George Orwell's image of a pair of eyes prying into our lives is one we are all familiar with. Channel 4 has been using it to promote its new TV show, Big Brother, shown for the first time four weeks ago.
Big Brother is the UK version of a similar format that has been extraordinarily successful in Holland, Germany and Spain. The US version went on air at the beginning of July, and versions will soon be seen in Switzerland and Sweden.
The idea is simple: 10 volunteers move into a specially designed and isolated house. Over a period of 10 weeks they live with each other, and each week one contestant is voted to leave the show by the viewing public until one person is left. The winner then takes home a £70,000 prize.
It is a controversial and revolutionary format in the way that the cultures of TV and the internet co-exist - bringing broadcasted programmes and internet transmissions together.
Channel 4 screens (and edits) the show every weekday, but all the unedited day-to-day events can be seen live 24 hours a day on the internet.
There are 24 TV cameras in and around the house, and the live feeds from six of these will be available to web users at any one time.
To watch what's happening in the house, visitors to the site have to download the Real Player 7 plug-in from Real Networks. The plug-in is free, and takes about five minutes to load over the average fast connection.
Web developer and interactive TV specialist Victoria Real designed and built the website, and production company GMG Endemol provides the necessary content to fill it.
The challenge of building Big Brother was achieved by splitting the project into three sub-projects: creating the content at the TV studio; hosting the content on a server farm; and pushing the content close to the user.
Creating the content
The heart of Big Brother UK is a custom-designed hardware and software intranet. This is located in the Big Brother studio compound and is directly connected to the broadcasting studio and the web host.
This intranet has two primary functions: real-time encoding of the TV feeds into Real format, and a content management system to create editorial content. The six live TV feeds are converted into the Real Networks streaming format, using the Real G2 system.
Seven Dell Precision 220 workstations - each with an Osprey real-time encoding card - are used for this purpose, with one for each stream plus one 'warm spare'. The streams are encoded for 28/56/300Kbps bit rates.
The content management system (CMS) was developed in-house using Victoria Real's RealTrade software. RealTrade is used on the web host to manage email, user registration and voting mechanisms.
A series of content document templates was developed to reside on a web server in the studio compound.
The editorial team choose a specific template depending on what sort of content they wish to create, and then populate this content. The template and content are then saved as HTML pages within a pre-defined directory structure. These are then copied to the main host as needed.
The hardware for the CMS is four Dell Optiplex workstations running Windows NT and four Dell PowerEdge servers running Red Hat Linux, all protected by uninterruptible power supplies. The intranet at the house is connected to the web host by both primary and secondary leased lines installed by BT.
Hosting content on the farm
The biggest challenge hosting the site presented was the sheer scale of the potential load, with very large numbers of visitors expected to visit the website. Furthermore, as well as normal web content such as text and graphics, a fundamental requirement of the site was to serve up video streams.
Initial research by Victoria Real for Channel 4 indicated that the web host might have to handle in excess of six million page impression a day. Additionally the system would need to handle 10,000 concurrent Real video streams at 56Kbps as an average background load, with this load possibly rising to between 50,0000 and 80,000 concurrent streams at peak, when a popular event, such as an eviction from the house, is taking place.
To deal with this, the web host consists of a server farm of a minimum of 10 Sun Netra T1 web servers, and three Sun E420 quad servers running RealTrade. Load balancers and firewalls are also deployed to handle the load and provide high levels of security against malicious attacks by hackers.
Pushing content to the user
Because of the number of video streams being generated and the high load expected on the site, Victoria Real understood from the start that it would not be possible for one ISP to host Big Brother by itself, and that the co-operation of several ISPs would be needed.
Terra therefore deployed edge splitter servers in the premises of each of the main UK ISPs. Each splitter takes one individual stream and multiplies it into several hundred streams.
There's also a push client available for users who want to receive their Big Brother fixes automatically. Developed using Victoria Real's RealTrade software, the desktop application can be downloaded from the website.
It will be the first time that the UK has seen a multiple media project of such scale and significance, says Chris Short, content manager of interactive media at GMG Endemol.
"For several years, it has been apparent that the gap between the computer and the television is shrinking," he says. "Everyone talks about the convergence of media, but until now, no one can point a convincing finger at what that really means.
