Sports production technology

The concept of handling video clips as digital files — that speed up the production process to get content to air quickly, can be easily shared, and sent and received via IP networks — is no longer a far off dream. In today's highly competitive sports production environment, it is now a necessity.

Indeed, the advent of file-based infrastructures has made a wide variety of traditionally labor-intensive processes more efficient and allows sports production organizations to be in several places at the same time. In a time of budget tightening and staff reductions, IP connectivity has changed the way fast-paced production gets done.

Take, for example, the Big Ten Network, with its production headquarters in Chicago. In order to acquire content for its 24/7 cable channel, it has installed Panasonic P2 equipment (including Panasonic HVX200 cameras and P2 Readers) and Avid NewsCutter editing software at all 11 Big Ten Conference university campuses.

Each school also has a P2 server that sends and receives 100Mb/s HD files via a 1Gb/s link back to Chicago headquarters via FTP.

Student crews capture local footage and ingest it into the on-site server. Back at the Big Ten Network studios, a server automatically receives the finished files and places them into separate folders for each school.

Chicago-based producers view clips and select those for inclusion into the network's nightly highlight shows. Other shows, like “Friday Night Tailgate,” also make extensive use of the footage.

These many efficiencies result from using a file-based production system. Benefits include the ability for producers to see clips quickly, no tape costs and faster production.

Looking to further expand its reach, the network is now building flypacks of HD equipment that was previously used for the Olympic sports of volleyball and women's basketball. The flypack includes Panasonic HVX170 cameras, a Sony AnyCast switcher and T-VIPS IP encapsulators to encode the video. The systems are relatively inexpensive to put together and enable student crews to acquire high-quality footage.

Comcast SportsNet Bay Area, located in Northern California, has moved to a new HD production facility, where a team of more than 90 journalists produce several hours of programming daily using Avid iNEWS. The facility also features an Avid NewsCutter, Media Composer systems, and an ISIS and several AirSpeed servers for play to air.

Each of Comcast's nine edit rooms has access to 96TB of storage on the ISIS system. Up-to-the-minute management of almost 700 online hours of HD media is handled by Interplay, Avid's nonlinear workflow engine. The Interplay system ties all of the disparate pieces together, allowing unlimited collaboration among the production staff.

As HD files are being transferred from Sony XDCAM HD field acquisition media, incoming satellite feeds are being captured into AirSpeed servers using the Avid DNxHD codec. Newsroom personnel log content at their desktops using the Interplay Assist application. As program, rundowns and scripts take shape in the iNEWS system, HD stories, promos and graphics are transferred to playback under the control of Avid Command.

In-stadium entertainment and team training

Sports teams' in-house production departments are embracing file-based workflows for the creation of HD video content for team training and fan entertainment. The digital technology's fast turnaround times and cost-effectiveness facilitate the use of video in a variety of creative ways.

The New York Giants football team, for example, is using Sony XDCAM HD camcorders (with Canon HD lenses) and XDCAM HD source decks at its new training facility in New Jersey. The facility is located within the Giants' home stadium, the Meadowlands Sports Complex. It houses a full HD control room, including Sony HDC-1400 studio cameras and XDCAM HD optical camcorders, an MFS-2000 production switcher, HDCAM decks, and LUMA LCD monitors. The HD control room also handles stadium video production, including developing content for playback on stadium screens during games.

Don Sperling, vice president/executive producer for the Giants, said the file-based Blu-ray optical disc workflow, with its pristine image quality and “proxy” files on the disc, were the main reasons for choosing the XDCAM HD recording system. The original disc is also used as the archive media, which makes the handling of footage easy and much closer to traditional tape-based workflows.

At Boston's Fenway Park, the large video display board and monitors around the ballpark are fed by a 360 Systems three-channel MAXX video server. Channel 1 feeds the in-house cable channel, Sox on Six, which serves up programs like “The Red Sox Report” and “Red Sox Stories” to video monitors throughout the stadium. A second channel provides a backup “in-game” feed to the stadium video display. During rain delays, stored material keeps the crowd entertained with “evergreen” features. The remaining channel is used for ingest.

Chief engineer Eric Hancock said that because they are working with files, they could roll out a playlist, edit it and quickly change the file order as necessary. Staff members use the Image Server's built-in editing features to trim the heads and tails of programs. Eight edit bays and editors work on Apple Final Cut Pro (FCP) and transfer files over a GigE network feeding a Ross Video router and an Echolab switcher.

