SWTV's Dual-Path Future

Not everyone is afraid to take a dip in high definition's waters. At NAB2002, Core Digital Chairman Lawrence Meyers showed off his company's latest SWTV all-digital "hybrid" mobile production truck, saying that he's so optimistic about the potential of high definition (HD) production, he's invested over $7 million in it. That's how much it cost to build "Bonnie," a dual-path SD/HD production rig that was on display at the Las Vegas Convention Center and drew rave reviews. Many said it could be the most flexible digital production truck on the road.

Utilizing a unique technical design, the truck allows a single crew to produce both an SD and HD show without compromising signal quality or production values. It will travel around the country with a "B" unit (for graphics and other production tools) called "Clyde" and now serves as the crown jewel in Phoenix, AZ-based SWTV's fleet of seven digital expando trucks. The trucks produced about 1,400 remote events throughout the country last year.

"As we looked at the market and the trucks that are out there, we feel the majority of clients want to produce standard definition digital programming," said Meyers. "Over time, the scale will tip in favor of HDTV and when it does, we'll be ready. In the meantime, we've built a truck that will be attractive to clients today."

When that happens, Meyers said the 53-foot expandable truck's infrastructure can easily accommodate the installation of all-HD gearÑwhere it now boasts about 75 percent true HD equipment. Until then, Meyers said he wanted to make sure that Clyde was designed to produce a standard 4:3 show that does not compromise anything for the audience in order to capture 16:9 HDTV as well.

Currently, you can acquire an HDTV show and downconvert it, chop-and-crop the picture, and end up with a SD show, Meyers explained, "but at that point, you have not prioritized your 4:3 show and it becomes an afterthought. We all have to remember that most people are watching TV in the 4:3 aspect ratio. Those aren't the people we want to alienate."

From a production standpoint, he's talking about reducing widescreen shots that have unwanted material on the sides of the picture in 4:3, or that appear to cut the heads off the on-screen talent. He also said that there are still important pieces of technologyÑincluding a super slo-mo system and some graphics effects capabilityÑ that are not available to create a HDTV production that mimics an NTSC show. Inserting upconverted SD signals into an HD show (which has been done on several sports shows, including the Super Bowl on CBS in 2000) causes image degradation that producers, directors, and viewers notice and dislike. In this situation, even the SD show suffers because it's been upconverted, then downconverted for NTSC.

With the new Bonnie, the SD and HD paths are routed throughout the various onboard production rooms (video, audio, and machine control) totally separate from one another. This dual-production infrastructure is supported by up to 11 Ikegami HDK-790 digital cameras and HDK-79 camcorders that travel on board and output both 601 SDI and HD signals as they come into the truck. SWTV is also using an Ikegami Mongoose fiber-to-triax adapter for the cameras, to operate in venues where fiber is not available and would be too expensive to run.

In the end, Meyers wanted to make sure his new truck was exactly what clients producing remote sports, entertainment, and corporate/industrial shows today were looking for. "This truck has got to generate business," he said. "There's no point in building a truck that nobody wants." Indeed, the truck was built with one of SWTV's primary clients, CBS Sports, in mind. The network is

looking for cost-effective ways to produce shows in both SD and HD, according to Ken Aagaard, CBS Sports vice president of Technology. This includes the use of a single digital camera with two outputs (less cameras and less cable) and using a single crew to produce both shows. Bonnie fulfills those requirements perfectly. During last fall's NCAA college football season, CBS broadcast over a dozen Southeast Conference games in the 1080i HDTV format with the help of SWTV. It was during this time, while using a fully digital truck called Sundance, that Meyers and his engineering team (lead by Sean O'Shea, director of Engineering for Core Digital and SWTV) gained a wealth of experience in how to handle a dual-feed show. Those lessons, including solving the synchronization and timing issues involved with the handling of different audio and video signals, and the HD equipment that was temporarily installed on board SWTV's largest digital truck at the time (Sundance), have been built into Bonnie.

