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All-Star Game First: Fox Sports To Deliver 2021 Game In 4K HDR

Fox Sports
(Image credit: Fox Sports)

DENVER—High dynamic range (HDR) video gives sports producers the latitude needed to capture the fan excitement and emotion of a baseball game in a way that’s just not available with standard dynamic range, says Brad Cheney, vice president of field operations and engineering at Fox Sports.

That’s exactly what the sports network is planning to capture tomorrow with its production of the MLB All-Star Game here from Coors Field. This year’s All-Star Game is the first the network will offer in 4K HDR.

Fox Sports began covering some sports in 4K standard dynamic range (SDR) about four years ago. A couple of years ago, it made the switch to HDR for league championship play and the World Series. This year’s All-Star Game is the natural progression in offering “tentpole” MLB events in 4K HDR, says Cheney.

However, not one of the 50-plus cameras Fox Sports will use for the game will be native 4K. Rather, the broadcaster will use 1080p HDR cameras and upconvert to 4K for its distribution partners that are delivering the game to viewers in 4K.

On the audio side of the production, Fox Sports has upgraded its buried base microphones. The new models offered a wider dynamic range and more closely approximate the actual sound around the bases, says Cheney.

In this Q&A with the Fox Sports vice president, Cheney discusses how high dynamic range improves video and makes it possible to convey more accurately the emotions of fans in the stands, why the broadcaster is producing in 1080p rather than native 4K, the effect of HDR-to-SDR conversions on the standard-def product, newly upgraded mics, the network’s second use of wireless mics and IFBs to converse with players on the field during the game and the crowded wireless mic environment and how it is being addressed.

(Editor’s note: Fox Sports coverage of the All-Star Game begins Tuesday, July 13, at 7 p.m. EDT on Fox. The broadcaster’s 4K HDR coverage will be available on the Fox Now/Sports apps, Comcast (Xfinity and FiOS) DirecTV, DISH, Verizon, Altice in New York, RDN Grande, Fubo, YTTV, MTC Cable, Armstrong Cable and Service Electric Cable. This is an edited transcript.)

TVTech: Fox Sports will use more than 50 1080p HDR cameras to cover the All-Star Game for its 4K HDR production. Will there be any native 4K cameras used? If not, why?

Brad Cheney: There won’t. As we continue to produce the largest events in HDR, the best format to use is 1080p. It’s most flexible to be able to do 50 cameras and 36 replay channel playbacks and all of the other enhancements that we put into the show. 

So, we’re really tied to that. We hope that in the coming years that that will change. But for now, that’s where we’re at technology-wise.

Fox Sports

Brad Cheney (Image credit: Fox Sports)

TVT: Tell me about the conversion of 1080p HDR to 4K HDR. You must like the results you are getting. What flavor of HDR will be used?

BC: We're doing our show in HLG [hybrid log-gamma]. We've been doing HLG since the beginning—you know, back four-plus years ago.

We really feel the added pixels and the added color, really pop on the screen. The benefit is not just for people who are watching on their home sets—on a 4K HDR set. It also really does make a difference in the way the cameras look and for the videos presented to people at home in regular 720p HD.

TVT: What about the difference in color space between the Rec. 2020 and Rec. 709 when converting from HDR to SDR? You must have done extensive testing to make sure the majority of viewers watching in SDR would not be negatively affected by the conversion. Were there issues?

BC: I will definitely say it's an evolution. We're on our fifth evolution of conversion control processing over the last couple years. We're really at a point now where what we test and see is that when an SDR source goes up to HDR and comes back down to SDR, it’s matching. [A total of] 99.9% of every part of that matches.

We're really seeing a true, A-to-A comparison at the end on conversion. We're able to get more obviously out of an HDR source—having an HDR source and giving you better picture quality on the SDR side. But our comparisons are now showing just such an absolutely high level of A-to-A comparisons when you go from SDR through HDR and back down to SDR again, from that side.

That's the real benefit of what we're doing is that we're protecting the real images we're capturing and the color space that is there for what it would normally be. But we're also protecting anything that's done in SDR to make sure that it comes back exactly the way we designed it or the way our commercial providers and those people have provided their information to us.

TVT: Pardon the pun, but this question might seem like it’s from out of left field. Most if not all of today’s 4K TV sets have powerful upconverters built in. Why not simply produce and distribute a 1080p show and let the audience’s 4K TVs do the heavy lifting to convert the 1080p feed while also distributing a down-converted 720p show for the mass audience?

