Greens...With Envy

CBS Sports pioneered HD golf coverage in 1998. Since then, the network has shot five Masters and three PGA tournaments, plus some of the regular 2004 golf season, in HD. However, it wasn’t until last month that CBS Sports committed to full-time HD coverage of golf.
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CBS Sports pioneered HD golf coverage in 1998. Since then, the network has shot five Masters and three PGA tournaments, plus some of the regular 2004 golf season, in HD. However, it wasn’t until last month that CBS Sports committed to full-time HD coverage of golf. And the network launched its new commitment at the Buick Invitational in San Diego, CA, using a spanking new HD12 mobile production unit.

“It’s pretty obvious that everything is going HD,” explained Ken Aagaard, CBS Sports senior vice president of operations. “Since we have a new contract with the PGA, and because NBC is pursuing HDTV for its golf programming, it was something we had to do.”

Aagaard is being humble—there’s going HD and then there’s setting a new benchmark for mobile HD production. “HD12 is one of the highest-end production units on the road today,” said Dave Shaw, group president of Venue Services Group, which built the unit. VSG is owned by National Mobile Television of Torrance, CA. “Made up of three integrated 53-foot Expando trailers—with video and audio having their own separate spaces—HD12 provides huge areas for video and audio switching. Inside, it’s like being in a fixed production studio!”

Not surprisingly, HD12 is equipped with leading-edge broadcast technology. Inside, you’ll find a Sony MVS 8000A video switcher with 80 HD inputs, a PESA Cheetah 1072x1344 video router, two VizRT HD graphics systems, 11 EVS XT LSM HD VTRs, three Sony SRW-5500 HD VTRs, and two Panasonic DVCPRO HD 1700 VTRs, plus Sony DME 8000 and DME 9000 video effects generators.

On the audio side, HD12 has a Calrec Alpha digital mixer in its dedicated B Unit audio trailer, plus a Calrec Sigma sub mix to handle incoming audio feeds. Add 18 Sony multi-format HDC-1500 HD cameras—10 with Fujinon XA101x8.9ESM lenses—a Sony HDC-3300 super slow-mo camera, and a monitor video wall made up of 156 Sony LMD 9050 color HD monitors (with 275 more distributed through the HD12 unit), and this is one highly sophisticated production suite.

From an engineering perspective, what makes HD12 stand out is its extensive use of fiber optic cabling instead of copper Triax. Using fiber serves two purposes: It allows the three trucks to work together as one, and it protects video quality over the long runs from the golf course to the trucks.

“We even bring fiber to the announcer’s booth to ensure that they get the best quality audio and video at all times,” said Mark Howorth, NMT’s CEO. HD12’s fiber optic networks were custom-built for NMT by Bexel Broadcast Services and Telecast Fiber Systems.

For the trucks themselves, Stratos expanded beam quick-connect fiber connectors let the PESA Cheetah routers do their jobs. “We have a tremendous amount of digital information moving between the three trucks, what with the live camera feeds from all over the course and the announcer’s booth, plus the video, graphics and audio mixing that is happening in realtime,” Howorth explained. “We need the capacity and speed of fiber optic networking to allow this to happen as fast as we need it to, and to let the three production trailers work together as one. Meanwhile, using fiber from the field prevents the kind of signal degradation seen on long copper runs.”

“On HD12, we have the capacity to mux 16 channels of HD-SDI video down to a data stream that can be sent over a single fiber optic cable,” said Scott Nardelli, director of Bexel fiber optics. “All told, we can handle the hundreds of simultaneous signals being managed during a given golf broadcast through a 3/4-inch diameter optical cable. To do this using copper would require a huge amount of cables, all weighing much more than a single fiber strand. So using fiber not only prevents signal degradation and reduces cabling complexity, but it also reduces weight. Optical cable affords NMT and CBS the ability to add production equipment that enhances the overall production—and at the same time helps keep the truck within DOT weight limits.”

Even with the suite of equipment mentioned so far, CBS Sports still had some concerns about using HD to cover golf. One problem was synchronization; unlike NTSC, HD audio tends to lag behind HD video. When you’re covering a live event, the result can be footage that shows Tiger Woods hitting the ball, followed by the sound of him hitting it.

Another complication: CBS Sports likes to use wireless cameras to move around the course. Unfortunately, it takes time to send and receive these wireless signals, adding a second form of signal latency that makes live mixing a real nightmare.

In years past, Aagaard had shied away from live HD golf coverage for precisely this reason. “Today we’ve fixed the gremlins associated with wireless cameras,” he said, “which is why we’re ready to use HD now.”

So how did CBS Sports and NMT solve the problem of signal latency? They decided to synchronize HD12’s video to the slowest feed. “We’re delaying the reception of the hard cameras into the video switcher, so that their signals are in sync with the wireless camera feeds,” Aagaard explained. This gives the wireless feeds and the 5.1 surround sound audio the time they need to arrive, resolving sync problems that have dogged HD production since the late 1990s.

For Shaw, HD12 has been a labor of love—and like most love affairs, it has come with its share of heartaches. “Our biggest challenge was just getting these three trucks built and integrated on a fairly tight time frame,” he recalled. “There’s an awful lot of cable associated with HD12; in fact, we have over 20,000 cables that had to be terminated inside the three trailers alone.”

According to Howorth, Shaw may be able to catch his breath now that HD12 is on the road. “This is probably the last of the really big production units to be built,” Howorth offered. “With HD12 now in service, the major networks all have ‘mega trucks’ in use. Given that HD12 cost $15 million to build, this is something they won’t buy unless they have to. Right now, the market is covered.”

As for HD12 itself? To justify its price tag, Howorth expects CBS to “use it 46 weeks a year all across America.” So keep an eye out when watching CBS Sports on location, because you may catch a glimpse of HD12 at work.