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NBA goes HD

In today's crowded field of sports broadcasting, it's not easy to stand out. But, with a series of significant carriage deals on direct-broadcast satellite and cable television, and some shrewd technology choices, the National Basketball Association Entertainment (NBAE)'s NBA TV channel has managed to do just that.

NBA TV recently upgraded the NBAE's existing production and broadcast facilities in Secaucus, NJ, to accommodate high-definition production. The channel now reaches over 45 million households and will produce roughly 50 games in the 1080i HDTV format this season. Many of the game telecasts will include Dolby Digital multichannel audio. The 24-hour sports channel will produce 95 regular-season NBA games and select NBA playoff games in 2003-2004.

NBA TV was launched on Nov. 2, 1999, and transmitted its first digital HD telecast, a game between the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers, in January 2003. As a league that has always recognized the value of new technology for its sports production, the NBA produced its first analog HD game in 1992 (using the 1125-line system, in tandem with Japanese broadcaster NHK) for the All-Star game in Charlotte, NC.

Yet, HDTV is more than just great pictures. Mike Rokosa, senior director of engineering at NBAE, said that, besides the pristine images the NBAE wants to give the fans at home the entire experience, including the sights and sounds, of sitting courtside. He said, that even for those consumers who don't have surround sound systems or digital TV sets, paying attention to the outgoing audio signal makes a difference to the analog experience as well.

That's why the NBAE has installed a Solid State Logic (SSL) C100 digital broadcast audio console as the centerpiece of a new networked audio suite that can handle both stereo and a live 5.1 Dolby Digital AC-3 mix from the same interface. Rokosa said the SSL C100 has streamlined audio production and made program and live game setup fast and easy. The board's redundant features and digital audio signal-routing capabilities have also helped move signals around more reliably than the NBA ever could before. It includes built-in mix-minus features, eight audio subgroups, two program outs (for second-language programming), clean-feed buses, 24 auxiliary sends and metering for every input and bus output.

The console's audio metering uses high-resolution TFT displays instead of traditional bar graphs, allowing the NBA audio engineers to monitor closely the incoming and outgoing audio levels during a live game broadcast. There are also redundant power supplies throughout the board and a self-healing DSP function to ensure against on-air failure.

The NBAE completed the renovations and transition of the entire facility from mostly analog to standard-definition digital (and HD) equipment last fall. Rokosa supervised the move to an expanded and completely restructured signal-distribution infrastructure, which can now handle virtually every analog and digital signal — audio and video — that comes into the building. During construction, the channel's Secaucus facility was off the air a total of three days (when it operated off servers located in the NBA's master-control facility in Stamford, CT).

Constantly in a state of frenetic activity, the new facility supports NBA TV productions, other NBAE productions and programs produced for other networks, such as “Inside Stuff” for ABC, “Matchup” on ESPN, “NBA Action” on FOX Sports Net (seen in more than 100 countries) and “NBA Jam,” a youth-oriented program distributed internationally. The facility produces video news releases for outside corporate clients as well.

The NBAE facility is also responsible for content flowing through the NBA's online properties, including its popular Web site. On most game nights, video highlights, box scores and player statistics are available on the Web site within 15 minutes of (and sometimes immediately after) their live occurrence on the court. In addition to sharing information, the TV and Web groups at NBA TV have adjoining newsrooms that allow reporters to collaborate on breaking news and programs.

The HD facility upgrade included new plant routing, miles of super-wideband-capacity fiber cabling, a new production-control room, a new digital audio suite and new Sony HDC900 studio and HDC950 portable HDCAM cameras.

The production studio control room features a Sony MVS-8000 HD switcher, an NVISION wideband router, a Solid State Logic C100 digital audio broadcast console and an adjoining “game room” based around a Leitch Technology Opus master-control switcher that handles live game coordination. One operator handles both the SD and HD game broadcasts from a single Leitch control panel.

Because of the efficiency and reliability of the equipment, staffing is kept to a minimum. Besides the on-site production crew, a producer, graphics operator and master-control operator in Secaucus produce each NBA TV program. When the NBA partners with another broadcaster, as it does regularly with FOX Sports Net and other locals on game coverage, all the NBA will send is an associate producer to coordinate the production.

The on-site truck sends live feeds from particular games back to the game room in Secaucus through satellite backhaul transmission. The graphics operator in Secaucus produces player titles and other graphics for the games on both SD and HD Chyron Duet systems, and the master-control operator inserts them into the appropriate feed there prior to each broadcast. A special software interface (designed by the NBA) synchronizes the two Chyron graphics platforms. The software automatically receives statistical data from each game in the league and displays it either as a lower-third key or as a full page such as a box score.

Courtside NBA statisticians generate the game/player stats, key in the data and send it back to Secaucus through IP transmission. Within seconds of their input, the statistics appear on viewers' screens through pre-designed templates inside the Duet systems. There's virtually no human intervention. Both Duet systems are set to “Auto Reveal” mode to make it happen immediately.

Because of the Duet systems in place, the NBA TV does not need to send graphics people to each game, saving time, money and valuable resources. The strategy also provides NBA TV art designers with more creative control, according to Rokosa, and a consistent graphics look for all NBA TV games.

