NBC Goes All ‘Out’ for NHL

The Montreal Canadians faced off against the Boston Bruins in the 2016 Winter Classic at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass.(Photo Credit: AP/Fred Kfoury III)OTTAWA—Playing NHL hockey games inside repurposed football arenas—with an outdoor NHL ice rink set up on the field—is an eye-catching spectacle, and NBC Sports Group is covering it accordingly. This is why the network is using a creative mix of cameras and camera angles to cover three outdoor games this season; more than it normally uses for indoor arena games. (The first outdoor game—the annual NHL Winter Classic was broadcast from Boston on New Year’s Day 2016, and two more are scheduled for this month.)

When NBC Sports Groups produces these outdoor matches, “it’s treated more as an event, than as just a game,” said NBC Sports Producer Josh Freedenberg. “The people tuning on New Year’s Day on NBC are going for the spectacle, and we’re trying to bring them the spectacle. Whereas on the normal Wednesday night game, or a Sunday afternoon game, we might cater more towards the hard-core hockey viewer... for these outdoor games, we’re trying to appeal to a much wider demographic.”

To produce the February games as visual spectaculars, NBC Sports Group has added a mix of cameras to its NEP-sourced production units; namely ND5 for both games, plus NEP’s SS-22 A/B units for its Feb. 21 game in Minnesota. (The Minnesota outdoor match is one of three games being broadcast that Sunday during NBC’s “Hockey Day in America” day-long event.)

When it comes to adding pizzazz, “I think the difference in this year is we’re utilizing the Sony 4300 platform,” said Ken Goss, senior vice president for remote operations & production planning at NBC Sports.

NBC Sports Group is deploying the HDC-4300 4K system camera at center ice for variable frame rate capability, rather than its ability to shoot in 4K (The broadcasts are being produced in 1080i.) This is because the 4300’s HD high frame rate can capture smooth slow motion video at 180 frames a second. In contrast, the 1080i HDC-3300s NBC used previously could only support slow-mo at three times slower than real-time.

The emphasis on epic event-style visuals during NBC Sports’ coverage of the outdoor NHL games is best illustrated by their deployment of a three-axis SkyCam above the ice. (NBC Sports) As well, NBC Sports Group is setting up an HD camera directly across from the HDC-4300 at rink side, so that producers can capture reverse direction shots. The network is also deploying a jib cam for moving overhead ice views, and for the Minnesota “Hockey Day in America” broadcast, “there will even be a jib camera for the studio out in the Spectator Plaza, which will be a challenge,” said James Stuart, director of operations for NHL and College Hockey for NBC Sports Group. “It is on the opposite side the stadium, [from] where our compound is,” Stuart said. As a result, “we’ll probably end up using a little Honda generator to power the jib.”

The emphasis on epic event-style visuals is being supplemented by NBC Sports Groups’ deployment of a three-axis SkyCam above the ice. “You have this amazing perspective,” said Freedenberg. “Just like at a football game where the SkyCam is hanging behind the quarterback, now you have the SkyCam hanging right there and you can see the entire power play develop from a different perspective than you ever could before.”

The network is even using a camera-equipped airplane for its outdoor game coverage. “You have these shots from 2,000-feet up,” said Freedenberg. “So you can watch a goal from 2,000 feet above the ice, or you can just even watch a play develop from hundreds and hundreds of feet above the ice, which obviously isn’t available to you when you’re indoors.”

NBC Sports telecast the 2016 NHL Winter Classic between the Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins live on New Year’s Day. (NBC Sports) For this year’s three outdoor NHL games, NBC Sports Group has upgraded its audio quality; namely by moving to 5.1 surround sound from 2 channel stereo. The 5.1 audio feeds are being captured using a mix of Sennheiser microphones, and are being mixed using Calrec Artemis Beam Digital Consoles in ND5. “This past Winter Classic was our first one in 5.1, and these games will also be in 5.1,” said Stuart.

The combination of creative camera angles that are not possible inside hockey rinks truly turns outdoor NHL games into television events. But this “wow factor” comes at a cost.

For instance, in wintertime Minnesota, NBC’s announcers will call the game inside a heated press box away from the ice, rather than outdoors close to the action. The downside: At this height and distance, the players look “almost like dots on the ice, skating around,” said Freedenberg. “They [the announcers] can’t call a game the same way at an outdoor stadium, as they do traditionally at an arena. So they have to adjust a great deal.”

NHL Goes 4K

The next chapter in live NHL programming is 4K, with several Canadian cable providers are leading the way.

Rogers, the nation’s largest MSO, broadcast the first NHL game in 4K on its Sportsnet sports cable network last month with a match between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadians on “Hockey Night in Canada.” The Jan. 23 game was the first of a 20-game NHL 4K broadcast commitment (which will include the Stanley Cup playoffs) by Rogers and Sportsnet.

“What makes this 4K technology so exciting is how it enhances our storytelling and how we can boost sports fans’ passion for the game in a truly immersive way,” said Scott Moore, President, Sportsnet & NHL Properties, Rogers. “Games are won and lost in the details, and with 4K, the fans are closer than ever to the insider perspective.”

Videotron, another Canadian MSO is also showing two NHL games in UHD this month and two in March.

Camera fogging can also be an issue, due to the big differences between indoor and outdoor temperatures. For example, in a previous game an RF camera taken from outdoors into the dressing room fogged up during the broadcast, “because it was going from 15 degrees to 68 degrees,” said Stuart.

“The biggest wild card—the biggest X factor,” Freedenberg said, “would be the weather. On one hand you actually are hoping for inclement weather, because it’s going to add to the intrigue and the specialness of playing outdoors ... [but] from a production standpoint, you really want a bluebird sky day and nice temperatures, and no concern for the quality of the ice.”

Whatever happens, the mass market appeal of NBC’s outdoor NHL broadcast spectaculars outweighs any challenges and discomforts. “You not only are getting the diehard fan, you’re getting the casual fan,” said James Stuart. “It’s an opportunity to introduce them to the sport of hockey.”

James Careless

James Careless is an award-winning journalist who has written for TV Technology since the 1990s. He has covered HDTV from the days of the six competing HDTV formats that led to the 1993 Grand Alliance, and onwards through ATSC 3.0 and OTT. He also writes for Radio World, along with other publications in aerospace, defense, public safety, streaming media, plus the amusement park industry for something different.