Keeping A-Head in HDTV


When the Colorado Rapids and the San Jose Earthquake kicked off their Major League Soccer match April 12, the world's most popular sport reached a new goal.

It was the first game in a three-year deal between MLS and HDNet for live HDTV coverage of the games, marking the first nationwide HDTV presentation of the sport.

"You can always watch soccer in SDTV, but HDTV takes the viewing experience to a whole new level," says Philip Garvin, general manager, COO and co-founder (with Mark Cuban) of HDNet. "Like hockey, or any sport where the action goes back and forth very rapidly, soccer really needs to be shot wide. So our MLS games really take advantage of HD's 16:9 widescreen and superior resolution, making the games very enjoyable to watch."

Soccer hasn't been TV-friendly because of the limitations imposed by SDTV, says Garvin. "In soccer, since you can't predict where the action is going to go from one second to the next, it's imperative to shoot the game very wide. But if you do take wide shots in SD, the ball becomes blurry and tough to follow. And if you zoom in tight on the action, you find that the ball frequently leaves the frame."

In "MLS on HDNet" games, HDTV cameras (from Sony and Thomson) are placed on the side of the field, as well as behind the end zones, for greater latitude in capturing the game action-using the widest HDTV lenses available from Canon. Compared to NFL games, where sports networks typically use a dozen HDTV cameras, HDNet only uses about six or seven.

"In HDTV, using more cameras is bad, not better," Garvin added. "In HDTV, the eye is taking in so much information that every time you make a cut, it takes time for the viewer's eye and brain to spatially reorient to the picture. So it's best to just let the cameras run with very few cuts."


Another anomaly to soccer is that there is little to no stoppage of the clock-it's virtually all nonstop action. And the fast pace doesn't offer opportunities to present the instant replays common in virtually every televised sport.

Instead, HDNet's dedicated production crew exploits HDTV's widescreen to advantage, showing a "replay in a box" in one corner while the game action continues to unfold on the rest of the screen. "We use the [twin-channel] HD DVE associated with our [24-input 1.5 M/E Snell and Wilcox 1024] HDTV switcher to move and reposition the two pictures diagonally, placing the main game view in the bigger box, and the HD replay in the smaller box," explained Garvin.

All live graphics are produced using an SDTV Chyron iNFiNiT! character generator and upconverting the signal to HDTV for air. Garvin says that today's live HDTV CGs still do not deliver processing speed and feature sets comparable to the iNFiNiT! And since these SD graphics look fine upconverted, Garvin has no plans to upgrade to a HD system soon. Back at the Broadcast Operations Center in Denver, a PixelPower Clarity HD character generator, along with Mac-based graphics systems and SGI-based Alias Maya 3D animation software, creates HD graphics packages and player and team profiles. All pre-produced HD packages are delivered from Sony MAV and EVS HDTV playout servers on the trucks.


HDNet has two HDTV mobile units, HDNet1 and HDNet2. And unlike last year when the network used Vyvx for back-haul, HDNet now handles all its own back-haul transmissions with its own satellite uplink gear to get signals from the stadiums back to its BOC. On the truck, the live 1080i HD signal is encoded to a 19.4 Mbps MPEG-2 (DVB-ASI with AC3 audio) format and kept that way from that point on.

"We never decode the signal because it degrades the signal quality," says Garvin. "Back at our Colorado studios, if we need to insert additional material into the program, we use [Sencore] MPEG-2 splicers [with EVS playlist management software] to cut on the I-frames. The 19.4 Mbps signal is then uplinked [via C-Band] from there to our direct broadcast satellite providers and cable headends so that the signal arrives in the home set-top box with the same broadcast quality pictures we saw on the truck."

HDNet, which offers an HDTV sports channel and a 24-hour HDTV movie channel, is about to reach many more viewers than in its previous base on DirecTV. This summer EchoStar joins the HDNet bandwagon and Charter Communications has picked it up on cable. May 28, HDNet announced that cable systems within the National Cable Television Cooperative, a group of cable operators in small and midsized markets, would also deliver HDNet to some of its 14 million subscribers nationwide.

"We're excited to be partnering with HDNet to deliver the incredible HDTV viewing experience to MLS fans across the country," says MLS Commissioner Don Garber, of Major League Soccer, a league consisting of ten teams and based in New York. "In addition to the enhanced picture of high-definition, the widescreen format gives our fans at home the ability to watch plays as they develop. It's the next best thing to being in the stadium."

In all HDNet plans 28 games, including almost every Saturday night through Oct. 25.

Claudia Kienzle