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Final Four underscores difficulty of mixed HD, SD teleproduction

Kevin Little (left) does a sound check with technicians on the court as part of his preparations.

The CBS Sports presentation of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Semi-Final and Championship games from the Edwards Jones Dome in St. Louis offers a glimpse into the promise and the peril of HD sports teleproduction.

While fans at home watching HDTV sets enjoyed the crisp 1080i pictures and game sound that brought them closer than ever to the game and viewers with NTSC sets saw the excellent production values they’ve come to take for granted, CBS Sports engineers, technicians and production personnel labored in the less-than-ideal world of producing a telecast based on compromise.

That compromise is the direct result of the transition the industry is making between analog and digital, NTSC and high definition. It surfaced in various ways and made a fairly large, but typical network sports production “difficult and complicated,” in the words of CBS Senior Vice President of Operations and Engineering Ken Aagaard.

For this year’s production of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, an HD camera that is small enough to mount behind the backboard Plexiglas was available.

A few of the difficulties and complications included:

  • Mixed video sources: For its pre-game show, CBS Sports had to draw on 4:3 SD historical footage, new material shot in 16:9 1080i HD and new material shot in HD 24P as well as integrate graphics –most of which but all originated in SD- and edit packages for 1080i HD playback that ultimately was broadcast and also downconverted for the majority of viewers.
  • Game clock stability: Small differences between the official time and the time on the scoreboard require CBS Sports to train a camera on the game clock below the 30-second shot clock for its on-screen clock. Even this camera had to be HD. Shooting the clock with an SD camera would have required a digital upconversion, which would have introduced a 1 second delay — a big no-no in basketball where outcomes are often decided in the waning seconds of a contest.
  • Audio mix compromises: CBS Sports did six audio mixes of the games: 6-channel, 5.1 Dolby Surround, 5-channel Pro Logic II, 4-channel Pro Logic, two-channel MTS and mono. In the words of freelance audio engineer Kevin Little who worked the games, “everything is a compromise” because of the requirements of the different mixes.
  • Additional backhaul requirements: Six separate channels — two each of Ku- and C-band satellite and fiber- provided redundant backhaul for SD and HD feeds from St. Louis to New York.

None of these challenges created insurmountable obstacles. In fact, this year’s HD production was easier in some ways than those that preceded it because critical pieces of HD gear, such as a small HD camera that could be mounted behind the backboard Plexiglas, actually now exist. However, new HD equipment can only do so much to relieve the growing pains.

Until the transition is complete, CBS Sports and every other network producing sports for television will face difficulties and complications in a production environment where the most important thing, namely a live game, can’t be fixed in post.

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