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MSG Productions retrofits new HD facilities

To say that Madison Square Garden (MSG) Productions in New York City is a pioneer in live HD sports production is an understatement. Since 1998, it has been at the forefront of 16:9 camera framing and focusing techniques, at a time when others were fumbling with upconverting programming and simply getting a digital signal on the air.

Its coverage of New York Knicks basketball games, as well New York Rangers, New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils hockey games, have long been delivered live via cable in the 1080i HDTV format. That's possible thanks to the support of mobile production companies like National Mobile Television and Game Creek Video. However, in-studio pre- and post-game programs and most of the graphics elements at commercial breaks (as well as the commercials themselves) were upconverted from standard-definition digital, due to a lack of affordable equipment and the costs of upgrading other areas of the company to HD.

MSG produced these SD elements from an aging digital production facility. The equipment, including a Sony NewsBase system and control room, is mostly obsolete. By all accounts, it was in need of an upgrade. (Years ago, the Garden had four control rooms in-house.)

In 2005, Michael Mitchell came onboard as chief engineer, with a mandate from upper management to update the equipment. As several regional sports channels came onto the scene, it was clear that MSG had to hold on to its leadership position in HD sports. The new facilities produce programming for two of Cable-vision's regional 24-hour sports channels: MSG and MSG Plus (formerly Fox Sports Net New York). During busy sports nights, there's overflow into additional channels, MSG2 or MSG Plus 2.

Initial design discussions in 2006 have resulted in new HD studios and control facilities within the famous Garden in New York City. There's also a new feed ingest area (complete with a variety of formats, including a Sony 1in VTR), networked HD editing and multichannel audio rooms, as well as new graphics suites and a server/operations area. All are designed to expand its HD program offerings while supporting live HD events, which could include entertainment at the famed concert hall in the future. Although most of its filed material comes in on some form of videotape now, the company will continue its migration to a tapeless production environment after the renovation with the addition of Sony XDCAM HD optical disc and solid-state camcorders.

A portable retrofit

Added to the challenge of retrofitting HD facilities in existing analog space is the recent announcement by Cablevision that the Garden will undergo a complete renovation in the next few years. This means that the new facilities will be moved to a new production center near the midtown location from which some Garden systems will be remotely controlled via fiber-optic cabling.

The new HD facilities include a Harris NEXIO server system linking multiple Harris Velocity NX and Apple Final Cut Studio HD craft edit systems disbursed throughout the fourth floor working on a shared storage network. A control room features a Sony MVS-8000G HD switcher and an audio suite with a new Solid State Logic (SSL) C100HD digital audio console. Throughout the facility space was used efficiently, and it was all accomplished in a short period of time.

The best part is that it's all HD-compatible and ready to be moved when necessary. This was no easy feat considering Mitchell's team started with exiting facilities, so they couldn't change any walls. In six months, beginning in January 2008 (working from a design by New York architect Hans Knutzen Associates), they installed 30,000ft of Belden video cable, 20,000ft of Ethernet cabling and the equipment necessary to fill out the various rooms.

Major league HD production

Located on the building's fourth floor, the airy control room boasts a Harris CENTRIO multiviewer system that displays a myriad of configurations and dozens of feeds on four Planar Clarity 46in Baycat 1920 × 1080 LCD monitors. With access to any feed coming into the building, this control room supports three separately located production studios, each with two Sony HDC-1550 HD cameras (with Canon 22×7.3 lenses) and a small set. The HD control room can also access an existing SD control room on the other side of the building for larger productions.

The new HD facilities are based on a Harris Platinum router with 128 × 128 I/O matrix distributing full baseband HD video with embedded audio. This was installed to handle the in-house HD production needs, while an existing Thomson Grass Valley Trinix router (256 × 256) handles most of the live game feeds (both home and away). An Avocent switch located in the facility's machine room allows engineers to easily reconfigure the control and monitor software interface of the routers and servers from a single location.

A Harris NEXIO server (capable of storing 617 hours of HD at 80Mb/s, MPEG-2, 4:2:2) is configured with eight input channels and 16 outputs, but it can be set up to ingest 12 feeds simultaneously while outputting 16 channels. This is helpful when basketball and hockey seasons are in full swing.

Collaborative production using remote facilities

In addition, during the fall and winter, live games are captured in New York City (or arrive via satellite or fiber), compressed with the NEXIO system, and then sent to Cablevision's Rainbow Network Communications (RNC) some 25mi away in Bethpage, NY. Many times games come into the RNC facility first (via its extensive earth station) and then are sent to MSG in NYC for editing highlight reels before being inserted into select programs. Packages can be turned around quickly and made available for air by the end of the first quarter of a game. In addition, for those viewers that miss the game live, MSG also produces a shortened 60-minute (“In 60”) version of each game, as well as a two-hour replay.

