Take Me Out to the Ballpark … NOT
LOS ANGELES—Sports broadcasting is one of the more demanding activities in television. Specially built trucks (or “OB Vans”) roll in the night before or perhaps the early morning. Utility crews and technicians converge and start rolling out cables and gear to be installed for the game later that day. The production truck (or trucks) is powered on, sometimes with shore power, sometimes with a generator, sometimes both. Inside, the production crew preps for the day, prebuilding effects and graphics, editing b-roll packages, checking the cameras and microphones, setting up comms, connecting back to the network center via fiber or satellite. As the game nears, the director meets with his camera crew, the producer works with the announcers, and everyone else is busy transitioning from setup to operations.
Crews are either locally sourced or travel in; hotel arrangements, local transport and meals are additional logistics to contend with. Veteran crews make it seem easy for the ‘A’ game, but not so much for the B- and C-level productions that may look more like an amateur team using antiquated gear.
It’s a crazy way to cover events that are prescheduled at locations visited many times during the year. But what if there was a way to produce the event from a central fixed location, maybe thousands of miles away? What if the local requirements could be reduced to the core functions while all the elaborate production is done from a full-time production facility with teams of well-trained production personnel? There would be no need for a large specialized vehicle, representing millions in television production equipment on wheels and no travel and hotel or meals to organize and pay for.
TWO DECADES OF EXPERIENCE
Well, it’s been happening for quite some time. In 1996, NBC Sports took advantage of Atlanta’s proximity to New York and leveraged their new digital equipment infrastructure (Genesis) rebuild at 30 Rockefeller Center to do preproduction and graphics builds for the Olympics, as well as highlight packages remotely in New York. All it took was multiple digital video circuits between the International Broadcast Center at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta and 30 Rock, the will to do it, and the coordination and communications to make it feasible.
In the last few years, sports networks have increased their efforts to enable “At Home” or REMI (REMote Integration) production, especially for college sports. The key factor is access to high bandwidth/low latency connectivity coupled with a flexible work force that can be trained to do the localized work needed at the remote site. Fixed facilities coupled with a small vehicle to transport the production gear (mainly cameras and microphones) to the stadium or arena enable the central production facility to put on live sporting events while located miles away.
Big Ten and Pac 12 were two of the first collegiate sports leagues to go down the At Home path. Then ESPN with the SEC Network as well as other college sports have deployed REMI to take advantage of the newly built all-IP production facility in Bristol, Conn. (DC2). But it hasn’t been just for college sports; ESPN used REMI extensively for the 2016 X-Games.
HOW DO THEY DO IT?
Aside from fiber interconnect with bi-directional Gb/s IP pathways, At Home productions have taken different approaches to the on-site equipment and operation. For some college sports, such as swimming/diving, wrestling, volleyball, etc., Pac 12 developed a mobile rack with all the terminal gear to interface to a high speed internet connection and deploy up to six cameras and microphones.
For larger events or outdoors, a small van or truck arrives on the scene and a small local crew deploys the equipment (cameras, microphones, terminal gear) and then operates the cameras and creates audio submixes. At some events, a hybrid approach is taken where there is both on-site production and camera and microphone signals are transmitted back to the central production facility.
For those events where fixed connectivity is not available, wireless connectivity via 4G/5G mobile bonded cellular can be used to stream camera signals to a central production facility. NESN, with production facilities in Boston, uses cellular camera backhaul to produce pre- and post-game coverage, live reports and press conferences at major sports events.
“The Switch,” a global media and transmission solutions provider focused on high quality live video transport, offers a cloud-based live production environment called “Cumulus.” Coupled with “Home Runs,” their video transmission service uses DTM (Dynamic Synchronous Transfer Mode) to enable At Home production. DTM, unlike IP, provides dedicated bandwidth with guaranteed QoS. By enhancing Home Runs with Cumulus, The Switch demonstrated a complete television production at the 2017 NAB Show that included a SkyCam aerial camera system--"Sky Command"--in Denver (Dick Sporting Good Park), with remote integration from The Switch studio facilities in London and Los Angeles with SMT's designed 3D graphics and patented Camera Tracker Technology, which allows virtual graphics to be inserterd over a moving camera, controlled by personnel located at The Switch booth in the Las Vegas Convention Center.
Meanwhile, over in Europe, an example of REMI—as well as cloud production—is in operation. The NEP Hilversum facility, just outside Amsterdam, has connectivity with a telecom provider that has access to high-speed IP connectivity to a variety of venues, including major soccer stadiums. By leveraging existing facilities at a media center in Hilversum, producers can book studios and control rooms, as well as telecom and data center functionality to produce an event, pay only for the time used and then move on while the next production moves in.
The latest event in Europe involved a REMI “proof-of-concept” that proved that live uncompressed camera signals can be sent over 1,000 miles to a production center where a live sports event is produced, with replays and graphics as well as enabling streaming, 360-degree VR and archiving functions. Gearhouse Broadcast, using gear and software from Snell Advanced Media (SAM), delivered live signals from the UEFA Under 21 Championship Final in Krakow, Poland, to the BT Sport Centre at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London. Five Sony HDC 4300 4k/HD camera signals were sent via dual redundant 100GB Ethernet links.
Live television requires tight teamwork; being on-site, working in close quarters, and knowing you are on your own at a remote site brings out the best in everyone. The downside is the cost and time lost due to travel, setup and breakdown. REMI and At Home brings the remote camera and audio signals back to a fixed facility, which can be used for multiple events throughout the year without having to travel thousands of miles, perform set up and breakdown multiple times. The production team is sourced locally so travel is minimized but the quality of production can be consistent.
But there is a clear requirement to make At Home work: reliable, affordable and low-latency transmission facilities between the remote site and the central production facilities, as well as the need for reliable, low-delay communication systems to coordinate between the remote site and the central production team. In addition, local camera operators, audio/coms specialists and other skilled operators have to be sourced. There is a growing shortage of people trained in these skills as the role of traditional broadcast operations shrink. Training new hires to replace retirees is going to be needed for At Home productions to be successful.
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?
As the “‘big kahuna” of production, live TV requires planning, reliability and attention to detail, while having the ability to pivot and deal with any contingency. At Home mitigates some of the risk by centralizing operations and facilities, thereby improving efficiency and reducing costs; but there is still the need to rely on local talent to operate the field equipment.
With the industry transitioning to a “cloud” approach, where all signals are in a data center, individual production team members can be anywhere as long as there is reliable, fast connectivity. However the key to successful REMI production will be access at all sites to a reliable, high-speed, low-latency telecom network that is both ubiquitous and cost-effective.
Jim DeFilippis is CEO of TMS Consulting, Inc., in Los Angeles. He can be reached at JimD@TechnologyMadeSimple.pro.