Hoop's eye view of CBS' Final Four coverage

CBS Sports' production of the NCAA men's basket ball semi-final and championship games from the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis this year in many ways was a microcosm of the larger television industry as it works its way through the transition from SD to HD television service.

Like the industry as a whole, CBS Sports' primary goal is simple to understand but not as simple to accomplish: Do nothing to jeopardize the integrity of the production of the games for the majority of viewers who still watch in standard definition, while maximizing the inherent benefits of HD for those with HDTV sets.

The result from a teleproduction point of view was an effort that CBS Sports Senior Vice President of Operations and Engineering Ken Aagaard describes as difficult and complicated. Specifically, the network had to overcome obstacles, explore options and exploit opportunities presented by working in a mixed HD-SD environment for each aspect of the production, including acquisition, editing, graphics and audio. But above all, it couldn't allow problems to arise for SD viewers in the process of producing its 1080i HD coverage for the growing number of HD viewers.

Full court press

CBS Sports began rolling into St. Louis from the various regional tournament sites on March 28. By late in the afternoon, teleproduction trailers from NEP SuperShooters — two of the trailers so new to the NEP fleet that “NMT,” the previous trailer owner's name, was still visible through a quick paint job on the sides — were on site inside the Edward Jones Dome. Behind a huge curtain that cut the home of the NFL St. Louis Rams down to size for the college basketball championship, some 200 CBS operations, technical and production personnel prepared for tip-off of the semi-finals Saturday, April 2 and the championship game Monday, April 4.

Nationally, interest the Final Four is huge. According to USA Today, a ticket to this year's event was the fourth hardest to get of all sporting events, and a Nielsen Media Research estimate showed the popularity carried over to TV audiences as well. A total of 45.6 million people watched the North Carolina Tar Heels defeat the Illinois Fighting Illini to win the national championship. So it's easy to understand why CBS pulls out all of the stops to produce the games.

On the floor of dome, sat multiple teleproduction trailers, including:

  • an NEP pre-game and game mobile units with Grass Valley brand Thomson Kalypso production switchers and Trinix 128×256 routing switchers
  • a house expando trailer used for pre-game and game graphics production with two Pinnacle Systems DeckoCasts, an SGI graphics system for scoring, a back-up graphics scoring system from SportsMEDIA Technology, a game statistics graphics display system from SportsMEDIA Technology and the Coaches' Edge screenwriter
  • a house trailer with four Avid editing suites for pre-produced game packages.

In total, CBS Sports used 16 cameras to cover the finals, including Grass Valley LDK 6000 MK II WorldCams; specialty HD cameras from Ikegami mounted behind each clear backboard; and robotic cameras stationed overhead in the scoreboard gondola, on the score table, below it and in the hallway to cover the teams as they entered and left the floor.

Tape machines and playback required four Sony HDM2000 multiformat HD/SD VTRs, three EVS LSM network servers with the ability to make Super SloMo HD footage immediately available for game use and two EVS LSMs for pre-game playout. Audio was mixed with a Solid State Logic MT Plus with 96 inputs on large faders and another 96 on small faders. Between 110 and 120 inputs were required to mix the games.

Production of the tournament was in 1080i HD, though there were some SD sources that required upconversion, including most graphics, such as lower-thirds originating as 16:9 SD graphics that were 4:3 safe, and a few camera sources. The biggest mixed bag of formats had to be preproduced edited packages requiring historical SD footage, 24p sources and HD material.

Out of the Kalypso production switcher, one feed was downconverted for the network's SD audience and another remained in 1080i. CBS Sports encoded both the SD and HD signal with the Harris Broadcast MPEG2 Flexicoder before using a triple-redundant combination of Ku- and C-band uplinks and Vyvx HD VenueNet fiber transmission for backhaul to the network's New York headquarters.

Obstacles and opportunities

The obstacles and opportunities of working in a mixed SD-HD environment manifested themselves in interesting and unusual ways in St. Louis. Obviously, game action was strictly shot in HD. However, SD cameras offered a way to economize on certain shots. For example, brief shots from relatively dim lit halls leading from the locker room to the floor wouldn't suffer much from SD.

Another shot that wouldn't seem to suffer much from SD pickup is the game clock that's keyed over screen. However, first appearances can be deceiving. CBS Sports shot the game clock under the players' shot clock atop the backboard with a dedicated HD camera to avoid running the signal through an upconverter. Using an upconverter would have introduced a one-second delay during the conversion process — a definite no-no for coverage of a sport where the outcome can literally be decided within the last second of a game. Shooting the clock in the gondola or elsewhere in the dome was out of the question, because they can be off from the official game clock.

Audio in a mixed SD and HD environment presents its own unique set of opportunities and obstacles. HD with its 5.1 surround audio gave CBS Sports a way to enhance the viewing experience of its HD viewers, helping them feel as if they were amid the fans. However, like everything else about producing the game in a mixed format environment, the use of surround sound's full potential is limited by the underlying need not to create problems for the SD audience.

“Everything [related to audio] is a compromise because of the different formats,” says Kevin Little, an audio engineer who worked the games for CBS Sports. For CBS Sports, that compromise meant six audio mixes of the game, including 6 channel surround, 5.1 channel surround, 5 channel Pro Logic, 4 channel Pro Logic, stereo and mono.

Fade to Black

This was the sixth year CBS Sports produced the tournament in HD. So, the demands of producing the high-profile event in HD are nothing new. However, as the HD audience numbers grow from a handful of early adopters to a sizeable audience, so does the pressure.

Aagaard says he is keenly aware of the growing HD audience filled with a lot of influential people watching the HD presentation. It's not that Aagaard and the CBS Sports team didn't care before, “but the pressure wasn't sitting on you,” he says.

Six years ago, the HD production of the games was separate from the network's SD presentation. There were separate trucks and even separate announcers for the HD production. “In some ways, we were doing [the HD production] for ourselves and were able to experiment,” says CBS Sports' Aagaard.

Add the demands of doing one HD show that's downconverted for the majority of viewers still watching an SD presentation with the size of the production and it's easy to understand why Aagaard describes teleproduction of the Final Four as difficult and complicated.

Regardless of the demands, however, Aagaard is proud of what CBS Sports has accomplished. “We've come a long way … but it is always a struggle,” he says.

Phil Kurz authors several Broadcast Engineering e-newsletters, including “News Technology Update,” “RF Update,” “IBC Update” and “Sports Technology Update.”

Phil Kurz

Phil Kurz is a contributing editor to TV Tech. He has written about TV and video technology for more than 30 years and served as editor of three leading industry magazines. He earned a Bachelor of Journalism and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism.