‘It’s the equivalent of doing the Super Bowl every Monday’

Regular season “Monday Night Football” action took to the screen at a new home this week: ESPN — if by ESPN you mean the breadth of the platform.

“Monday Night Football” is no longer just the telecast of a game. It’s an all-day event with coverage on multiple ESPN shows across multiple ESPN platforms that include the SD and HD channels, radio, the Internet and cell phones.

Delivering the facilities to make that all happen is NEP Broadcasting’s Supershooters teleproduction vehicles and facilities, including the newly built SS25 HD truck. Given the high-profile nature of the all-HD production, HD Technology Update thought it was good time to catch up with George Hoover, NEP Broadcasting senior vice president of engineering, about the unique challenges being faced.

HD Technology Update: ESPN has taken over “Monday Night Football” and NEP is providing the mobile facilities. What were the top engineering considerations that went into building the SS25 HD?

George Hoover: Well, two things. “Monday Night Football” will account for one-third of its schedule, so two-thirds of the year it will be available to do other things. That’s one of the design considerations.

No. 2, NEP has been doing ESPN’s production of “Sunday Night Football” since its inception almost a dozen years ago. So this is really an evolution, not a revolution. It’s the same production crew and same technical crew that have been on board for a number of years.

Interestingly enough, probably the biggest change was to really extend what had been done when “Sunday Night Football” had gone to HD and started the migration to more server-based technology.

That meant a pretty dramatic increase in the number of video servers and the requisite decrease in the number of VTRs, and of course, networking and XFiles and IPDirectors and all of that EVS technology that’s really matured in the last two or three years. That’s probably the biggest technological innovation.

HDTU: How many EVS servers and pieces of related equipment are being used?

GH: For the game, there are 16 servers.

HDTU: Could you discuss the typical “Monday Night Football” setup, including cameras, switchers, graphics, audio and other production equipment? Also, could you tell me how many and what feeds are being delivered from the vehicle?

GH: Sure. The cameras across the entire “Monday Night Football” production are Thomson LDK 6000s. There are also a couple of Panasonic 950s in Skycam and robotic positions. They shoot ENG footage on Panasonic Varicams — around the city for beauty shots and for interviews with coaches and players. Of course, ESPN is a 720p network, so everything is native 720p.

All the elements in the production are HD. There are no standard-def components, unless they dig up an old archive tape from somewhere else. That’s as close to a 100 percent HD broadcast as you can get.

The switcher is a Grass Valley Kalypso with eight internal transform engines and a (Abekas) DVEous dual twin hanging on it as well, a dozen channels of DVE. The TD (technical director) has an EVS Spotbox for his clips and moving background playback. All the EVSes are networked together.

The main audio is a Calrec Alpha with Bluefin and the effects audio is done on a Calrec Compact board.

HDTU: How many trucks are involved in the production?

GH: The “Monday Night Football” game is comprised of three mobile units and a utility trailer — just a big freight hauler to carry all of the stuff.

The first truck has the production control room and graphics and a FinalCut Pro edit suite. The second truck has recording — because you can’t say videotape anymore — transmission, video and the main audio console. The third mobile unit has effects audio, Super SloMo EVSes, Sportvision — the guys with the yellow 1st and Ten line — operations offices and transmission encoding and encryption.

HDTU: What are the feeds that are coming out for “Monday Night Football”?

GH: For the game, there’s the clean feed, a backup-program and a primary-program feed.

HDTU: Is downconversion for the SD audience done on site or in Bristol, CT, at ESPN’s facilities?

GH: We deliver standard-def copies of everything, but they send back to Bristol an HD feed and have the ability to downconvert to SD and provide the NFL with a clean version.

HDTU: A couple of years ago, I was in St. Louis when CBS Sports was doing the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Finals in HD. At that time, not all of the pieces were in place for an HD production — such as small HD backboard cameras and HD Super SloMo. Are all of the pieces in place today to do a full-on HD teleproduction of a sporting event?

GH: The operative words in that question are “a couple of years ago.” Every aspect of “Monday Night Football” is captured in native HD. There are no upcoversions. Super SloMo, RF cameras, POV cameras, aerial cameras — it’s all HD, every piece of it.

HDTU: When you look at the downconverted HD feed, do you see a substantially better SD product?

GH: Absolutely, the standard-def feed is beautiful. In particular, if you happen to watch the standard-def feed on digital cable at home, it’s fabulous. All of the analog artifacts are gone.