"The CBS Sports production team told us that they didn't want to let the HDTV show interfere with their regular NTSC telecast," said Meyers, adding that directors using the truck operate as if they are producing a 4:3 show, with the camera operators framing for 4:3, while the signal is output in both SD and HDTV.

The one place where framing becomes an issue for the 16:9 audience, according to Meyers, is during stand-up interviews, when unwanted microphones, tripods, and other elements might appear to the left and right of the on-screen talent.

The new truck will cost clients slightly more than existing digital trucks, but Meyers is offering the ability to produce for both audiences or for a single SD show. "This truck can appeal to a wide variety of high-end clients and we're hoping that it will."

Among the technology not found on other mobile production vehicles, Bonnie boasts an impressive "virtual" monitor wall made up of six 40 x 30-inch Christie Digital video display cubes running Avitech signal monitoring software. The wall is capable of displaying over 96 inputs in a number of size configurations. The decision to use these cubesÑ typically found in industrial applicationsÑwas made due to space, weight, and heat considerations that come with the use of traditional CRT-based monitors. The video cubes also require less power to run. (Flat-screen LCD and plasma screens were also considered, but they were found to be inadequate for daily production and the rigors of the road.)

Some technicians think CRTs provide a sharper picture for the on-board crew, but seeing the SWTV truck's wall lit up helps make all of the stated compromises quickly go away. The wall slides forward on custom racks to allow technicians to service the back side of the monitor wall. Distributing all of these digital signals to their correct location at specific times is accomplished by a PESA Switching Systems Cheetah 128 x 128 HD router, that can handle HD and SD signals from the same rack. Combine this with a PESA Tiger 96 x 64 SD router, a PESA Jaguar 64 x 64 analog audio router, a PESA Cougar 32 x 32 analog audio router, and the 90 x 48 inputs/outputs on the truck's Sony MVS-8000 digital production switcher and that's a lot of switches. All of these are controlled by a PESA 3500Plus control panel.

The Cheetah router, the newest in PESA's product line, handles both SDI and HD, as well as other digital signals, in the same 4 RU frame. It includes redundant power, redundant control, and two outputs per serial bus. Its HD/multi-rate card set handles bit rates from 3 Mbps up to 1.5 Gbps, easily accommodating SWTV's hybrid architecture. An optional Ethernet control connection is available on each frame for future networking capabilities.

"[The router/switcher combination] is just an incredibly flexible package," said Meyers. "I think we'll use most of those inputs on big sporting events. For the NCAA football games on CBS, we'll use at least 70 inputs and probably more."

SWTV's O'Shea agreed, stating that his company has designed the truck with lots of distribution alternatives for both video and audio to accommodate the widest variety of clients.

According to Myers, at NAB more media and entertainment companies were interested in the truck than sports producers. "I think the monitor wall layout and the purity of the signal path make it very attractive for awards shows and studio work as well," he said. The truck's multichannel audio capability, thanks to its Solid State Logic Axiom MT audio console, is also sought after by live TV concert producers. (At press time, there were no plans to produce the CBS college football games in Dolby Digital 5.1.)

Nearly three years from concept to completion, the equipment on board was installed by Sony's Systems Solutions Division in six weeks, on top of a chassis built by Gerling & Associates. Meyers had planned to introduce the truck in December of last year, he said, but several critical pieces did not become available until earlier this year to complete its dual-path design.

As for adding more SD/HD trucks to SWTV's existing digital fleet, Meyers said the first few months of Bonnie's operations will demonstrate whether more trucks of this nature are needed. "When there's someone out there that's willing to pay, then we'll be ready to build," he said, adding that once the concept takes off with clients, he expects other mobile truck companies to follow suit as well.

If business is good, and the early indications are that it will be, a new generation of dual-path production trucks will continue to increase the proliferation of HD programs available while also satisfying the current need for high-quality digital production for NTSC audiences. Hedging its bets with a truck that can do both SD and HD, whichever way the digital path eventually leads, SWTV will be ready to cash in.n

Kevin Mortimer is a contributing writer for DigitalTV.

>For More...


Core Digital (SWTV)

Christie Digital




Gerling & Associates



PESA Switching Systems

Solid State Logic