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Little People Are Big Hit for Discovery

Live births kept the network hopping from city to city

SILVER SPRING, MD.

Shooting 10 hours of women giving birth is not easy-much less so when live footage is expected. This holds true even for the experts.

"It's a significant challenge-at any point you don't know where you're going," said director David Stern, a veteran of live New Year's Eve telecasts from Times Square.

His latest birthing marathon was completed for Discovery Health Channel's second-annual "Birth Day Live!" from medical centers in Orlando, Baton Rouge and San Diego. It was broadcast from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. ET on Feb. 16, with an encore presentation the following Friday. A two-hour edited version aired March 2.

LOGISTICS WERE KEY

"You can't control when they're giving birth," said Stern regarding the decision to follow 35 to 40 births before the show commenced. "Last year we had 19."

To better the odds of catching a live birth in the process, charge nurses became stars in the drama.

"Charge nurses can tell you who's going to be next," Stern explained, noting they would be "on IFB [earpieces] and microphones so they can speak to us."

Moreover, he added, "we have a producer with them-and an RF system with the producers. The executive producer and coordinating producer are listening and trying to decipher who will be going next and making a quick decision."

Last year, only the rooms had live mics.

This year, it took 180 microphones to follow the action, said Lenny Laxer, vice president of operations for All Mobile Video, which oversaw the trucks and feeds. (By contrast, NBC deployed 100 microphones for last year's U.S. Open, which producer Tommy Roy ranks just behind the Olympics in terms of logistic difficulty.)

The decision to roam the halls with charge nurses also led to the rental of microwave attachments and a Steadicam device for one of the 10 Sony BVP950 camcorders in Orlando. The Baton Rouge and San Diego operations also used an RF Steadicam setup for one of the 10 Ikegami HK-388 camcorders assigned to each of those sites.

This year, 16 robotic cameras (versus seven last year) were hooked up to ceiling grids or attached to rigs designed by jib operator Shaun Harkins.

The rigs were "mounted above the dropped ceiling to hanging points," said project manager Mike Long. "Below the ceiling (the rig) makes an 'L'-a four foot radius to where you can move (the camera)."

Long also noted the use of three Sony XC-999 "cigar cams" that were pointed on the whiteboard where information was noted by a charge nurse, and to capture the expressions of family gathered in a viewing area to witness a C-section operation.

"The only control you have is through a framesync inside the truck," he said. "Basically all you have is iris control."

A Sony BVP900 studio camera was used outside the Orlando hospital for exterior shots.

Plan B options of the store-and-forward variety were also expanded by adding hard disk recorders from EVS and Accom to take in up to five feeds simultaneously, as well as deployment of a full graphics room. In the process, the number of Deko character generators from Pinnacle increased from one last year to four this year (two in the Orlando hub and one each for San Diego and Baton Rouge).

MORE COMMUNICATION

The quest for more story lines likewise boosted the need for many more phone lines-25 in Orlando, 20 in Baton Rouge and 15 in San Diego.

"We added 10 more circuits than we had last year," said Laxer regarding Orlando's operations, due to the greatly increased flow of information. "It took 20 people to set up all the trucks and everything."

Time for the broadcast's overall setup was increased by a whole day.

"The trucks were parked and powered on Wednesday [for the Monday show]," said Bob Sitrick, vice president of live productions for Discovery U.S. Networks. Technicians were still running cable the Friday before Monday's show time.

Despite the use of microwave, "every spigot on the side of the truck [was] filled up-every connector had something," said Laxer.

For Laxer, the most challenging task was setting up an intercom system for the 260 people working on the show. It required in-depth charting as well as the usual negotiations and setup for a phone bridge.

TRANSMISSION BACKUP

Backup was a major consideration for transmission.

Uplink trucks were placed in all three cities, with a dual path out of Baton Rouge. Orlando's uplink truck took in all the signals and transmitted them to the network in Denver. A fiber outbound path from the Orlando hospital to the local Bell South central office was also employed. A redundant 300 kW generator stood by.

Each site had its own production truck and Orlando used a Cinetour editing truck to also house graphics and time-delay equipment. The latter, said Stern, permitted five-second delays in case any of the mothers mouthed off "like Murphy Brown."

Amazingly, the mothers' willingness to be on TV came from sharing the event with family and friends. According to the Discovery Health Channel's executive producer, Mark Poertner, additional compensation took the form of a gift basket from sponsor Johnson & Johnson, a "free kit and storage offer" (for the umbilical cord) from sponsor Viacord, and "tchotchkes from Discovery Channel."

"They're certainly not in it for the money," he said.

On the other hand, the pains the network took to host the marathon paid off well.

"Pregnancy is a big hit for us," said Poertner.