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IP technology for sports

It will not come as any surprise to you that the world of broadcasting is changing quickly. One of the drivers behind these changes is the development of IP video technologies. While IP video is providing challenges, it also opens up opportunities for broadcasters. One such opportunity is televising sporting events that might not normally be covered by professional broadcasters.

Describing the need

Every weekend there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of college sporting events taking place in the United States, but only a small fraction of these are nationally televised. While this is not a problem if you want to watch one of the major games, it is a real issue if your college is not in contention for a title or if your favorite sport is not a popular one. In the past, you would be out of luck. But recently, broadcasters have teamed up with sporting organizations to bring these events to your home using some unconventional methods.

The goal of many of these partnerships is to create a professional sports product that can be watched at the home or office using the Internet. These broadcasts do not have anything like the usual budgets for national sporting events, and therefore, the technical solutions developed must be cost-effective.

The process of providing relatively inexpensive cameras and switching equipment at a venue and bringing this signal back to a central distribution point is relatively straightforward. Also, several well-known commercial platforms exist for Internet distribution of streaming video. However, one particular component of sports production, the live interview, is quite challenging. But given cost constraints, innovative solutions are required. Here are some typical user requirements for this application:

  • Live bidirectional transmission;
  • Point-to-multipoint capability;
  • Available for use at all times;
  • Centralized remote control capability;
  • Ability to add/remove links as necessary; and
  • Central monitoring at the network operations center.

In addition to these user requirements, other issues must be considered:

  • Many if not all university venues have high-bandwidth IP connectivity available.
  • People are on-site and available to operate these facilities.
  • Universities generally support the idea of making sporting events more available to their students, faculty and alumni.

But let's consider these points in more detail. Regarding the first point, high-speed IP connectivity is generally much more available in the university environment than in the general business environment. But tailoring this connectivity to the requirements of broadcast TV can be difficult. Second, while it is true that highly enthusiastic people may offer to operate college broadcast facilities, generally speaking, their enthusiasm is higher than their technical knowledge, making it critical to either provide remote control capability or to make the operation of the equipment standardized and simple. Finally, universities may support these efforts, but funding can be limited.

The transmission medium and the equipment

When it comes to linking universities to the production facility, three choices are generally considered — dark fiber, satellite or compressed video over IP. While dark fiber provides excellent connectivity, this sort of connectivity is not typically available to connect a university to a remote production facility. Satellite transmission is well-known to the professional broadcaster, but it has limitations that make it unsuitable in this implementation. For example, satellite is not always on; satellite ground stations require users to get roof rights for permanent dishes, which can be tricky; and satellite can be cost-prohibitive. This leaves compressed video over IP.

Compressed video over IP is a good choice for the live interview situation for several reasons. As noted above, IP connectivity typically already exists, it is always available, and it is low latency.

That said, providing sufficient quality of service (QoS) for these interviews can be challenging in a campus environment. The industry has done a good job of developing standards around the transmission of MPEG-compressed video over IP networks. The SMPTE 2022 family of standards provides mapping and FEC protection for MPEG streams. But even with these standards, it is likely that connectivity between the universities and production facilities must be over dedicated networks. This is because the QoS provided over the ubiquitous Internet is not high enough for live interview situations.

Interestingly, quality is only one of the issues at work here. In order to maintain an acceptable level of quality at the viewer, typical Internet video applications employ FEC or other error correction methods that require significant amounts of latency. This latency is unacceptable in a live interview situation. Dedicated links are required, not just so that the picture quality is acceptable, but also so that the latency of the video path is acceptable. Again, the easiest solution is to allocate dedicated T1 circuits between the campus and the television production facility. While this requires some network engineering, creating T1 circuits between venues is well understood.

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Standardized equipment configuration is key

Having a standardized equipment package at each interview location is critical for support and for remote operations. These packages typically include two-way video and audio (similar to video conferencing setups), with remote control cameras that can be controlled at the production facility. But the equipment configuration goes far beyond conventional video conferencing. Here are some other requirements for these remote venues:

  • IFB audio;
  • Pro microphone audio;
  • PBX access (extension of studio telephone system);
  • Studio lighting and HVAC control (optional);
  • Access to show rundown system (optional);
  • Prompter (optional); and
  • Camera robotics control (optional).

Items such as IFB and professional microphone audio are clear, but other items on this list need some explanation. In most studio applications, having a remote location as an extension on the studio phone system can be an extremely useful tool for event coordination. This is an often overlooked, but easy to implement feature for remote interview applications, especially with IP-based phone systems.

Another feature that is easy to implement but frequently overlooked is remote control of interview studio lighting and HVAC. Being able to turn on studio lights and air-conditioning from a production studio allows the production crew to have the facility up and ready for an interview as soon as personnel arrive. In some cases, this can mean the difference between getting an interview and losing the opportunity because the interviewee does not have time to wait around while the technical crew gets the space ready for use. Furthermore, being able to cool the room down ahead of the interview may avoid excessive heat in the room if the air-conditioning gets behind the lighting heat at the beginning of the interview.

Remote access to the show rundown system, prompter and camera robotics control are other optional features that may not be employed in this particular scenario, but may be employed in other remote studio interview applications.

Space does not allow me to talk about how these shows are integrated and transmitted. Briefly, live interviews are integrated in a production facility, and shows are then streamed to the Internet using any one of a number of commercial products. Typically, these shows are part of a larger Web presence that may make available past games, interviews and many other items related to the sporting event being covered. To see an example of this sort of technology at work, view the Big Ten Network at www.bigtennetwork.com.

Brad Gilmer is president of Gilmer & Associates and executive director of the Advanced Media Workflow Association.

Send questions and comments to: brad.gilmer@penton.com