The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo

A Barco iStudio virtual monitor wall lets HLSR select from 10 pre-built configurations and supports the production’s unusual aspect ratio requirements, including 4:3, 16:9 and 32:9, on the same wall.

The contrast couldn't be more striking. Out there in the cavernous expanse of Houston's Reliant Stadium, amid the dust and the din, are the broncs, the bulls, the cowboys and the crowd. In here, behind innocuous security doors at Reliant Center, is a cool, clean, modern video production facility where directors, TDs, CG operators and a variety of other production personnel work in unison, far removed from the chaos.

These two disparate worlds collide for 20 days each year and co-mingle to produce the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo (HLSR), one of the largest rodeo events in the world.

Video is critically important to the success of the event — a charitable undertaking that has awarded more than $100 million in scholarships to area students since 1957. HLSR, the sole AV contractor for Reliant Park, has invested about $8 million in video and audio production equipment and $3 million in cabling and engineering. It's invested another $75 million in the construction of Reliant Stadium, becoming partners with the NFL Houston Texans' franchise in the building.

HLSR feeds 72 closed-circuit video channels throughout the complex. Eight are the company's original programming, including rodeo action, information channels with livestock-show scheduling and a sponsorship channel. Fifty-two come from partner DIRECTV. The others are used as needed.

Besides producing Rodeo Houston coverage to feed Reliant Park's closed-circuit system and stadium display, the AV contractor distributes rodeo coverage as live pay-per-view events on DIRECTV and other taped action on ESPN. This year, three nights of rodeo action appeared on DIRECTV.

After each day's rodeo, a mobile, self-propelled stage creeps from one end of Reliant Stadium to the center of the floor, where country music stars perform nightly concerts. HLSR provides video and audio support for the concerts as well.

But the most important thing video does for the rodeo is provide a narrative and context for the casual rodeo fan seated in the stands. Few have little more than a passing familiarity with the sport. Providing narrative and context is a big point of focus for the video presentation — an estimated 95 percent of the people watching the event are not into rodeo. It is the HLSR broadcast and audiovisual services division's job to make it as easy as possible for them to watch and have fun.

A Thomson Grass Valley Kalypso switches rodeo action coverage and a Zodiak drives sponsorship fulfillment on the two 96x27-foot video displays. Pictured are Bill Bradley and Zoli Vajda.

Easy and fun

Easy and fun aptly describes the fan experience, but there's nothing simple about the production. It takes 55 people, 15 cameras, thousands of feet of triax, four video switchers, a sizable wideband routing switcher, multiple character generators and digital effects units, more than a dozen digital videotape machines, linear and nonlinear editors, audio production equipment, and a bevy of other gear to pull off the production. Rodeo Houston requires 100 percent of the contractor's technical and production capacity. By contrast, a Houston Texans game requires 30 percent.

Reliant Stadium is awash in video display. Suspended from the stadium's retractable roof are six 28×16-foot Lighthouse LED indoor displays for larger-than-life views of the action. At either end of the stadium are 96×27-foot, 32:9 aspect ratio display walls that display standings and statistics as well as sponsorship messages.

Elsewhere in the stadium, video is a little more intimate. In the four main quadrants of the concourse, 16×9-foot rear projectors keep wandering fans apprised of what's happening on the show floor. At the clubs located around the stadium, fans can watch in HD while stopping by for a beverage. And, in the boxes surrounding the stadium, four monitors are tuned to HLSR coverage while a fifth is suspended above the seating outside the box. Another 1500 4:3 displays scattered throughout Reliant Park display rodeo action, livestock coverage and scheduling information.

HLSR uses three separate audio studios to support its Rodeo Houston production; in the main room is a 64-input Amek Recall console used to control all live feeds, and Yamaha DM2000 consoles are the centerpieces of the surround and concert audio rooms.

The centerpiece of the studio is a Barco iStudio virtual monitor wall that fully supports the 32:9 display requirement of Reliant Stadium. The contractor chose the virtual monitor wall for its ability to display 4:3, 16:9 and 32:9 at the same time. The only alternative would be to use masked-off CRTs, which were considered much less appealing. The studio has 10 prebuilt monitor-wall configurations that can be called up with the touch of a button to support work related to Rodeo Houston. Three modules, each capable of displaying 30 SDI sources, make up the wall.

HLSR relies on Thomson Grass Valley Kalypso and Zodiak production switchers in the main control room and an Accom Abekas 8150 and Sony DFS700 in offline suites that can serve live production if needed. Operators use the Kalypso switcher to switch rodeo action coverage, and the Zodiak for sponsorship fulfillment on the 32:9 end-zone displays.

Reliant Center's mixed 4:3, 16:9 SD, 16:9 1080i HD and 32:9 (two side-by-side 16:9 SD channels) display requirements are reflected in the studio. The facility's primary emphasis is 16:9 SD, which is upconverted for HD display where needed and cropped for the 4:3 displays scattered throughout Reliant Park. Ninety-five percent of everything appearing on the 4:3 monitors comes out of 16:9. There are times the AV contractor needs to put in a 4:3 insert, like a sponsor-supplied message. In those cases, it will actually switch to a playout of that and cut back to the 16:9 being produced.

