MLB Network takes viewers out to the ball game

Major League Baseball (MLB) delivered the first pitch of its new MLB Network channel on Jan. 1 from a renovated facility once used by MSNBC in Secaucus, NJ. The MLB Network is available in 50 million homes. The 24/7 sports channel will broadcast 26 games live in the 720p HD format during the 2009 season. It will also feature a variety of original programming, produced in-house by the MLB Network staff and by MLB Productions, which develops original programming aside from actual games.

After considering several other options for its new home, the MLB Network set up shop in Secaucus with a multilayered, file-based infrastructure that builds on the facility's circa 1996 state-of-the-art digital production environment. The large 140,000sq-ft space is also securely tied into all 30 MLB ballparks around the country and will conduct two-way file transfers, some in real time, on a daily basis during the season.

Systems integrator The Systems Group was tapped to design, integrate and manage the massive facility rebuild under the guidance of broadcast operations consultant CBT Systems. They were careful to ensure that the facility meets the needs of the new MLB Network as well as its sister MLB Productions.

The completely revamped facility features 29 edit rooms (14 Apple Final Cut Pro workstations with surround-sound capability and 15 Thomson Grass Valley Aurora news editing systems), multiple Grass Valley K2 HD video servers, and two large studios, one of which contains a half-sized baseball infield complete with a mound, dugouts and scoreboards. New production space for MLB Productions includes the recommissioning of 15 additional Final Cut Pro edit suites and the addition of two Fairlight-based audio sweetening rooms.

Most systems initially went online in December for testing and rehearsal before the network went live in HD. The original plan, initiated two years ago, was to create a hybrid SD/HD plant with live games shot in the 16:9 aspect ratio. That plan has morphed into a 720p HD infrastructure that's now managed by an NVISION 576 × 1040 router, Miranda Kaleido-X multiviewer, a Grass Valley storage area network (SAN), Evertz modular equipment, an Omneon Spectrum server and a Pro-Bel Morpheus automation system.

Darrell Wenhardt, president of CBT Systems, said having to retrofit the new HD equipment into existing spaces made the installation more challenging than if they had started from scratch, but would not have been possible to achieve from the ground up. Everyone involved with the frenetic six-month build agrees. However, the fact that the facility was originally built for television production made the latest install more realistic given the time constraints.

IT-centric design

Interestingly, no production people were involved in the early stages of the design process, but several IT engineers were tasked with putting together a production platform that could support television, Internet and mobile TV services. The system design incorporates a 1.5Gb/s infrastructure that includes some 3Gb/s capable equipment. However, there are no plans to produce content in 1080p/60 HD anytime soon.

The result is a flexible file-based system that treats video as data that can be routed to any part of the building. Baseband video also has its place internally, for set monitoring and transmission, whereby files are distributed as ASI streams. This marriage of the two technologies is what makes the new facility shine.

Mark Haden, MLB Network's vice president of engineering and IT, said even though the system is complex in terms of its design, it helps to simplify the production process in a variety of ways. Producers and editors have simultaneous access to files stored on the nearline and offline servers, so there's no need to find the right videocassette as they have in years past. Audio and video clips can be searched and retrieved from any desktop in the building by leveraging several layers of metadata. Using Aurora Browse software, the staff can also view clips using proxy video and make rough EDLs at their desktop.

The baseball field studio features four Sony HDC-1450 HD (native 60p) cameras on Vinten Quattro OB pedestals, a mini-cam on a jib and another on a Vinten Artemis stabilized camera system. All will be used in unusual ways to give the studio an innovative look.

HD production control

Two control rooms, leftover from the MSNBC days, have been rejuvenated with a Sony MVS-8000G HD video switcher, Kaleido-X multiviewer running on 13 Sony 42in flat-panel displays in each, and a 56-fader Calrec Omega digital audio console linked by Calrec Hydra networking. Both rooms will be used simultaneously during the baseball season. The creative services department is located on the second floor and uses Vizrt 3-D graphics platforms as well as Autodesk Inferno and Flame image compositing systems. This department produces images for both the MLB Network (lower thirds, tickers, bugs, ID and promos) and its various print properties.

Master control includes an Evertz Quartz system, where bugs, a reality check ticker and commercials are inserted before the programs go out to air. A live ingest area with Aurora Ingest workstations supports QC as well as the recording of incoming satellite feeds. There's also an area set aside to ingest audio and video elements that come in on tape, where multiple formats are accommodated.

Because of the massive ingest capabilities installed to handle inbound feeds, the network could have 15 games going on simultaneously. There will be a game of the week, live look-ins of other games and full highlights of all the games combined for highlight shows like “MLB Tonight” on the MLB Network. In addition, Sharp has supplied a massive 108in HD monitor on the set in Studio 3 and more than 40 other LCDs throughout the facility.

Fast turnaround

Sports news production relies on up-to-the-minute highlights. At the Secaucus facility, clips can be on the network (and on-air) within seconds after they actually happen. The Aurora Edit systems allow editors to begin working on clips before they're even finished being ingested into the system, making highlight turnaround lightning fast. Thousands of low-res proxy clips will be available at the touch of a button.

