CTV/TSN’s HD Canadian National

It’s a Canadian tradition: a few weeks after Christmas, about 30 of CTV/TSN’s best sports production people come together to cover the national Canadian figure skating championships. But this year’s event, held in Ottawa in mid-January, was different. For the first time, the “BMO Financial Group Canadian Championships” (as they are officially known) were shot, produced and broadcast in HD.

Specifically, the CTV/TSN crew used eight of Thomson’s Grass Valley LDK 6000 mk II WorldCam HD cameras, with their feeds being carried by triax cables into a 52-foot HD production trailer provided by CTV/TSN sister company Dome Productions. Designed to work in a variety of HD and SD formats—but used in 1080i for this shoot—this $11 million HD trailer is equipped with a Grass Valley Kalypso HD switcher, a pair of Grass Valley Trinix video routers, a PVS 2000 Profile XP server, and a Concerto series multi-format audio router.

Because CTV/TSN’s coverage is a mix of live and time-delayed content, the Dome Productions’ production trailer was responsible for packaging each programming block, then sending it via high-speed landline to CTV/TSN’s broadcast headquarters in Toronto for distribution off-air, on cable TV and satellite. Even in pre-HD days, this close-to-the-wire task was extremely demanding. But with the addition of HD, “the work’s become a lot harder,” said EVS operator Pat DeNardis. Part of his challenge lay in dealing with canned features that had been produced in 4:3 SD. When it came time to mix them into the CTV/TSN 16:9 feed, DeNardis had to decide whether “to air them as is with bands on each side, or to stretch them out to 16:9, making them look a bit skewed in the process.”

There was no ready answer to this problem, just informed judgment calls that had to be made fast and right. “You’re marrying two worlds when you combine SD and HD,” DeNardis sighed. “Whatever you do, you have to do it in a way that works for both worlds.”

Even though HD is available on Canada’s airwaves, the vast majority of Canadians still watch analog 4:3 standard definition. This said, Canadian TV broadcasters are hoping to change things by promoting their HD offerings aggressively, which is why covering the Canadian National Figure Skating Championships in 16:9 made good business sense. After all, the country that spawned Kurt Browning and Elvis Stojko is crazy about figure skating. In fact, it is often said that figure skating is Canada’s second national sport, with hockey being the first.

Nevertheless, the fact that most Canadians are watching on 4:3 TV sets put the CTV/TSN crew in a tight spot. “To keep everyone happy, we have to shoot our footage to serve both worlds,” said Bill Strain, CTV/TSN’s technical producer. “We are realistic about the fact that a huge percentage of our audience is still NTSC.”

To cope with serving both the NTSC SD and HD worlds, CTV/TSN’s camerapeople had “vertical strips of adhesive tape or electronic lines placed on their viewfinders to show how their 4:3 shoots needed to be framed,” Strain said. “But they also had to keep an eye on what was happening in the HD ‘wings’ of the shot, so that our HDTV viewers got good video.” Back in the Dome Productions trailer, the HD monitors had similar bands marked on them, this time using electronically-generated vertical shadows so that the whole HD image was visible at all times.

“Canadian figure skating audiences are very knowledgeable,” said Scott Higgins, for the past three years the producer in charge of CTV/TSN’s skating coverage. “As a result, it is critically important for us to give them a complete view of what’s happening at all times.” This includes using full body shots with enough space to allow for jumps, twists and unexpected falls. Nothing outrages Canadian skating fans more than ‘meaningful close-ups’ that miss the action!

To provide this level of coverage, CTV/TSN posted five fixed cameras around the rink at the Ottawa Civic Centre, one of which was on a crane. Unlike conventional hockey broadcasts, where the cameras are located on one side of the rink to provide a consistent left-to-right view, CTV/TSN’s figure skating cameras were at both ends of the rink, and in the middle shooting across center ice in both directions. Combined, these five cameras gave the director a complete 360-degree view of the action to work with, so that nothing was missed.

Besides the five fixed WorldCams, CTV/TSN also deployed three mobile/handheld units. One was in the ‘Kiss ‘n’ Cry’ area where skaters wait for their marks. Two others were roaming the halls of the Civic Centre, keeping an eye on the skaters before and after their performances.

“We added an extra backstage camera this year, to make sure that we captured all the drama,” said Higgins. His strategy was to have CTV/TSN’s shooters get everything on camera, without getting too much in the skaters’ faces.

“Our people are veterans of these events, so they’re known to the skaters and sensitive to handling them respectfully,” Higgins told TVB. “This said, they get such good footage that it really bolsters the story that’s being told on the ice. In fact, last year we got so much good footage backstage that we were able to put together a one hour special which we showed during this year’s Nationals.” When not capturing this drama, these cameras grabbed footage of hosts Rob Black, Tracy Wilson and Debbi Wilkes at CTV/TSN’s rink-side anchor booth, and roving reporter Dave Randorf as he interviewed skaters in the halls.

In addition to using HD for the first time, the 2006 Canadian Nationals marked the first time the event was produced in 5.1 surround sound. For CTV post audio supervisor Mike Nunan, this was fabulous news, because “5.1 allows us to match the potential of the HD pictures. Now we’re able to give the audience an immersive experience using sound. With 5.1, they don’t just hear what it sounds like to be there, they feel what it’s like to be there.”
CTV/TSN audio mixer Jeff Kozak, who was manning the audio board at the front of the Dome Productions’ trailer, told TVB that his 5.1 mix was designed to give viewers a true 3D experience. “If consumers going to spend $12-$15K for an HDTV/5.1 system, I’m not going to shove ambient noise into the extra channels,” he explained. “I’m going to take them there using audio.”

Did CTV/TSN succeed in producing their first HD national figure skating championships? The answer is a resounding yes! For people watching on 4:3 sets at home the coverage looked as solid as ever. Yet for those blessed with HDTVs, the wider, higher quality images and surround sound were a joy to behold.

Not bad for a first attempt. What remains to be seen, however, is when CTV/TSN’s crews will peel the vertical tape off their camera viewfinders, and let HD’s sensibilities take command of the production process. Given that Canadians still appear wedded to their standard definition TV sets, and the fact that the Canadian government is in no rush to close down analog broadcasting, this tape peeling could be a few years off.

James Careless covers the television industry. He can be reached at jamesc@tjtdesign.com.