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HD and sports broadcasting in Europe

Polecam is designed to provide a crane-type shot when one wasn’t possible before, such as with some sporting events. Shown here is Paris-based Polecam operator Bachir at a shoot in Mauritius.

With BSkyB gearing up for a major launch of high-definition television in 2006, and with this year's NAB and IBC dominated by HD equipment, there's a lot of interest in what will be the big attraction for consumers buying into HD in Europe.

Will it be movies? Or could it be sports — especially football? 2006 is World Cup year in Germany, and it's inconceivable that the World Cup and the Premier League in the UK won't play a key part in moving HDTV receivers out of the stores.

But how easy will it be for broadcasters, including Sky, to satisfy these new HD customers? Customers will want the full HD experience on big plasma displays, with full 5.1 surround sound. However, broadcasters will have to remember that 90 percent of the audience for any big sporting event continues to watch in SD and 4:3.

It's probably more of a dilemma in sports than in any other genre, because there's general agreement that to get the best out of HD sports coverage, the style of shooting has to change.

There are few people who are more experienced in shooting a wide variety of genres in HD than producer and director Paul Kafno, managing director of HD Thames. While an avowed enthusiast for the format, he also understands the pitfalls. His view is that one of the main issues, especially for football, has to do with the compression used for transmission. The busiest shots, including pans across a cheering crowd, are so full of fine detail that they become demanding to code. If the compression is too high, obvious artifacts will emerge, and sharpness and depth can disappear. And, that is just the beginning of the possible problems.

Kafno's experience with HD and sports stretches back over several Olympics. He has found that the Japanese, in particular, have been adept at making separate coverage in HD. Because of the level of detail available, coverage tends to be shot differently, with more wide shots and fewer close-ups. It is possible, when watching the wider shots on a big display, for the viewers to read the images and scan the images themselves, without the cameraman having to pan. This crucial difference is one of the joys of HD and brings a different visual approach to shooting.

The BBC's experience with shooting sports, such as football, has shown that only seven or eight cameras are needed to give a good range of these wider shots, compared with the 20 or more cameras typically used now for SD coverage. That's because of the number of close-ups that are needed to tell the story of what's happening in the game. The director needs those close-ups in SD to show where he's putting the emphasis. In HD, you frame it differently, and the frequency of cutting is less because the camera can hold the shots for longer.

In HD, the camera does not need to be in so tight; a big, wide shot looks fantastic. If it's done well, the viewers will feel as if they're looking through a window at something real, almost like 3-D. They can see and read all the positional play and tactical maneuvers. There is no better way to see and really understand what's going on in a football game, apart from being there in the stadium.

Kafno has seen commentators adapt. Because viewers can see for themselves what is going on in the game, they don't need to be told quite so much.

However, Kafno warns that in SD, the very shot that informs the game has to go because all of the detail in it is lost. So what is really required is a separate production outfit shooting just the HD coverage, and that is simply unrealistic.

In the stadium, camera positions are fought for now between broadcasters, so there will not be two production teams. Instead, it is probable that HD coverage also will be the basis for the SD output.

It is the same with graphics. Graphics done for HD look great. There's the opportunity for far more fine detail and graduated colors. Most of that, unfortunately, gets lost when you view it in SD. But keeping to the SD graphics style looks crude when you view it in HD. Clearly, there will have to be a compromise to satisfy both audiences.

Camera operator Keith Harding employs a Polecam at the 2004 Games in Athens. With the DiveBag and FishFace, two Polecam accessories, operators can dip the head of the camera below the water surface for underwater and air-water-air transition shots.

The United States has had HDTV up and running for a while, but it is the SD viewer that sets the style of coverage of sports.

George Hoover, senior VP engineering for OB company NEP Broadcasting, said that 90 percent of the audience is still watching in SD, so they shoot for 4:3 and protect for 16:9, protecting graphics that way too. The biggest change for HD coverage is audio because 5.1 surround is wanted by the top of the market, but there is still the need for mono and stereo. The consequence is that NEP winds up recording for all the formats.

Kafno agrees that audio is a problem when shooting for HD and SD. With more detail in the shots, you need more detail in the audio, which means microphones all over the stadium.

There is definitely a consensus amongst those planning for HD in sports that audio will present the most problems. There is a huge difference between producing for stereo or producing 5.1 sound. There is a much larger number of tracks and monitoring involved. A much larger audio infrastructure is required. Dolby E coding and decoding puts in frame delays that can play havoc with matching action audio and live commentary with the relevant pictures.

One editor complained that there is a minefield of delays involved. It all has to be dealt with in the frenetic environment of the live OB, when you are right up against time in getting matching visual and audio out to the customers. It is not so bad in a controlled post-production environment, such as drama. However, it's a different story with live events. Such events involve many live mics, combined with live sound from the studio. Then you add in the audio encoding delays and the fact that the monitoring is several seconds late. As a result, matching up with a live presenter is not easy.

BSkyB is going to be using a mixture of HDCAM and HDCAM SR to record football. One important reason to go for the SR is the higher number of audio tracks it offers — 12 as opposed to four. Bearing in mind SD viewers, both stereo and 5.1 mixes will be needed, and the number of tracks required grows.

Preparation for the high profile that an HD sport service will bring is going to demand a lot of practice, and that is just what the putative HD broadcasters are busy doing.

Sky has been shooting football in HD since August, getting its OB and graphics suppliers up to speed on what's required. The equipment is not a problem; most of it is now in place. IBC2005 showed what Sony and Thomson are now doing with HD super slomo, and HD radio cameras are coming.

Next month, TWI will be using the first of these from Link Electronics when it acts as joint host broadcaster with HBF for the West Asian Games in Dohar. That event will pave the way for a much bigger operation in which TWI is set to be host broadcaster — the Asian Games in 2006.

The event in Dohar is also an all-flyaway event — and that's a first for HD sports. David Shields, TWI's head of engineering and operations, is using Dohar as a test of the logistics. A year ago, there were few flyaway units, but Sky's decision to begin HD now has spurred everyone to gear up for it. TWI will cover seven sports at Dohar, including aquatics. There is already concern from the director that HD gives such a clear image that it is going to show up the diminishing cleanliness of the pool as it gets cloudy after use. Underwater cameras show so much more detail that this has become an issue.

TWI has engaged the full range of specialist cameras from the BBC as the technology moves to HD. It has the Plungecam underwater cameras and the HD Polecam. The railcams will have to be ready for HD next year for athletics. Everyone is now waiting for the HD lipstick cameras to come in.

Shields has found other differences when shooting sport in HD. It requires four times as much light. As a result, there's less depth of field, and focusing becomes far more critical. He agrees that fast pans and zooms won't work in HD, and shots are best a little wider.

Nick Radlo is an independent technology consultant.