Sanjay Talwani /
01.22.2003 12:00 AM
Big Games Spur HD Investment
Trucks rebuild to meet needs of 2003

WASHINGTON

The players get bigger, the hits get harder and the tickets get more expensive. And in 2003, pro football producers will build and use brand-new high-definition systems to bring coverage of the sport to its next level.

The Super Bowl returns to HD Jan. 26 after a three-years absence. The big mobile production companies are reworking their top trucks with new HD equipment, in large part for Monday and Sunday night games on ABC and ESPN. And broadcast HDTV leader CBS delivered the AFC Divisional Playoffs and Conference Final in 1080i HD this month, in addition to its extensive lineup of HD college football games.

The logistics of HD production, along with ever-growing expectations in graphics and audio, will provide new challenges and advances for the crews who bring sports to the fans. And unlike many earlier HD ventures sponsored by HD equipment manufacturers, the new round of high-end pro football means production units are more free to find the best possible equipment for the new era.

"There should be a huge volume of experience" coming out of the 2003-2004 season, said George Hoover, VP of operations and engineering for Pittsburgh-based NEP Super Shooters, which will handle ESPN's Sunday night games, some Major League Baseball and the 2003 Academy Awards, among other productions.

COMPETING FOR POSITION

In San Diego, ABC will tackle the Super Bowl in some ways as it did back in the 20th century-with parallel HD and analog acquisition and production teams.

ABC says it's worth the cost.

"We decided all the way back then on our commitment to moving high definition ahead," said Preston Davis, the network's president of broadcast operations and engineering. "ABC decided to take a leadership position in the future of TV."

In addition to the usual complement of cameras for the analog production, up to a dozen 12 Ikegami HD cameras will catch the action in widescreen 720p for the lucky thousands with HDTVs and tuners.

"We're still working on the logistics," Davis said. "The conflict is [that] there are only a certain number of [camera] positions available in a given stadium."

The HD images will flow to a truck owned by Clear Channel Television; it's the same truck that was owned by Panasonic when it sponsored ABC's 1999 HDTV football season, but it's been since reconfigured somewhat.

Not every last detail of the HDTV program will actually be HD. Some replays and historical footage may be upconverted. As for graphics, the Chyron Duets in the truck are capable of HD action, but may not be called upon, depending on whether the team can get the correct digital interface to process the statistics, clock and other data from the stadium's scoreboard computer, Davis says. That decision had not been made as of late December.

"I think it's possible," Davis said. "The question is, can we get the hardware, and at what cost?"

MONDAY (AND SUNDAY) NIGHT MAYHEM

Lessons learned at the Super Bowl may help work out the kinks in time for the 34th season of "Monday Night Football" this fall. Handling the HD production of each game will be a brand-new multiformat HD truck being built by Los Angeles-based National Mobile Television (NMT).

Because the truck will capture and feed in 720p, 1080i, 480p and SDI, ABC can scrap its dual-production system. Productions will include 20 or more cameras.

Jerry Gepner, president of NMT and a longtime executive at Fox Sports, says the company hadn't yet completely settled on what equipment would stock the new vehicles, slated to cost somewhere past $9 million. The company is doing "shootouts," testing equipment side by side to see to see which product breaks first.

"It's a tedious process," he says, "But, particularly when technology is changing so rapidly, it's a very, very necessary component."

A standard-definition digital truck would be easier, Gepner says, and NMT has a dozen of those, and a shopping list already in place. "But with HD, right now we want to look at the camera offerings, we want to look at the monitoring options, you want to reexamine everything because you've got a chance to," he says. "And the problem is that almost daily, manufacturers are coming out with improved products with new innovations and feature sets."

Some of the equipment will come from Thomson Grass Valley, which last month announced a $6 million sale to NMT to stock its new multiformat HD truck. Equipment in the deal includes 22 Thomson LDK-6000 MKII HD cameras, a 512 x 512 Trinix routing system, a 256 x 256 Stereo Concerto audio router and production switching systems.

Thomson Grass Valley has also made an $8 million sale to NEP Supershooters and $3 million deals with each of two other companies.

NMT already has three HD trucks among its fleet of 46 (including four in the United Kingdom) and produces about 6,000 programs a year including about 350 in HD. Gepner estimates a price premium of 50 to 100 percent for HD.

Buying the best equipment for high-end trucks is a "moving target," Gepner says. Less and less, single companies are clear quality leaders across multiple product areas.

Complicating matters more is the multiple formats demanded by the different networks. ABC and ESPN run 720p HD, CBS is 1080i and Fox is 480p.

"I would use the word nightmare and I wouldn't be exaggerating," Gepner says. "Every choice you make today is a compromise. There is no clear path."

After the wild-card games ended, NEP took its Sunday Night Football truck in for a two-month upgrade with equipment including a Thomson Grass Valley XtenDD HD switcher, which will be replaced in June with a Kalypso. The trucks will use Thomson LDK-6000 HD cameras, capable of acquiring in virtually any format now in use anywhere in the world, Hoover says. They also work on triax cables, which is important in stadiums that are not at the fore of cabling infrastructure.

ALL-PRO PRODUCTION

Whatever equipment is used, football production is a maze of camera and audio feeds, graphics and data, slow-motion replays, highlights packages and tactical discussions with the on-air announcers.

At a recent Redskins-Giants game in Washington's FedEx Field-one of two broadcast by Fox each week in 16:9-Technical Producer Bob Muller, Director Sandy Grossman and Producer Bob Stenner-a team with three Super Bowls to its credit-viewed some widescreen monitors with the 4:3 screen marked off by pieces of tape; mid-truck, operators worked five Sony VTRs with DNF slow-motion controllers and two more techies at a pair of EVS six-channel (four-in, two-out) super-slow-motion systems cranked footage back and forth responding to master control's rapid-fire orders. Smaller rooms further back in the truck included a station remotely controlling iris, color-correction and other camera functions; another area housed the transmission room, connecting the truck to Williams Corp.'s Vyvx system to send the signals to Fox Sports control in Los Angeles.

Crews in a separate graphics truck produced the Chyron images, the "Fox Box" (the strip of onscreen real-time clock and game information) and other features such as the virtual first-down line (by Sportvision).

It takes plenty of math to get that yellow stripe on the TV in the right place, disappearing as the players move over it. Among the variables: the field of play isn't flat; it's crowned, in some cases as much as a couple of feet higher at the center than on the sidelines. This makes the yard-lines curved, not straight-and the computer tools must accommodate. So, the first crew on each field at the start of the season surveys it and shares the necessary data with the other Sportvision crews.

Audio too has improved over the last several years. At many games, sounds from the field are submixed in the broadcast booth on a 16-channel mixer. Four parabolic mics on the sidelines bring us the the sound of crunching bodies; and a mic on the umpire is opened from when huddle breaks until just after the snap, picking up the quarterback calling signals.

There's even a mic strapped to each goalpost, which comes into play mainly if a ball hits the structure. "It's basically a big tuning fork," Muller said.

For the future, some network officials promise some surprises soon, but won't elaborate on the unfinished work. "Sometimes you'll develop something-we think of it as a tool or a toy-and if you give it to five people, you get seven different uses," said Court. "They'll start doing things with it we never would have thought of. I'm just still constantly amazed at how that happens."


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