In Bethpage, a dedicated master control area at the RNC facility is used to insert commercials, add graphic elements and then send it on to the various Cablevision cable television platforms. Games are also carried on satellite services as well as on other tristate cable systems.

Game elements from around the country are collected, and highlight reels are put together quickly with the four Harris Velocity workstations. An additional six Velocity ESX (software-only version) help develop highlight packages and player profiles for insertion into the game coverage. HD titles and lower-third graphics are mainly created with a Chyron HyperX system, while the Final Cut Pro systems, linked to an Apple Xsan server with 27TB of storage capacity, store repurposed graphics. AJA Video KONA image capture cards are used extensively in this workflow as well.

Nearline content (audio and video program elements used most frequently) are stored at 35Mb/s on an Isilon InfiniBand server with 48TB (or 1248 hours) of HD capacity. Older content is archived on a server in Bethpage. Content is managed locally with Harris content management software, where editors and producers can search and locate clips stored on the Isilon server and move them over to the online NEXIO servers to an individual workstation as necessary. Content is tagged with edit and media IDs to streamline this process.

Sports sounding good

While MSG continues to distribute its games, talk shows and other programs with embedded AES digital audio signals, the stereo feed is automatically converted to full 5.1 (plus 2) surround sound at the RNC facility using multiple Dolby Surround multiplexing encoders. The group is basing its entire multichannel audio production on its new C100 HD console. The board handles embedded audio signals today and can easily be used to mix full surround sound in the future.

The console also handles all of the audio production for the two in-house studios, where stereo boom mics and wireless lavaliere mics are used. The console's ability to store settings for different shows and configurations has helped the crew save time. This allows a variety of staff and freelance audio operators to sit down and run the board without any prior training.

The console is part of an overall strategy for simultaneous, multiroom, networked audio production. Expanding on this, the media team is planning to install SSL Stagebox remote mic preamp units throughout the facility once it's renovated. This will allow the C100 console to mix audio feeds coming from anywhere a Stagebox is located. This will enable the group to provide bands playing a concert in the main hall with a fully mixed DVD and/or CD by the end of the show that night. This is something the company has never been able to do before.

To round out conversion to digital audio, MSG Media also replaced its plant intercom with the Riedel Artist 128 system. The system incorporates all the control functionality required and serves as a digital router as well. It easily interfaces to the Gardens' house Riedel intercom system, as well as to the systems used in its partners' mobile production unit trucks.

Although a lot hinges on how the final renovation of Madison Square Garden turns out, much of the equipment now installed will help the company keep up with a highly competitive genre. HDTV is what makes sports special, and the group continues to lead with its technology and premium content. Mitchell said his team is serious about HD and all that it can bring to the company. The new facilities and enthusiastic support from management to get it right are a testament to that.

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

Design team

MSG Media
Mike Bair, president
Lydia Murphy-Stephans, executive VP, programming and production
Jerry Passaro, sr. VP, network operations and distribution
Michael Mitchell, chief engineer
Joe Malespina, engineer
Andrea Cummis, engineer

The Manhattan Crewing Company
Ray Bucceri, chief design engineer
Michael Ferentinos, project manager
Chris Hewson, president/CEO
Justin Francione, electronics system engineer

Technology at work

ADC patch bays and connectors

AJA Video KONA cards

Final Cut Studio HD workstations
Xsan storage system for graphics

Avocent system configuration and monitoring router

Belden HD cable

Canon HD lenses

Chyron HyperX graphics

Dell E6420 workstations

Dolby E encoders

Extreme Networks BlackDiamond 12800R Series Fibre Channel switch

Front Porch Digital DIVArchive system

CENTRIO multiviewer display systems
H-Class content management software
NEO and 6800 series signal processing modules
NEXIO servers
Platinum HD router
Velocity ESX edit software
Velocity NX edit systems
X75 aspect ratio converters

Isilon InfiniBand storage system

Middle Atlantic equipment rack enclosures

Panasonic DVCPRO VTRs

Planar Clarity Baycat 46in 1920×1080 LCD monitors

Riedel Artist 128 intercom system

Solid State Logic C100 HD console

HDC-1550 HD cameras
HDW-M2000/20 VTRs
MVS-8000G switcher

Switchcraft connectors

Thomson Grass Valley Trinix router

TVLogic LVM-240W LCD monitors

Osprey Elite pedestals
Vector fluid heads