The evolution of sports broadcasting

Advances like robotic cameras and solid-state recorders put viewers right at the sporting match.
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Depending on the country where you live, live events such as baseball, football, horse racing, motor racing and skiing have long been some of the most popular elements of daily television broadcasting, right back to the start of television. Prior to that, it required the talents of radio commentators to conjure images of these events into the imagination of their audiences.

Almost from the inception of televised sports broadcasting, mobile television production vehicles were coupled back to base via multihop line-of-sight links. Many state broadcasters maintained an entire department to handle communications issues, supplying auxiliary link vehicles with dish aerials aimed at intermediate repeaters, which carried line-of-sight wireless feeds to and from headquarters. Before long, many of the world's largest cities were equipped with a coaxial network linking broadcasters with key outside broadcast locations such as sports arenas and concert venues.

Until the advent of videotape recording in the late 1950s, sports broadcasting was by its very nature live. Multiturret lenses, succeeded later by powerful zoom optics, allowed a small team of camera operators to follow field sports action simply and efficiently, connected by cable straight back to the OB truck. Film played a crucial element in delivering close-up coverage of activities such as yachting, mountain climbing, flying and even parachuting. Many years passed before mobile VTRs could match the quality and portability of film.

Spectators attending a live sports event can experience a game at several levels, making their own choice of viewing direction, hearing the roar of the crowd and shouting encouragement to their preferred team. Even a modern 40in flat-screen display falls short of reality when relaying these experiences into the home. Hence, the constant pressure on producers to augment their coverage with new and unusual viewing angles, effectively transporting television viewers much closer to the action than would ever be possible had they actually travelled out to the game.

Robotic cameras

The most important single advance in sports broadcasting has been, and continues to be, the introduction of specialized robotic cameras. Take the example of televising a boat race. What better cutaway from the traditional shots from the riverside or following boat could you wish for than a miniature lightweight camera mounted above the stern of the competing boats? One possibility is a view from within each boat showing the respective coxes urging the crew onward. There is a lot more to this than meets the eye, as issues such lens cleaning under wireless remote control; installing, testing and dismantling the kit under competition conditions; and ensuring efficient RF links combine to make this “wet hire” at its wettest.

An important consideration for many producers is to avoid distracting their audience with too many high-profile point of view (POV) cameras. In other words, robotic POV cameras should be capable of delivering the best possible image from, for example, the mouth of a football or hockey goal, without themselves spoiling or interrupting the spectators' or televised view of the game. That has resulted in the design of a wide range of cameras dedicated to specific sports activities.

Archery

One of the most extreme examples of invisible POV sports coverage in which we have been involved was placing cameras into archery targets to show incoming arrows as they approach the bull's-eye. For the China Games in Beijing, we provided a practical archery target camera in HD. We had previously designed and implemented an SD camera based on a 6mm diameter single-CCD imager, which was mounted in the center of the target. Because no HD camera this small exists, a special lens 180mm long by 10mm diameter was commissioned, tapering down to just 2mm diameter at the tip.

Other similarly specialized POV technologies have included helmet-mounted cameras, body-worn cameras, pop-up cameras giving ground-level views of bobsleigh and ski events, slalom pole cameras, high-jump bar cameras, underwater robotic pan/tilt systems, and motorized track cameras.

Developments in HD

So that's where the technology stands. Where is it going next? An important recent development is the availability of highly robust recorders capturing 1080i/720p HD video and high-quality audio to solid-state memory devices such as Compact Flash. We recently implemented just such a system in the latest series of “Gladiators,” produced by Shine for the Sky 1 channel early this year at Shepperton Studios Stage C in England. The series achieved international success during the 1990s and early 2000s in Australia, Britain, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Nigeria, Russia, South Africa, Sweden and the United States. The show was revived in 2008 in Australia, Britain and the United States. Everyday athletes battle against the show's own gladiators (often semiprofessional or former athletes) to claim points in several events that require speed, strength and skill.

A new feature introduced in the latest “Gladiators” series, Rocket Ball, gives contestants the opportunity to play what amounts to basketball on steroids, launching themselves into the air on a motorized line attached to their harness. They then try to pitch the ball into baskets defended by other players. Solid-state video capture was ideal as it is far more resistant than videotape against the bumps, thumps and fast acceleration to which sports contestants subject themselves. Individual Rocket Ball games last 90 seconds and were captured to QuickTime video files, which were later forwarded to the program editors.

File-based capture to RAM or disc has one drawback compared with tape: The recorder has to terminate each sequence before it is safely in the bag. “Gladiators” is a tough environment both for the contestants and the equipment, and a few files disappeared down a digital black hole, probably due to momentary discontinuity in the power supply. The results overall were gratifying and prove the benefits of solid-state video capture. A miniature camera worn as part of a safety helmet fed each recorder.

The original “Gladiators” program concept is an example of the way in which television can directly influence the development of sport. The game's Rocket Ball element takes that a logical stage further by making great play of the vertical dimension instead of being restricted to an essentially horizontal field of play. The future of sports television looks to be influenced by the video medium itself. An example of this is the increasing use of infrared cameras in reality TV programs, which resemble sports because of their competitive element.

Another important factor influencing the future of television sport is the shift from SD to HD production and delivery, meaning the ability to deliver more detail onto a larger canvas. I started my career in the film industry and am delighted to see television getting seriously close to the real “big screen” experience. Increasing use of the Internet as a parallel medium to traditional terrestrial and satellite offers a mechanism through which broadcasters can offer sports viewers the option of selecting their choice of secondary or multiple camera view in addition to the main program feed. The extent to which they will do so remains to be seen.

The industry will see strong demand from program producers for reliable, compact, cost-efficient HD cameras that can be fielded at any location and any height without the usual restrictions of, “What if it gets wet?,” “Will it interrupt the view from other cameras?” and “Will it still work if it gets hit by the ball?”

Outside broadcasting in its early years often carried a high price tag, not least to cover the cost of technicians needed to align equipment before transmission and the sizeable crew required to operate the cameras. A practical solution to the latter task is the implementation of devices capable of operating, steering and switching between multiple remote camera heads from a single control unit. These no longer have to be brand-specific as cameras from multiple manufacturers can now be controlled and even color-matched on a switch-selectable basis. The drive for increased efficiency looks set to steer the development of sports television technology, spurred on by the growing number of sports-specific and club-specific channels appearing on the Internet.

Conclusion

In the future, sports broadcasting will strengthen along two distinct development paths: live and post-produced. Many sport followers look forward to tomorrow's match but are relatively uninterested in yesterday's. Baseball and football are classic examples. With motor racing and horse racing, this fixation on the current or upcoming contest is even more extreme as some viewers may be gambling on the outcome.

But imagine fitting all the players in a large team sport with their own HD POV cameras, worn on or in a safety helmet, plus a high-quality solid-state video recorder in a padded waist pouch. Provided the event itself permits time for offline post production, as many television-oriented rather than live-sports contests do, then the potential exists for exciting content to be assembled from individual close-ups. That could be a powerful tool in the armory of today's creative program designers and producers.

Laurie Frost is founder and managing director of Camera Corps.