Broadcaster tests hi-def waters, while stateside coverage remains in SD
| Twenty-nine of the 65 cameras the BBC will use to cover Wimbledon will be HD.|
With European broadcasters showing this month's two major sporting events-the World Cup soccer tournament and Wimbledon Tennis Championships in hi-def, June is shaping up to be an important month in Europe's march towards HDTV.
The BBC's Principle Technologist, Andy Quested, is upbeat about the network's year-long trials with high definition television. Although the simultaneous scheduling of the two events (Wimbledon will coincide with the last two weeks of the World Cup), was expected to shrink the audience for tennis' most prestigious tournament, Wimbledon was a must-win for its host broadcaster.
"[The test] is a combination of a traditional engineering trial, a bit of fun, and a serious public value test of HD as a free-to-air, off-the-shelf service," Quested said. "The BBC is reapplying for its charter-we have to apply for licenses for all new services and account for it with an audience survey. We have to deliver this on all platforms."
The main challenge is "logistics, not the technology," he said, specifically "concatenation issues" in "joining the bits up" along the transmission chain, which would include different codecs as well as untested equipment, specifically encoders and decoders.
For acquisition, the BBC will use 65 cameras in all, 29 of which will be in HD: 16 Sony HD cameras (HDC1500 and HDC950), six HDC950s with split-head operation; five Thomson LDK6200 SuperSloMo HD systems; and two HD radio cameras (the last for the Finals only). There will also be 31 SD camera systems, four SD Super SloMo systems and a robotic tracking camera.
The equipment list also includes five HD LSM models (XT and XT2) from EVS (as well as 10 EVS SD models), five Sony HD video recorders for production and archives (HDW-F500 and DVW-M2000 models), and the Avid Unity MediaNetwork.
BBC Resources Ltd.'s contracted mobile unit will send the signal via satellite to the Siemens contribution switching area in the BBC Television Centre, which will transmit it via fiber to Red Bee Media (a former BBC business unit) for play out and continuity, with a return trip via fiber to Siemens' distribution switching area.
Subcribers to Telewest, the U.K.'s largest cable company, will receive the HD signal from an access point to the Telewest system in the switching area at the BBC Television Centre, (NTL acquired Telewest in March 2006; NTL's own system will not be ready in time for HD coverage of Wimbledon, said Quested). For satellite providers, the HD signal will be coded and bundled with other services and distributed by the Astra satellite. For DTT, it would be packaged with other terrestrial channels and sent to South London's Crystal Palace transmitter, then to a closed-trial audience supplied by the BBC with 400-500 set-top boxes. The DTT boxes would be "ready for collection" in late May, said Quested.
The BBC's "first major test of all the links and interfaces" occurred in early May, with a test stream promo slated for the middle of the month. The first live HD program was to be the opening World Cup match: Germany versus Costa Rica on Friday, June 9.
By mid-May, Telewest customers had their cable set-top boxes, HD VOD service and TVDrive personal video recorder (that also gives access to all other Telewest digital TV products and services, including interactive apps and the Teleport library of movies and programming). HD costs subscribers an extra £10-£15 per month, plus installation charges.
BSkyB estimated that viewers had bought about 700,000 HDTV sets by the end of 2005, and in early May 2006, the satellite TV provider announced that 40,000 Sky HD installations had already been pre-booked. It is charging an additional £10 per month for its HD service, as well as extra fees to reserve and install receivers.
But by mid-May, BSkyB customers angrily protested on BBC's Breakfast TV morning show that their set-top boxes wouldn't be installed in time for the World Cup or Wimbledon tournaments. Sky's official HD launch date was scheduled for May 22, in line with its first public HD installations.
This year's HD trial is actually the second for Wimbledon. In 1989, a European Broadcast Union project called "Eureka 95" used a 1250 line analog system to provide HD coverage of the event. Strictly an R&D project, the HD coverage did not go to air, said Quested.
"It looked fantastic," said John Rowlinson, Director of Television for the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, which hosts the event. "But at that time you needed another set of cameras on Centre Court-Centre Court is very small, about 30,500 people. [In 2006] we only wanted one set of cameras on the court."
This time, said Quested, the BBC will use "one HD-capable truck" to cover the action solely on Centre Court and Court One. Changes on the premises will be minor.
"There may be some extra cabling required within the grounds so that people can monitor it-something 100 meters from the truck-maybe one or two other feeds within the grounds for the hospitality marquee," said Rowlinson.
Quested noted that negotiations were also ongoing for a bigger pipe.
"HD is adding 25-30 percent more bandwidth requirements than our total standard definition requirements," he said. "We're hiring extra bandwidth. We don't use our own infrastructure, we hire third parties by bits per second."
GET THE GREMLINS OUT
"This year is very much an experiment, but it's not a bad way to introduce [HD], to get the gremlins out of the system," said Rowlinson. "By 2007, hopefully, the Americans will be far more on board with this and it will make a bit more of a name."
He noted that neither NBC nor ESPN-who "we hoped would take either in addition to the standard definition or maybe just alone the HD feed"-will not be taking it for transmission purposes, though both are interested in monitoring it. (An NBC executive concurred, telling TV Technology that the network passed on carrying the finals and semifinals in HD because "they are a small part of our coverage in volume and would need HD standards conversion which is somewhat problematic right now.")
Rowlinson said that NHK and Sky Italia were also interested in getting the HD feed, though, at presstime, they have yet to commit to carrying the to transmission.