Sports Demands Specialty Cameras

ESPN/ABC, Fox and NBC all use the HDC-4300 to cover a range of sports events due to its ability to support a range of frame rates and “digital zoom.”

OTTAWA, ONTARIO, CANADA—In their drive to tell visual stories better than ever before, networks are pushing the envelope of cutting-edge camera technology.

“Storytelling has always been an important component of NBC Sports’ coverage of signature events,” said Ken Goss, senior vice president of remote operations and production planning for NBC Sports Group. “Our goal is to give our production team great options regarding innovative cameras and technology, so we can bring our viewers as close to the action as possible.”

Networks are not yet broadcasting in 4K, but they are incorporating 4K cameras—particularly Sony’s new HDC-4300 4K camera—into their sports production chains. ESPN/ABC, Fox and NBC all use the HDC-4300 to cover a range of sports events due to its ability to support a range of frame rates and “digital zoom,” where the switcher can zoom in on part of a 4K image, ending up with a 1080p shot that still looks great on air.

“We’ve just used the HDC-4300 to cover the NBA Finals, and it worked great,” said Chris Calcinari, vice president of ESPN & ABC Sports Remote Production Operations. “With the HDC-4300’s ability to do up to 8x Super Slo-Mo and digital zoom, it is really an amazing tool.”

Fox Sports used the HDC-4300 to cover the 2015 US Open golf tournament last month. Zac Fields, vice president of graphics & technology at Fox Sports Media Group noted that the HDC-4300’s 4K resolution and high frame rate “makes it possible for viewers to really see the golf ball when it hits the fairway. You can even see the undulations of the green.”

NBC, which just restarted its coverage of NASCAR last month after a nine-year hiatus, uses Sony 4300s in the 23 trucks it uses to cover the sport, according to Goss.

“They are capable of 3x speed, and we plan to run two at 120fps and two at 300fps over 3G into two EVS servers,” he said. NBC Sports also uses these cameras to cover Sunday Night Football; two of which run at 6x speed. In addition, the network’s NFL camera roster includes a Sony HDC-F950 4K camera (using a Cineflex V14 gimbal), and i-Movix 4K cameras for replays (using Evertz Dreamcatcher) and Grass Valley LDX-HS cameras for super slo-mo.

“For the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs, we used two Grass Valley LDX camera systems running at 6x,” said Richard Assenzio, NBC Sports Group`s senior director of remote operations and production planning. “The 4K feeds we had were great for slomo and digital zoom.”

So even though networks are not broadcasting in 4K yet, the format has found its niche in broadcast production, according to James Munn, remote operations specialist for ESPN/ABC. “Having access to the resolution and multiframe rate capability of this format is allowing us to grab some great visuals,” he said.

The point-to-point overhead Skycam—which has been in use for more than three decades—and the newer four-point Spidercam have been popular with U.S. TV networks for their ability to fly over an open playing field from one end to another. Made by the company of the same name, Skycam is a robotic, broadcast-quality camera that is suspended from a cable-driven, computerized transport system. Spidercam is made by the Austrian company Spidercam GmbH and is essentially a Skycam with the added ability to raise or lower the robotic cable camera vertically.

The remotely-controlled Skycam and Spidercam provide viewers with a dynamic wide-angle view of the action, allowing broadcasters to get as close or far from the action as they need to. “This is why ESPN/ABC uses Skycam and Spidercam for a number of events,” said Munn. “They help us tell the visual story effectively, without getting in the way.”

ESPN/ABC also uses “split block” Grass Valley and Sony cameras to provide 1080p coverage in tight spaces. “The CCU/lens assembly is ‘split off’ by the manufacturers from the rest of the camera body; with the two connected by fiber optic cable,” said Calcinari. “We can put split blocks behind the net in NBA games, and behind home plate in baseball. The result is broadcast-quality video from places where we can’t install conventional cameras.”

The Marshall CV200-MB POV camera is called a “lipstick camera” for a good reason: It is about the size and shape of a lipstick tube. But the similarity ends there. The CV200-MB/M features a 2.1 megapixel 1/3-inch Panasonic CMOS sensor and offers resolutions up to 1920x1080i at 59.94 and 1920x1080p at 59.94/29.97. It’s pack-aged in an IP67 weatherproof enclosure with a 3.6mm F2.0 M12 interchangeable mount lens, with a camera head that is just 0.75-inches in diameter.

Thanks to its HD performance and small size, the wire-connected Marshall CV200-MB camera is “being utilized by most major U.S. networks to provide unique POV shots in the PGA, NBA, NFL, NHL, NCAA and other major sports,” said Tod Musgrave, product marketing director for Marshall Electronics’ POV Pro-Series Cameras; “as well as culinary, hidden camera and live music events.”


Fox Sports used several drones outfitted with Lumix cameras to cover the US Open golf tournament last month.
To provide golf fans with a bird’s-eye view of the sports, Fox Sports has developed an extendable “tower cam,” which is basically “a cart-based moveable platform with a telescopic remotely-controlled camera that can be raised from 6 feet to 21 feet,” said Michael Davies, senior vice president of field and technical operations for Fox Sports. “Our crew rolls the tower cam along with the play, and extends its mast for high shots once they have it in place.”

Fox and NBC have also been experimenting with RF-linked camera-equipped drones, in those areas where FAA rules allow such platforms to be used. “We had great success using drones to cover the 2015 Winter X-Games,” said ESPN/ABC’s Chris Calcinari. “We could do this because the X Games were held on private property,” he said. “This meant the FAA allowed us to use drones overhead—once people on the field below had signed waivers.”

To further enhance its coverage at the US Open last month, Fox Sports installed RF-linked GoPro HD cameras to serve as “tee cams,” which are ground-mounted units that capture and transmit shots of golfers as they hit the balls into play. The network also deployed an RF-connected remote-controlled “RC Camera Car”—which is gyro-stabilized to keep its GoPro camera from bouncing around—and can operate up to 20 mph to keep up with the play.

Speaking of cars, NBC Sports Group is covering NASCAR using 16 Broadcast Sports in-car cameras, and 18 Robovision robo cameras; some of which have high-speed heads that can keep up with the cars’ top speeds. “In addition, we will use a number of static robotic cams, POVs and grass cams,” Goss said. “Our NASCAR coverage will also feature four handheld RF cams two jib cams, pit overhead cams, and a chopper cam.”

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.