Popular New England sports network moves to state-of-the-art HD facility
The New England Sports Network (NESN), the largest regional sports network in New England with more than four million subscribers watching via basic cable or DirecTV, capped its 21-year history by making its biggest leap in one day.
At 9:00 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 27, the network was instantly transformed from a group of dedicated employees working out of a tiny space in Fenway Park, to a glamorous, state-of-the-art, high-definition facility with the capacity to produce two studio programs at once while airing live, HD Red Sox and Bruins games over four channels.
But, of course, it was only the signal transition that was instantaneous. The planning and preparation took years.
"We searched for a year and a half just to find the right space," said NESN President Sean McGrail. "We needed an appropriate size for our network needs--the right ceiling height and power requirements--and it had to be in an area easily accessible to our current work force."
Finding the space and figuring out how to pay for it all filled McGrail's days, while the job of filling the space with the right stuff fell on the shoulders of Chief Engineer Dave Desrochers.
"We brought in two system integrators--The Systems Group for main engineering and master control room facilities and Venue Services Group for production control rooms and editing suites," Desrochers said.
The consulting firms helped NESN devise a plan, which then had to be scaled according to budget.
To NESN's Assistant Chief Engineer Les Correia, it's all about creating a flexible infrastructure.
"Our strategy was to make sure the infrastructure is expandable for many years to come," Correia said. "With the connectivity and signal flow in place, we can install the essential equipment now, like switchers and audio consoles, and add other items as the budget allows. The building is designed so that you can pull out old items and plug in new ones because the communication and wiring are all in place."
The first set of equipment decisions centered on the "necessary" items: switchers, routers, audio consoles and cameras. Some of these were already in place because NESN has been broadcasting Red Sox games in HD since September 2003. They had made a decision early on to use the 1080i format and Sony HDC-910 HDTV cameras with Canon lenses. They use seven of these for their remote game coverage and added more to use in the new studios.
"The Sony HDC-910s are extremely sturdy and reliable," Correia said. "They are real workhorses. On a game day, we start at 5:30 p.m. and run until midnight. The cameras are on all of the time and we haven't had any problems."
The new facility has two TV studios, 40 feet by 40 feet and 50 feet by 50 feet, which will allow them to produce two shows simultaneously. But this also means they need two sets of equipment and control rooms, so cost quickly becomes a limiting factor.
For audio they chose the Solid State Logic C100 Digital Broadcast Console, a 64 DSP, 32 stereo channels board that outputs stereo or six discreet channels.
"The C100 is built from ground up for broadcast needs," Correia said. "Our goal is to produce all local content shows in HD and live pro events in Dolby Digital Surround Sound 5.1. SSL customizes the console for each user, so we could lay it out according to our own design."
"The C100 was chosen for its I/O scalability, soft key programmability with touch screen and flat panel metering display," Desrochers said.
"For master control we chose Nvision routers based on price, reliability and a software interface that allows engineers to easily program any changes," Desrochers said. "The software GUI also provided added flexibility for operations to our master control design."
SONY FOR TWO
Decisions for the production control room were a bit more complicated because they needed two. This factor drove them toward the Sony MVS-8000.
"The Sony MVS-8000 has two panels interfaced with one mainframe switcher," Correia said. "It's a big cost savings. We have two control rooms for two studios but only need one mainframe switcher."
Correia also listed numerous other features such as the fact that it can be programmed and configured in multiple ways, allowing the operator to instantly reset it for specific shows.
NESN decided to go Sony all the way in the control room.
"We've had extremely good luck with Sony," Correia said. "They have reliable and solid support. Our control room is completely Sony. The four large LCD monitors are configurable to create any array of displays. And it's far cheaper than glass monitor walls."
The signal path allows for uncompressed transmission from field cameras at Fenway Park to the Watertown facility and then to an uplink in Needham.
"Our Red Sox games are second to none in clarity and quality because there is no compression on home games," Correia said. "The signal is transmitted by fiber, uncompressed at 1.5 GHz."
Correia noted that sports television introduces special challenges.
"Fast action sports pushes the envelope for image quality," Correia said. "We try to avoid compression as much as possible. Hockey is one of the most difficult things to cover because of the constant action, which tends to bring out compression artifacts."
NESN has now completed phase one of its new incarnation. The next phase will be to install a networked HD digital editing system.
While poised to grow into the future without having to move again, they can concentrate on adding new programs and perfecting the technical quality of the ones they have.
They are also increasing quantity. In 2005 they produced 493 hours of HD programming, and in 2006 they will beam out 3,300 hours.
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