HDTU: Was the SS25 truck built to ESPN’s need for “Monday Night Football” even though it is used for other productions?

GH: Our industry typically transitions technology around rights transitions. And this year, the NFL rights changed, obviously, because ESPN has Monday and the networks have Sunday.

So this truck was built as a result of rights changes. Part of it was that the network now knows it has a number of years commitment to produce the program, so they upgraded technology concurrently. The truck’s first show was the Homerun Derby here in July in Pittsburgh; then, it went out to do X Games in Los Angeles, and now “Monday Night Football.”

HDTU: What percentage of NEP clients are requesting strictly SD teleproduction facilities at this point?

GH: I don’t know if there are any that only request SD. In some form or another everyone is doing HD. It might be a special event or a pay-per-view; there isn’t anybody who at least hasn’t gotten their feet wet.

If they are not doing at least some events, they are doing testing in HD. We can’t get into our customers’ plans, but they might be providing their customers an SD service; but that doesn’t mean we haven’t gone out and done an HD test for them, or that they are not looking at what things might be, or they are shooting in 16:9 to begin to bank widescreen archival material.

HDTU: What has your experience been like so far with wireless 2GHz transmitters and receivers for HD?

GH: The current generation of technology is pretty darn good. Most everybody is sharing the Link platform with other vendors, customizing it and putting their own improvements in there.

The biggest issue with any wireless system is the latency — the time it takes to compress that video and get it to the truck.

HDTU: Have they gotten the latency to the point that it can be switched into the program without noticing the delay? I believe vendors are quoting two frames of latency at this point as the best performance available.

GH: That would be generous in terms of two frames. A clever producer and director team can intercut that camera live. It depends on the event. You can intercut between a two shot and a closeup with the two shot on the wired camera and the closeup on the handheld — and perhaps see the jump cut. It’s a little harder on golf to cut between a wired camera and a closeup of a swing because the speed of the shot is such that you’ll lose your lip sync and see the jump cut if it's more than a frame or two.

But if you don’t do matching shots and you’re at something like an auto race where lip sync is minimal for most of the net sound, it will work. It’s the same issue with standard-def cameras. HD is not the issue there. The good news is we have them.

HDTU: This season, there’s much more to “Monday Night Football” than the game at night. Could you shed some light on what’s required for the rest of ESPN’s coverage?

GH: Of course, I’ve been very careful when you asked questions to say the game. There is a whole other aspect of “Monday Night Football” that we haven’t touched on, and it’s the shows that wrap around the telecast done in HD.

ESPN goes on the air early Monday morning at 5 o’clock and don’t go off the air until 2 a.m.

We shoulder the broadcast with “Mike and Mike,” “Cold Pizza,” “Sports Center,” “NFL Primetime” and “NFL Countdown,” the halftime show. So, there are three more mobile units, another 20 cameras. There’s a lot of stuff going on around that game.

HDTU: Quite a departure from ABC’s treatment.

GH: Of course. ABC is a broadcast network that needs to use its primetime for lots of different things. ESPN, with their focus on 24/7 sports, wants to leverage its position on a number of different platforms, including its multiple channels, and even radio.

In addition to the traditional television we are talking about, we have Internet, cell phones and radio coverage all arriving with much of from the game feed.

HDTU: Does Bristol take the game and create the content for those various delivery platforms?

GH: They are all their own unique production. The challenge, more than anything, is they are evolving. So, it’s being responsive and forward thinking, trying to anticipate what they think they will want to do. And because of it, the amount of equipment, the complexity and the geographical location around the stadiums in the various cities and the technical limitations of how far you can move HD, you have to deal with lots of interesting issues in interconnecting this stuff over distances. Moving signals around and sharing files and intercoms and swapping cameras. It’s the equivalent of doing the Super Bowl every Monday.

To give you an example, we did the television equivalent of pre-season in Philadelphia last week where we put everything together for the first time. Typically, if we go in to do a Super Bowl for a major network, we will arrive 10 days before the game to start setup.

With an equivalent level of equipment, here we went in three and a half days before the game. A lot of that is organization on the part of NEP and ESPN; to have it all go together in a hurry.

Literally, in many of these cases you’ll wrap up on the east coast at 5 o’clock on a Tuesday morning and everything will be opening up in San Diego on Thursday afternoon. So, we can’t dillydally. It has to be very efficient.

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