A total of 36 K2 media servers are employed in a RAID-protected SAN for editing and accessing/sharing thousands of audio and video clips on a daily basis. The servers are configured in two redundant paths — 18 servers for “X” SAN and 18 for “Y” SAN — with each SAN providing 1000 hours of HD storage at the highest quality (100Mb/s). There are also 10,000 hours of RAID-protected nearline storage.

As part of a highly collaborative workflow, every night during the 2009 baseball season, the newly renovated all-HD MLB Network facility will receive multiple feeds of every game, and select material will be ingested with statistical metadata provided by MLB Advanced Media (MLBAM) automatically. Dozens of production personnel will then use the equipment and networked systems to quickly edit and play to air highlight packages and short clips for a variety of shows. Working natively in HD, editors in some cases will use the Apple FCP workstations and then bring the rough-cut clips into the editing environment for finishing and playout to air.

Several Telestream FlipFactory systems have been deployed to convert files and distribute content to multiple platforms simultaneously.

Long-term archiving is stored on a Sun Microsystems StorageTek SL8500 library with initial scaling of 17,000 hours on LTO-4 tape cassettes. This archive features storage capacity for more than 30,000 hours of HD content at 100Mb/s. Content is stored using MPEG-2 I-frame only compression.

Two-way file transfers

In order to bring fans at home closer to the game, the facility will also be securely tied via fiber to all 30 MLB ballparks in the country, plus league offices and MLBAM (the division that oversees the Web site). The tight integration between the parks and the network production control rooms in Secaucus will be achieved by having IP control over signal routing, camera control and server records/transfers.

Pioneering a system called “BallParkCam,” three signals from up to 15 live games as well as 48 channels of discreet audio (effect, TV audio, radio calls and foreign-language commentary) will be sent live via MPEG-4 4:2:2 AVC encoded streams to the highlights factory. A clean version recorded on-site in a server will later be sent via FTP at 100Mb/s to Secaucus for MLB Productions use and archiving. In addition, HD content with multitrack audio can be sent from Secaucus back to the ballpark for use in the scoreboard system or in the regional sports network's on-site production truck. Via IP control, MLB Network engineers will be able to adjust the bit rate as bandwidth and monitoring needs arise. HTN Communications is providing bandwidth for the BallParkCam DTM network.

Each ballpark will have between two and five robotic cameras, providing unique POV shots of the dugout, centerfield, the pressroom and both bull pens. These cameras will also be controlled via long-distance IP connection. An Evertz 7800FR HD-SDI router, AES router and signal conversion gear — all built into an equipment rack — will also be available at the ballpark. A K2 server is installed at each park to ingest the designated clean feed and highlight clips for later use.

The network is also using a massive Riedel 2000 series intercom that allows the crew, talent and guest players to communicate over IP between Secaucus and the various ballparks.

Unprecedented reach

According to Scott Griffin, vice president of engineering and technology for The Systems Group, the project became a labor of love. The team worked hard to tie together workgroups and build the necessary interfaces between the vendors' equipment. They were careful to choose scalable systems that can accommodate future growth. Griffin called the wide-ranging multilayered infrastructure, which reaches across the country, “unprecedented,” and said nothing like it has been tried before.

Michael Grotticelli regularly reports on the professional video and broadcast technology industries.

Technology at work

ADC fiber switches
AJA Video KONA3 cards
AJA Video K3Box breakout boxes
Apple Final Cut Pro software
Apple Mac Pro workstations
Apple Cinema HD displays
Autodesk Inferno and Flame image compositing systems
Avocent desktop user station
BDL Autoscript Teleprompter
Belden cable
Calrec Omega digital audio console
Calrec Hydra system
Canon XJ27X6.5BIED/P01-DFS DigiSuper lenses
Canon HJ11eX4.7BIASE ENG lenses
DNF Controls Universal Switch Panel
Evertz Quartz master control system
Evertz X-1202 HD router
Evertz Vizlink modular gear
EVS Spot Box video servers and networking platform
EVS IP Director
Fairlight audio sweetening console
FOR-A SD/HD routing switcher
Harris Nucleus network control panel
Harris (Leitch) time/date displays
Image Video displays
Lectrosonics wireless microphones
Miranda Technologies Kaleido-X multiviewers
Mohawk camera cable
Nesbit Systems MLS Preview ingest negine and proxy generator
NVision 576x1040 router,
NVision NV9605 displays
Panasonic DVCPro VTrs
PanoramaDTV LCD monitors
Probel Morpheus database management system
Probel automation system
Probel infrastucture gear
Riedel Artist digital intercom system
RTS/Telex intercom
Sachtler camera stabilizing system and tripods
Sennheiser microphones
Shure PA821 Microphones
Sony HDC 1450 HD studio cameras
Sony MVS8000G production switcher
Sony BVML230 HD monitors
Sun Microsystems Storagetek SL8500 library
Tektronix waveform audio and video monitors
Telestream FlipFactory transcoding
Thomson Grass Valley Aurora Edit HD editing platform
Thomson Grass Valley K2 HD video servers
Thomson Grass Valley storage area network
Vinten Quattro OB camera pedestals
Vizrt Viz/trio 3-D graphics platform
Ward Beck audio monitors

MLB Network:

Tony Petitti, president and CEO

Mark Haden, VP, engineering and IT

CBT Systems:

Darrell Wenhardt, president

The Systems Group:

Scott Griffin, principal, VP engineering and technology

Belinda Binkley, dir., project ops.