Game-clock, shot-clock and scoreboard information from each arena is also displayed in real time, thanks to a hardware/software system co-designed by Leitch engineers and the NBA.

Making the pictures sound good

Wherever possible, NBA TV sends a 5.1 Dolby Digital AC-3 mix with the HD broadcast, using the new SSL C100 audio console that's configured with 96 channels and 48 faders. Otherwise, the games air in stereo. In some cities, depending upon truck capability and availability of local HDTV feeds, the NBA has partnered with a local digital broadcaster to present the full HD experience. NBA TV employs Dolby E technology to transmit the multichannel audio with the video back to Secaucus.

NBAE uses the SSL C100 console to handle a discrete mix of the game with studio elements and distributes it throughout the facility to the appropriate person for finishing before re-encoding it for the 5.1 broadcast. SSL recently released a new software upgrade (V1.5) that offers new console-redundancy, control-management and third-party router-integration features.

Equipment in the new NBAE audio suite includes a Telos Systems crew-communication system, a Telex ADAM digital intercom system, a 360 Systems Instant Replay audio-clip server and a digital cartridge machine. The suite is tied into a large audio-clips server that holds over 300,000 music and audio titles used to drive the NBA's productions. The NBA developed the music-clips system using an IBM server running MSoft software to locate and retrieve specific clips instantly.

Fiber optics completely connect the audio-production area to the rest of the facility. For example, it seamlessly links the console to the Sony production switcher and NVISION router, allowing the console to handle a variety of productions with a few button pushes (salvos) that call up stored audio presets. With the C100 console, NBA TV can produce an SD studio show in the morning, mix an HDTV game in the evening, then go back to a SD highlights show at night. The console also instantly converts audio from stereo to multichannel and back. Rokosa said, that during a four-hour programming block of game coverage they sometimes switch between formats during commercial breaks.

Andy Surfer, senior systems engineer at NBAE, likes the fact that the SSL C100's TFT monitors display a wide range of information and use a minimal amount of buttons to reveal system subgroups and features. He can configure the monitors in a number of ways to control individual features. In addition, these preset salvos make it easy for freelancers to work the console, as is often the case at the Secaucus facility. The board's power supplies and faders are hot-swappable, enabling NBA engineers to change components while the board continues to operate. On-site training from SSL and Sony has helped keep the gear productive.

HD video provides a competitive advantage

The video-production division at the NBAE facility includes 14 nonlinear-edit rooms with Thomson Grass Valley Profile servers feeding Grass Valley NewsEdit and Pinnacle Systems' nonlinear editing systems, all tied into a 7TB shared storage-area network. This allows editors to share graphics, media clips and data, and to collaborate on program files. They use the Profile and NewsEdit rooms for fast turnaround, highlight programs and live production; they use the Pinnacle rooms, with Liquid silver systems, to post-produce programs with longer lead times.

Desktop browsing with a Virage low-resolution file system allows producers and reporters to preview incoming video feeds and make basic edit decision lists at their desktops. The final step in the building's transition, according to Rokosa, is to create an asset-management system with hierarchical storage to be used by both the facility and other NBA facilities around the country that will share the material on demand.

The NBAE's video library is probably its most valuable asset, Rokosa said. It offers game footage that dates back to the start of the league in 1946 up to the present. Video footage is currently archived on digital Betacam or HDCAM videotape in an archaic database-library system. NBA statisticians log in games, with individual plays assigned specific time-code numbers, which makes them easy to locate and retrieve at a later date when building highlight reels.

Although he's responsible for the entire facility, Rokosa is sensitive to the audio complement of the NBA TV's feed. Back in 1987, he helped introduce Dolby Surround sound to live sports during the Super Bowl. He's quick to stress the importance of a good audio feed to the home. The choice of equipment, Rokosa said, was critical to the league's vision (and sound).

So, the next time you're watching a professional basketball game on NBA TV, close your eyes for a moment and listen to the surround-sound mix. It brings the game into your living room. The NBA thinks that's a good way to beat the competition.

Michael Groticelli regularly reports on the professional video and broadcast technology industry.

Design team

Mike Rokosa, senior director of engineering, NBAE
Andy Surfer and Takashi Kohiyama, senior systems engineers, NBAE
CBS Engineering and Construction, New York City

Equipment list

Solid State Logic C100 broadcast audio console
Thomson Grass Valley

PVS-3000 HD servers
NewEdit live editing


900 and 950 HDCAM cameras
MVS-8000 HD production switcher
CRT monitors

Pinnacle Liquid post-production editing
Chyron Duet system (both SD and HD)
Hammerhead Graphics (clock and score bug)
Quantel iQ HD video editing

Opus master control
LogoMotion (both HD and SD)
NEO modular products

Fairlight Dream post sweetening system
Evertz upconverters and sync generators
Panasonic format converters
NVISION routing switcher
Philips plasma monitors
Dolby E, Dolby D (AC-3) and Dolby Pro logic encoders and processors
Motorola MPEG encoders
Rorke Data storage-area network
mSoft music server
Bitree patchbays
Belden cable