HD plays important role in emerging Web entertainment distribution

New online entertainment distribution efforts, such as AT&T’s blue room, are beginning to open up new business opportunities for mobile production.

Trio Video in Chicago is capitalizing on this growing area of business, and surprisingly its extensive HD production capabilities are an important part of the equation. HD Technology Update spoke with Peter Kimball, director of program development and production at Trio Video, about these new opportunities and the state of HD television in the mobile production business.

HDTU: Can you quantify the demand for HD remote production as we enter 2008?

Peter Kimball: By way of background, we not only do a lot of entertainment projects, but we continue our long-standing multiyear deals with Comcast SportsNet and WGN TV, which carry Chicago Bulls, Blackhawks, Cubs and White Sox baseball. Both entities — starting this spring for baseball and next fall for hockey and basketball — have requested that our mobile facilities be almost exclusively HD for their major league sports coverage. In essence, what we are finding is, faster than we expected, the SD world is closing down. What remains is becoming a highly discounted market because of the old SD trucks.

Recently, Comcast announced plans to offer 1000 channels of HD — whether on demand or over their regular cable channels.

In essence, 80 to 90 percent of our client requests are now for HD.

HDTU: What challenges remain for remote sports and entertainment production in HD?

Peter Kimball: There is now so much more demand for highly computer-oriented people. People can no longer sit down and just do the job; there needs to be more specific training, and finding those people is a challenge. So much of the equipment is now computer-based, and people now travel the United States with hard drives so that they can more efficiently update the equipment. Literally everything — the replays, the switcher and the audio — they are all now computer-based.

I think the biggest challenge, of course, is money. That’s the case with any new, emerging technology. For us, it’s being able to serve all of our clients when they need us to serve them. There are times when we just don’t have enough equipment. Also, finding trained operators — TDs and replay specialists, video and audio specialists and technicians.

HDTU: How do you go about finding those trained people?

Peter Kimball: What we do is similar to what’s done in broadcasting in general: We search in smaller markets. Often, kids in smaller markets — in Peoria, IL, someplace in Wisconsin or Iowa — tend to be hungrier. They are out there doing a 10 o’clock newscast for a smaller TV station. Generally, they can make more money with us because we can guarantee them more work. So, we bring them in and train them. Often, they relocate to Chicago. We also do some events at local community colleges where they can come out and run camera and sit at a switcher. They get a chance to hang out with our tech support guys so they can gauge if they are qualified. Also, we get some people from the world of corporate video.

HDTU: I know Trio has had significant involvement in music/entertainment production for Web distribution. What’s been the impact of online video presentation on the demand for remote production, and what unique challenges has Trio Video faced in that area?

Peter Kimball: During the fall of 2005, AT&T blue room, which is an AT&T entertainment Web site, started televising major music festival events, such as Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and other major concerts. They didn’t necessarily produce them themselves but would piggyback on the event that already existed. The technology for delivering extensive Web content is not that old.

So, they came to us and asked how to do it. We had to design a lot from scratch; how to simultaneously cover five stages at a music fest, bring all the content to one location and then edit it or feed it live to network shows — for clients like AT&T. For instance, at Bonnaroo, we covered seven stages simultaneously in HD. We recorded all the content in HD at 23.98 so it created a beautiful film look, and then all that content was downconverted to 16:9 SD, which went through a master control center where producers and directors decided on what specific act they would send to the webcast.

In essence, we were not only recording for future DVD release, but also feeding live downconverted content to the webcast that could be archived later. You can go to blueroom.com right now and find archived video and audio of all of the concerts from multiday music festivals that we helped to produce for AT&T blue room.

The same thing is true with Control Room and Live Nation. They are all looking for content for their Web sites. In the past, promoters would do some lower quality video, but the fact that AT&T and others are throwing marketing dollars at them means their budgets are bigger and they can afford companies like us.

HDTU: Do you anticipate this market segment to continue to strengthen?

Peter Kimball: Absolutely. I’m sure you are aware that many advertising publications have been saying that, while advertising on traditional broadcast remains strong, money that used to go into magazines and radio is now flowing to Internet webcasting — whether it is content like YouTube, Control Room or Yahoo Video. Even MSN has a video channel, and my Verizon cell phone now supplies video.

A lot of these clients don’t want to piggyback on some existing project anymore. They want to own and create that content. For instance, AT&T now has a whole division called AT&T Entertainment, because they not only want to feed content to their Web site, but to their cell phone and to their fiber-to-the-home service, U-verse.

We have been fortunate to be flexible enough to help AT&T and others design relevant parts of those systems.

A good example of AT&T originating their own content is the Dave Matthews Band, on which we supplied two trucks at West Point in November. AT&T Entertainment and their team originated all that. It was called “The World’s Loudest Pep Rally.” Schools got to vote to convince the Dave Matthews Band to come to their school. In the end, it came down to West Point and the Air Force Academy. West Point won; AT&T put it together and promoted it and they got Dave Matthews to agree to it. That helped broadband demand, and they found that when you have big events like this that people are driven in a positive way to order AT&T high speed Internet. It’s forcing the market to grow.

They performed two nights in a row. The second was on Armed Forces Television Network worldwide, so our troops in Iraq could see it.

HDTU: Even though this ultimately ended up on the Web, did they want it produced in HD for other distribution avenues like U-Verse?

Peter Kimball: Yes, almost all the content we shoot is in HD. Generally, it’s either 1080i or 23.98. Many of our clients want the film look. We can do multicamera shoots and deliver that look. They can then take that content and put it on their own Web sites or turn it into a DVD with 5.1 sound.

At Bonnaroo, not only did we record in 5.1 sound and 23.98 film style with 29 different cameras at different stages, we also fed AT&T blue room, E! Entertainment News, XM Satellite Radio (which received three channels of content), CNN and others. All of a sudden, the promoter realizes he can feed/entertain everybody and benefit in many ways.

HDTU: What has been the most surprising technology challenges have you had to overcome in producing these events for online distribution?

Peter Kimball: This might be obvious, but when we did an SD analog shoot in Austin, TX, for the Austin City Limits Music Festival, we used one of our non-digital SD trucks; it was harder than if we would have used one of our more expensive HD trucks. That makes sense because when you use an HD digital truck, you can connect everything with fiber. You can go 5mi stage-to-stage and the quality is much better. I think the surprise in the past is that people would think they could bring their own regular gear and it would not be such a hassle, but we found that newer and better equipment is much easier for multistages, because everything is digital and everything can be fibered.

We have Grass Valley Kalypso main switcher units, which can use smaller out-boarded mini-switchers. We can place those all over the venue to collect content. They are all hooked up by Cat 5 cable and automatically timed in, which allows us to save money on labor.

Basically, what we have found is the new technology actually helps to save on labor costs.

We also found that many promoters don’t realize what they can ultimately do, so for the past year(s), we have really been educating our customers on all the opportunities. They are learning that technology allows them to service multiple distribution avenues simultaneously.

HDTU: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Peter Kimball: The equipment is allowing us to be more flexible, provide new services and pursue new markets, markets that didn’t exist two years ago.

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