BC: That’s a great question. For us, our goal is to provide 4K. That’s what the distribution networks are looking for as they continue to provide this kind of programming. 

So, our goal is that when we switch over to full 4K production that it is transparent to the home viewer. 

TVT: You’ve gained experience with 4K HDR at these “tentpole” Major League Baseball games. What lessons have you learned about working in 4K and HDR?

BC: I think that as we look at this, the thing we've learned is that it does matter as much as possible to have true imagers that are capable of doing 1080p HDR HLG capture. That is noticeable.

It is especially noticeable as you go from day to night. That's where we're at with the All-Star Game. We’re making that color transition. It's a lot harder to do that if you were mixing in SDR cameras, which is why being as [4K HDR] native a show as you can be, is really important. 

That's one of the things we learned early on.

The other thing we've learned is that, honestly, it helps some of these ballparks. When you're in places that have older configurations or different lighting changes, the HDR helps it. That bit of dynamic range that you get can really make a park sparkle and pop. I think that's really great with baseball, that you get to some of those images of pushing into the crowd and doing those things after a homerun, after a great play or after a strikeout in the in the eighth inning on a close game. 

When you start to push into the crowd past the pitcher and you can actually see the fans at the same time you're seeing the pitcher, to be able to do those things really has helped us. That goal of being native HDR across the board, especially in captures, has been really beneficial.

TVT: I’ve heard others say that while having the extra resolution of 4K is nice, it’s the HDR that makes the biggest difference to viewers. Your comments seem to indicate that. Do you agree?

BC: I completely agree with that, and because we did 4K SDR for almost two years [we know] moving to HDR made an absolutely large difference.

I talked about the day-and-night transition in baseball. The ballparks out there, they’re not really lighting the crowd. There’s just the ambient light coming off the field. 

To be able to get the shot you want, have the emotion of the game and really kind of raise the level of excitement as you head into commercial and coming back into starting an inning, [is what HDR makes possible].

But it’s the same in football, especially college football. You get those games where the stadium darkens half of the field, and all of a sudden with HDR you can see the other half of the field and the other half doesn’t look like you’re standing on the sun.

That kind of process is really helpful to all of the viewers. It helps all of the viewers in the end because that translates to SDR very well. But if the imager can’t handle it, it doesn’t matter whether or not you have it there. So, that’s what we found to be very important that it really does improve the image quality across the board.

TVT: Besides 4K and HDR, what other technologies or production techniques will be new or different for the All-Star Game?

BC: One thing we really pride ourselves on at Fox is the audio side of the world. We’re continuing that process of providing phenomenal audio across the board.

Obviously, we’ve been buying mics, and we’re just actually launching a new version of our in-mic base system. That will be upgraded for the All-Star Game and ready for the post-season as well.

Then the other thing that’s really exciting about the All-Star Game for us is that because it is an exhibition, we have mics and IFBs on some of the players. You know, Joe [Buck] and John [Smoltz] will be talking to them in-game and in-inning. It was something that was really exciting two years ago, and we’re excited to continue that this year.

TVT: How have you updated the base mic system?

BC: We’ve changed out our transmitters and the mic elements themselves to provide better sound quality. 

Spectrum’s been reduced, and we’re moving on to some new digital mic systems that allow us a greater dynamic range to pull in sound that just makes it sound as realistic as possible.

We get a little longer runtime out of them, which is always good with better batteries and use a little less RF power and get a new cleaner mic.

TVT: You touched on RF. How is the loss of spectrum for wireless mics and other devices affecting how audio will be produced?

BC: You know, as the [wireless] systems have gotten better over the last 10 years, there was a much greater desire to use them. 

Now that the spectrum is being reduced, for a lot of games we’re changing out microphones and finding spectrum where we can and making priorities of things. 

That’s what a lot of this is becoming—the list of priorities. What is more important? Is it that the RF reporter is more important, or can we put him on a hard wire because we want to put in some buried mics near the mound?

It’s just a continuing balancing act. As we continue to lose spectrum, there’s a gap we have to work through and work with the vendors on to figure out solutions. That could be cellular-related as those latencies come down.

There’s a lot out there we need to test and figure out while we have to cut back on a microphone or two, or three.