"To date, there have been two forms of broadcast entertainment in this country. Broadcast television was renowned for its production values, but devoid of any form of audience interactivity, while broadcast internet was high on interactivity but patchy when it came to quality content.
"Big Brother signals the end of those stereotypes and renders that type of thinking obsolete."
The concept of 'parallel broadcasting' is one that Short is embracing, and he is enthusiastic about the potential benefits for both mediums.
"Only via the internet do we have the opportunity and the infrastructure to offer 24-hour, multiple camera access to every part of a house for a global audience. This whole project is a dream come true for the internet community in the UK, but a dream which is now supported and endorsed by an enormous television audience."
Short presides over an editorial team of 18 on-site content providers. The team provides a constant stream of stories about the participants. Providing the technology behind this content is the work of Victoria Real, which set up the site.
"Conventional television is no longer the only way viewers can receive pictures in their homes. What is now a web casting trickle will inevitably become an unstoppable torrent," says Mark Baynes, Big Brother producer for Victoria Real.
"There have been web-based support sites for TV programmes before. There has been video available on the internet before. There have even been live pictures streamed through the internet before. However, we have never witnessed a media relationship where web users can watch, contribute to, and even influence the developments of a major TV series.
"We have helped to set several million people on a direction that hasn't been there before. Television is no longer a one-way street and that's because the internet has changed it all forever," says Baynes.
Not only did Victoria Real have to build a site that could give visitors a hands-on video experience, it also had to provide a gentle introduction to the internet for people who were previously only TV viewers. It's all very well having the latest in streaming technology, but it's no use if the visitor cannot navigate the site easily.
Delivering content to the desktop
Pushed content is the application that keeps up their interest. Victoria Real had to create a desktop station outside the web browser to do this. The application uses the company's RealTrade software to receive up-to-date news feeds, video streams and can even act as a Big Brother screensaver.
"The application will contain content adapted from the main Big Brother website such as interviews and photos of the contestants, details of how the TV programme works, and much more besides," claims Baynes.
The site has been built in three main stages since January. The first two stages concentrated on enticing visitors to get to know the programme concept, providing application forms to potential contestants and providing links so visitors could download Real Player 7 to view the video streams.
Victoria Real also built the custom-designed hardware and software that connects the 24 cameras in the house to the web host and the TV studio. This intranet encodes the TV feeds into RealMedia format in real-time and also hosts a content management system.
Video streams are encoded for 28, 56 and 300Kbps rates. The first two are aimed at home users with slower dial-up internet connections, and the latter rate is directed at people with cable modems, ADSL land leased lines - in other words, people watching the site at work.
The hardware behind the series
On the hardware side, seven Dell PCs are used for encoding, and four Dell workstations and PowerEdge servers for the content management system. This is then transmitted to the server farm of Sun Netra T1 servers and Sun E420 quad servers.
The Real streams are delivered onto the web through a system of 'edge splitter' servers installed at the main ISPs. These take a single stream from the central server and push out up to 500 copies. This relieves the strain on any one unit and enables the visitor to obtain a more reliable connection.
"The sheer size is the biggest challenge. Page impressions could be zero or they could be several million per day. The site also serves the largest number of video streams of any webcast so far - probably between 30,000 to 50,000 56Kbps concurrent streams," says Baynes.
So far the website has stood up well. It must be elastic enough if anything extraordinary happens in the house and web visitors log in for hours at a time.
Long term, the creation of more bandwidth will help, a point not lost on Jason George, creative director at Victoria Real. He believes that the onset of 'broader-band' networks will make shows such as Big Brother truly global.
"This example of 'parallel broadcasting' presages the future," says George. "Viewers will watch scheduled TV shows, but they will have the option to interact with an 'enhanced' version. Whether viewers experience this through their PC or TV doesn't matter."
Constructing the site
Building the Big Brother UK website posed many challenges for the Victoria Real team, primarily because of the huge potential load on the site.
The company, working closely in conjunction with Channel 4, Terra Networks, Real Networks and many other technology partners, managed to build a computing infrastructure that could easily support several ecommerce and content-serving operations. When the show is over, however, that infrastructure is useless. The company will have built a website worthy of a significant dotcom business from scratch, only for it to be thrown away after a few weeks.
"Even though we can't use the architecture after the show is finished, we have effectively built a prototype that we will draw on when we do similar projects in the future," says George.
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