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Last year the Dutch Parliament felt it necessary to allow its constituents greater access to its discussion processes. After one year of work on the revolutionary state project Inter Visual Systems was presented with an InAVation award for a solution, comprising mobile camera units and a clever software system.
Every week Dutch politicians gather at Tweede Kamer der Staten-Generaal (The Dutch House of Representatives) in The Hague to discuss a wide range of issues in plenary sessions and committee meetings. It is important for the democratic process that parliamentary proceedings are transparent and accessible. Although the House is open to the public and political debates are broadcast, the Parliament felt that in this day and age new technologies could be utilised to make their activities even more visible.
Information is propelled into the public sphere in two ways. Firstly the media is used as a conduit. Journalists will report on the activities of the House and will select information to disseminate to the public based on relevance. Secondly the Parliament provides audiovisual content to the public. It does not select the information that it broadcasts but instead offers all content covering all public debates and parliamentary proceedings.
Since 1998 the Parliament has utilised regional and commercial broadcasting services for recording, producing and distributing all plenary debates. Rob Fransen, manager of AV systems and content at the Parliament said the images provided by the public and commercial broadcasters in the plenary room were ‘perfect’ but other rooms had to be considered. Although the Plenary Hall is considered the main focus of the country’s political process, by the time debates reach this stage standpoints have often been made and proceedings are predictable. More often than not the interesting discussions take place beforehand in smaller committee rooms. A “Top-Shot camera” has always covered these rooms but Fransen said this wasn’t considered sufficient. If better quality coverage was required a camera crew had to be commissioned, at great expense and inconvenience, to cover the meeting.
In 2007 Dutch systems integration company, Inter Visual Systems began work on creating an audiovisual solution to make it easier and cheaper to broadcast the proceedings within all rooms. The system had to meet webcast standards but also needed to produce the quality required for broadcast applications. Therefore a varied team - comprising all public Dutch televisions, represented by the NOS (Netherlands Broadcasting Authority); RTL, commercial television channel and all Dutch regional television channels – was assembled to carry out the project.
JVC KY-F 560E multi purpose cameras, fitted with AMX positioning controllers, were installed to cover three large committee chambers. “Each room has three cameras,” said Fransen, “with the goal of creating automatic broadcasting”. Fully-automated directing was made possible by utilising interconnection of the three robot cameras in each room to speech equipment. A Netlinx NI-700 integrated controller handles control, with Extron covering switching and distribution. Kramer supplied audio distribution amplifiers.
Inter Visual’s Gerard Langenbach managed the project and said the crux of the install was developing the software for the automated directing. “Normally, what happens is a button, from the discussion system is pressed and a camera follows the button. For example, speaker 11 starts talking and the camera follows them.
“We were invited to develop a system that is more intelligent than that. For example, when you have a discussion with very short exchanges then you have to switch very fast. That’s not a picture people want to look at. The camera needs to sit back a little bit and take some wider shots rather than continually switching close-ups. Depending on where the speakers are, and their positions, you can choose between one camera in a total or semi-total shot or two different cameras that don’t switch at the touch of a button.
“On the other hand you can have a speaker talking for 15 or 25 minutes and then it becomes very boring. In this situation we would switch shots, for example showing views from the German Parliament or other speakers to create more interest. We call this system a semi-directorial based switching system - one that doesn’t simply follow the microphones.”
Inter Visual Systems also constructed portable sets, one with cameras and one without. The permanent system can be connected with a portable set to create a mobile directing unit with automated features such as ENG cameras. This enables the connection of more (automated) cameras but also supports manual control or manual intervention. Fransen said the mobile units were used for important events, taking place within the committee rooms, that required better coverage than the automatic system could supply. “If a discussion or event attracts a lot of interest from the broadcasters then we generally place a mobile unit within the concerned committee room,” he added.
The mobile systems are also used for recording at other locations, within and outside the Parliament buildings. A large portable directing set is used for manual directing of events, on location and within the Parliament buildings. A smaller compact portable directing set is used for manual direction of events on location, and may also be used at other locations within the country. A separate three-camera unit is used for recording on location and can also be connected to the portable directing sets. A separate Panasonic ENG camcorder is used, amongst other things, as a shoulder camera for real-time short recordings within a framework of vodcasts or quick impressions of important events. Finally, an editing set allows independent processing and production of audiovisual footage.
Each set incorporates a Grass Valley Indigo mixer and Rane stereo compressors. Beyerdynamic equipment was chosen for studio headphones and headsets incorporating microphones. The mobile sets also utilise Netlinx control and the set with cameras employs JVC equipment including LCD monitors, an input board, multipurpose cameras, output cards and remote control. Cameras on the mobile set are controlled with AMX products and Extron equipment was selected for distribution. Furthermore, an Extron computer-to-video scan converter was utilised and Kramer handles switching. The portable set without cameras incorporates additional LCD racks from Marshall for directorial use.
Output provided by these systems is of broadcast quality and is used by Dutch television channels. Additionally anyone interested in the parliamentary process can log onto www.tweedekamer.nl and go to “live debatten”. Here users can tune in for live webcasting of committee debates from Monday to Thursday. Furthermore, in the Netherlands, there is a digital broadcasting service, provided by a public broadcaster, called Politics24.
It was not easy to implement such a solution in a Parliament building, especially as there was a tight production schedule. Inter Visual was constrained by limited construction and testing opportunities, having to wait until parliamentary meeting rooms were available. This meant they invariably had to work during recesses and at weekends. Furthermore the system could not disrupt or influence the meeting order whatsoever and Inter Visual Systems had no prior examples they could look to for inspiration, instead relying on trial and error.
“We struggled a little to fit the whole project into a small space of time,” said Fransen. “We had to complete the project in more-or-less one year and, as we are a government, we also had to go through the process of a European tender. We managed to complete the tender process in three to four months so we had the other months left to implement the project.”
The project was financed by the Dutch Government and had a limited budget of approximately €500,000. Funding was a complicated matter as a system of “Dualism” is in operation in the Netherlands. Whilst the Government governs and executes, the Parliament verifies. This does not normally allow for direct assignment and financing from the Government toward the Parliament. However, in this instance, the availability of more and better quality images from Parliament provided benefits for both parties.
With so many different organisations, desiring particular outcomes from the project, conflicting interests had to be aligned. The profit-oriented commercial broadcasters are mainly concerned with efficiency and cost-containment. The public stations, as public service providers, are concerned with as much content as possible. The regional broadcasters have little budget and no widely connected infrastructure for distribution of their programmes. The Parliament isn’t a broadcaster but needs to webcast, whilst the Government, as the financier, wants value for money in the form of better and more images of its ministers.
In addition to the web streaming benefits the installation provides, it means the Government can cover plenary debates without having to commission camera crews, saving them money and boosting versatility. The Dutch Ministry of Education, Cultural Affairs and Science and the Dutch Ministry of General Affairs also participated in the project with technical project support provided by Dave Buch of Otten Media Consultancy.
Fransen has received an enthusiastic response following implementation of the project. “People can follow debates much better,” he said. “We had a lot of demand because people want to watch debates from their homes or workstations via the webcasting service. We get a lot of positive feedback and the quality of the images is great. For us it’s a huge success because we could never afford three producers for each room. We had to find a technical solution. That technical solution has now proved hugely successful and will pay for itself in the long run.”