no IS support at all," Smith says. "In fact, most BMS customers don't have IS departments, just someone who is a little more technical than the others to run the system. We needed something that would just run. Since we've had it, it has never gone down except when I took it down. I come from the PC world, PC servers and networks, so to me the AS/400 is amazing."

Although DLA now has an IS staff, in part that is due to the AS/400s dependability. "This system has allowed us to sustain the growth we've had in the last couple of years, to add staff, and add feeds. The reason we could do that was because we had the AS/400. We got it because of BMS, but without it we wouldn't be where we are today."