A Thomson Grass Valley 250×250 7500WB wideband digital routing switcher feeds any source to any production switcher over CAT-6 cabling. The facility's routing switcher, patch bays and cables are all HD-capable, although the facility is strictly SD. The routing switcher operates in a 192×128 configuration but is prewired for easy expansion. Additionally, HLSR uses Thomson Grass Valley modular signal conversion products and DAs, the Encore router and facility control system, and the NetCentral software application to monitor the health of the entire system from a PC. The company chose Thomson as a single-source vendor for major pieces of equipment to achieve seamless integration.

Four Pinnacle Systems Dekocast character generators play a prominent role in the main studio. Each is responsible for a specific task, including creation of the statistics channel, rodeo timer, rodeo scoring and internal InfoNet channel. A fifth serves as a backup. Two FXDeko IIs feed lower-thirds from the main studio, while two DVEXCELs deliver effects. Two Pinnacle Systems Lightning 1000s assist the FXDekoIIs by delivering preproduced graphics.

Adjacent to the studio is a rack room that is home to the routing switcher, tally control, signal converters, DAs, DIRECTV receivers, modulation equipment for closed-circuit distribution, CCUs and triax terminations from 28 camera stadium positions.

In another area, a Thomson Grass Valley Profile video file server, an EVS LSM-ST networkable production server, 16 Digital Betacam machines and a four-channel Pinnacle Systems Thunder combo still/clip store serve up the features, promos and commercials seen in the stadium, as well as most of the video seen on the information channels throughout Reliant Park.

Three audio control rooms handle sound for HLSR. In the main audio room, a 64-input Amek Recall console controls all feeds leaving from and arriving at the facility. Here, the contractor mixes and monitors the stadium's audio. It also uses the main audio room to create all of the mixes and submixes stored on tape.

In the surround audio room, a Yamaha DM2000 creates a surround mix of the show that's tracked to tape. It also mixes program sound on the nights the rodeo is broadcast. During the rest of the year when there is no rodeo, the room serves as a ProTools workstation-based audio production room.

The concert audio room has two functions. It tracks all concert sources to multitrack recorders and creates the stereo mix that is stored on tape, modulated and then fed to Reliant Center's closed-circuit monitors. The key equipment in this room includes two Yamaha DM2000s, 48 channels of Tascam DA88 and a 48-channel Radar hard-drive recorder.

In the stadium

Few in the audience at the rodeo could imagine the complexity and technology necessary to display the video, data and graphics that keep them informed.

In the stadium are 15 cameras, including six Sony BVP 550s, a single 570, two 790s, two 950s and three D30s. Add to that a Giraffe Cam mounted to a rodeo clown's helmet to provide up-close-and-personal shots of riders and animals, and there's no possible angle left uncovered.

But staying informed at a rodeo requires more than pretty pictures. It takes facts — lots of them. There's information on the riders, their scores, standings and history; there's the rider history of the bulls and broncs, and there's the clock. All of that information must be conveyed and displayed for fans to stay informed.

This year, HLSR pushed rodeo data and character display to the next level with a little help from the facility's IT department and Pinnacle Systems. The problem the contractor faced was an incompatibility between Daktronics and the Trans-Lux scoreboards the Houston Texans specified for the stadium.

Most people don't know there's a subtle difference between the typical stadium scoreboard and a rodeo scoreboard, but the score clock is specific to rodeo.

Although Rodeo Houston signal routing and machine control is fully automated, James Davidson, HLSR managing director of broadcast and audiovisual services, likes having the ability to monitor status with the flip of a switch. Photo courtesy Phil Kurz.

Reliant Stadium is dual use — football and rodeo. Football and soccer won out in the selection of the scoreboard. Reliant Stadium settled on a Trans-Lux scoreboard.

But Daktronics has the rodeo-oriented scoreboard and associated timekeeping equipment. The challenge was to get Daktronics' support equipment to feed the Trans-Lux scoreboard. In rodeo, scoring is done on the field. A computer located on each end of the field generates a clock over the network. Custom software created by the IT department looks for the clock feed from the Daktronics scoring device, strips out all extraneous data and allows replacement clock data to be inserted and fed to the scoreboards. The scoreboard server relies on custom data formatting to feed the display, so an XML file was created that corresponds to the template that the Trans-Lux scoreboards need. With the XML template in place, a Pinnacle Systems Dekocast in the studio can map replacement clock information in the right spot.

But the three-quarters of a mile distance between the stadium floor and the Trans-Lux scoreboard — via the studio — introduced unacceptable latency in the clock display. In a sport measured in tenths of a second, a delay of several seconds could not be tolerated. The biggest challenge in the project was working with tenths of a second because it allowed less time to refresh data. The solution involved relying upon a fiber connection and speeding up the baud rate to spit out reconstituted clock information faster than what was coming in. The result is an imperceptible delay from the clock and what shows up on the board. The same XML file that corresponds to the Trans-Lux template allows the Dekocasts to insert other information, such as rider name and number, standing, and score for display on the scoreboard.

Another critical piece of custom code was a self-refreshing browser that updated whenever data changed. High above the stadium floor, this piece of code running on the announcers' computer screens keeps them informed of changing scores for up-to-the-second commentary.

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By nearly any measure, Rodeo Houston is a resounding success. This year, more than 1.1 million people attended the event — the tenth consecutive year of drawing more than one million paying spectators. On March 17, the rodeo set a single-night attendance record of more than 70,668.

HLSR and its video production of Rodeo Houston play a large part in that success. It has supplied the people, effort and technology needed to engage a large stadium full of spectators and keep them coming back for more. Not too bad for an event where 95 percent of the spectators are not into rodeo.

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