Likewise, the Cincinnati Reds' Great American Ball Park has a large scoreboard display and hundreds of digital signage displays located throughout the stadium. A new control and production facility was built to support the production of HD content.

With a 40TB centralized storage solution from EditShare integrated with software from Dixon Sports Computing and EVS servers, Reds' production manager Dave Storm and his team create a variety of packages while quickly managing and repurposing audio and video clips through the use of metadata. The Reds' EditShare system is connected via 10GigE to an HP ProCurve network switch to ensure simultaneous access to clips for its five editors working on Apple FCP workstations.

File-based production on a grand scale

The World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) provides fans with a variety of live and post-produced shows from its HD broadcast and production facility in Stamford, CT. The network produces more than 50 hours of programming per week on a SAN-based facility using Grass Valley K2 servers and the Aurora HD editors. The file-based infrastructure permits editors to quickly turn around packages, sometimes in less than an hour. For the show “Wrestlemania,” the backhaul starts airing before the final tail is finished.

In January 2008, the facility was converted to HD with multiple Aurora HD systems, and a file-based infrastructure is handled as I-Frame MPEG-2 at 70Mb/s, which maintains a high-quality level and makes it easy to store and retrieve from a dozen four-channel Grass Valley K2 servers. This also allows editors to avoid working with mixed formats.

WWE's HD digital production system now includes 16 HD ingest channels. There's a maximum capacity of 3800 usable hours of HD with 15,000 hours of online disk base proxy storage. At full capacity, the system will enable 50 simultaneous users, 20 full-resolution viewing seats and 36 full-featured multistream nonlinear editors.

The Aurora platform works alongside an Apple XSan supporting FCP editors, which are not tied into the K2 SAN. A Telestream FlipFactory moves content between the XSan and the K2 SAN. WWE archives its digital files to an SGL robotic library system.

IP networks expand reach

Another file-based workflow proponent is Major League Baseball, which launched its MLB Network channel a year ago from the former MSNBC facility in Secaucus, NJ. The MLB Network has a large 140,000sq-ft space that is tied into all 30 MLB ballparks around the country via two-way links.

Systems integrator The Systems Group installed most of equipment under the guidance of broadcast design firm CBT Systems, which drew up the plans and supervised the massive rebuild. Mark Haden, vice president of engineering and IT for the MLB Network, supervised the engineering group.

The new facility features 25 edit rooms, employing 10 Apple FCP workstations, 15 Grass Valley Aurora LT NLEs, multiple Grass Valley K2 HD servers and two large studios — one of which contains a full-sized baseball infield complete with mound, dugouts and scoreboards. A new production space includes 15 Apple FCP edit suites and two Fairlight-based audio sweetening rooms.

Employing a system called BallParkCam, three signals from up to 15 live games as well as 48 channels of discreet audio (effect, TV audio, radio calls and foreign-language commentary) are sent live via MPEG-4 4:2:2 AVC encoded streams to the highlights factory, and a clean version is recorded on a local server. In addition, HD content with multitrack audio is sent from Secaucus back to the ballpark for use in the local scoreboard or the on-site production truck.

Once complete (more than half of the MLB ballparks have been finished), each ballpark will have from two to five robotic cameras, supplied by Canon, providing unique POV shots of the dugout, centerfield, the pressroom and both bull pens. The MLB Network uses a Riedel intercom system that allows the crew, talent and guest players to communicate over an IP network between Secaucus and the various ballparks.

Integrated production systems

At a time when virtually everyone is looking to limit production costs while providing more content for their fans, the use of integrated production systems has become popular with both professional sports organizations as well as colleges and high schools. The systems have become increasingly popular because they require only a single operator to manage an entire production.

Turner Studios is using a Slate 3000 integrated production system from Broadcast Pix to produce an innovative “second screen” experience for sports fans. Accessible via Web or mobile devices, these live webcasts complement Turner Sports' NBA and NASCAR coverage. Viewers can see additional HD camera views of the live action, as well as timely scores, stats, and exclusive interviews.

No matter what level of competition, the adoption of IT-centric infrastructures has helped improve coverage of sporting events and allowed productions to do more than was ever possible before. Today, that's the name of the game. BE

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