March Madness goes portable, mixed and full circle
CBS expanded its March Madness franchise earlier this year by completing its acquisition of CSTV, billed as the leading digital media company devoted exclusively to college athletics.
The Tiffany network also plans to tweak its HD coverage with a new game truck, graphics, and upgraded transmission paths according to Ken Aagaard, senior vice president of operations for CBS Sports, while CSTV’s offerings will be dictated by CBS SportsLine.com.
Elsewhere, ESPN planned to launch “Full Circle” blanket coverage, beginning with the March 4 game between North Carolina and Duke; DirecTV is offering its Mega March Madness Mix Channel; and Sprint subscribers will get video updates from a local North Carolina broadcaster on their cell phones.
CBS SportsLine developed technology to better handle the anticipated “crush of traffic” to its namesake and CSTV Web sites, now that their March Madness content is free for the first time, said spokesman Alex Riethmiller.
CBS will use F&F Productions’ new GTX-14 truck, which came onboard last September for the network’s coverage of college football. The network also used the GTX-14 to cover college basketball games in HD during the regular season. A dozen Ikegami HDK-79EC cameras replaced the Thomson cameras CBS used in 2005. Yamaha’s digital D-1 console substitutes for last year’s SSL model. And Vizrt graphics replace the SGI equipment used for clock-and-score last year.
“We’ve replaced the SGIs mainly due to age and processing time,” said John McRae, director of field operations for CBS Sports.
CBS will use fiber to transmit HD footage from eight of the 14 venues.
“There’s an operational advantage to being on the ground,” said David Chilson, associate director of broadcast distribution services for the network. “When your signal’s up in the air, it’s subject to the issues of satellite interference.”
Moreover, Chilson added that Vyvx provides a diversity of routing from its various POP locations to CBS’ New York broadcast center. The fact that Vyvx became economically competitive clinched the deal.
“We’re providing HD feeds out of arenas where we have connectivity in place in our VenueNet product,” said Derek Smith, senior vice president for Vyvx, the Tulsa, Okla.-based provider of video transport services. “The production truck can just pull in, connect into our VenueNet box, and they have connectivity all the way back to their broadcast center instantaneously.”
More capacity was recently added to seven venues: the Cox Arena in San Diego, Wachovia Center in Philadelphia, The Palace of Auburn Hills, Mich., Georgia Dome in Atlanta, California’s Oakland Arena, MCI Center in Washington, D.C., and Metrodome in Indianapolis.
CBS “wanted to grow the number of [HD] return feeds coming out of those venues,” said Smith said. “On the high-definition piece, we increased our capacity by 50 percent.”
Last year WRAL, the CBS affiliate in Raleigh, N.C., offered Sprint and Verizon cell phone users its “WRAL Wireless” service, which updated TV game schedules and scores on their mobile phones and provided text recaps of game highlights. This year, the service will be expanded to include video recaps and abbreviated highlight reels.
“At the ACC tournament we have our own shooters and reporters doing WRAL coverage, and that’s what we’ll be leveraging,” said Sam Matheny, general manager of News Over Wireless, WRAL-TV’s sister company. “At the NCAA, we send our own photogs and reporters as well.”
Matheny estimates that mobile users will probably receive approximately 20 to 30 seconds of video per game.
“We’re taking advantage of the media player that’s built into certain phones,” he said, adding that over the past year, “there’s been a flurry of new multimedia-enabled phones and the deployment of third-generation EV-DO technology.”
Evolution Data Optimized technology is the high-speed packet rate standard for the CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) platform used by carriers like Sprint and Verizon. Matheny estimated it would boost data transmission from last year’s 50 kbps to about 300 kbps, making them better suited to handle streaming video.
News Over Wireless designed the app, wrote all the software, and built the infrastructure, encoding the video using 3GPP2 (Third Generation Partnership Project II), according to Matheny. The 3GPP2 mobile encoding standards set specifications for the radio transmission technologies used on the CDMA platform. Matheny’s group also used the QCIF standard for resolution (176x144 pixels).
Sprint and Verizon subscribers can get the “WRAL Wireless” text and image update service for $2.99 to $3.99 a month; Sprint subscribers with the requisite multimedia phone can get “WRAL Wireless plus Video” for a $4.99 monthly fee.
ESPN franchises will tag-team coverage of the North Carolina at Duke playoff game on March 4 to launch the network’s “Full Circle” concept, which consists of ESPN’s traditional telecast, ESPN2’s “Above the Rim” camera angle, ESPN360’s stats-driven broadband games and ESPNU’s view from Duke’s “Cameron Crazies” section of the arena.
High-definition coverage will be offered on ESPN and ESPN2 HD. Mobile ESPN will deliver game alerts and live updates; ESPN.com will host live chats; and both will have in-game polling. ESPN International will offer feeds to about 120 countries.
Mobile ESPN was “designed from the ground up,” said the division’s senior vice president, Manish Jha. “We’ve done a whole bunch of things that are fairly innovative, from ease of use to the comprehensiveness of the service to the timeliness of the information and level of personalization.”
The technology’s back-end architecture enables news delivery several seconds ahead of broadcast delivery. For example, Jha said Super Bowl updates were two seconds behind the stadium clock, but eight seconds ahead of the ABC broadcast (including the mandated 5-second delay).
ESPN’s uniquely designed Sanyo MVP cell phone rolled out for sale online for the 2005 holidays, and was brought to retail last month. It delivers one-touch, real-time access to personalized sports content, Gamecast, video clips and fantasy updates. The main display reportedly delivers three times the resolution of a conventional cell phone. A 1.1-inch, 160-color external LCD displaying a score ticker and picture Caller ID is also included, as is a 1.3 megapixel camera with flash, a camcorder, MP3/AAC music player and 3D graphics.
“We had quite a lot of input into it,” said Jha, “you can see what’s going on in the world of sports even when the phone is closed” via the ticker on the secondary display. ESPN also insisted on custom fonts for the QVGA screen, certain Java extensions and other items.
Jha was tight-lipped about the features that might be debuted at the NCAA playoffs. But he noted that applications that take advantage of the GPS chips now resident in most cell phones “are just beginning to come to market—that’s one of the things we’re working on.”
Its newest mix channel, “Mega March Madness,” lets customers who have interactive remote controls (and pay $59 for viewing rights) to view up to six real-time games on one screen. A “Bracket Tracker” on-screen overlay lets viewers input their own bracket predictions and track their progress against reality as March Madness unfolds.
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