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A simple life-saving solution

The end of the summer means powerboat racing at the Lake of the Ozarks. This year’s Shootout race speed record was 224mph, and we were there with the production technology “rooster-tail” to match. This time, “we” were KRMS Radio; Charter Cable in Osage Beach, MO; FOX 49 KRBK-TV in Springfield, MO; and KQFX FOX 22 in Columbia, MO.

It was a unique opportunity to live and learn. Let’s start with the learning.

Cellular bonding tactics

The Lake Shootout is a mile-long powerboat race course on a 90mi lake designed for top speed at the end of the measured mile. To say it is in a geographically remote location would be an understatement.

For the past couple of years, we’ve used bonded cellular products to bring three SD camera signals to a control room across the lake. This was the first year we have done the live production in HD. In our SD days, we could use the Wi-Fi mode, minimizing delay.

Weather conditions couldn’t have been better, which made the crowds even larger than expected. As a consequence, there was more IP and Wi-Fi traffic in the area than ever. Cell traffic was similarly congested as all available cellular service in most of the area emanated from a single tower. Large crowds devoured spectrum, including us.

At this year’s Shootout, the good people at LiveU graciously volunteered to help us with their gear. They loaned us five LU70s, an LU-Xtender external antenna for signal boost and six additional modems for the LU70. They also sent an engineer to help.

LiveU was a particularly interesting partner because KRBK and KQFX already had LiveU servers we could use for program backhaul via IP. Because the stations were both FOX, we produced and backhauled everything in 720p with an LU70.

Our start-line camera was on a boat with a LiveU LU70 and the Xtender containing a total of 12 cell cards. It performed flawlessly, never pixelated and showed an average bit rate of 3.5Kb/s. Our two finish-line cameras were about 1.5mi further from the cell tower, contained fewer cell cards and occasionally pixelated. We dialed in a 10-second delay to help compensate for the pixilation. According to one LiveU engineer, the pixelization was also the result of cable modem fluctuations at the studio.

We had similar experiences with a fourth LiveU unit we used for “walking-around” hand-held shots such as our world famous Hottiecam, Babycam, Doggiecam and Dockcam shots. Problems with signals from this camera were aggravated by the terrain and multiple physical barriers between the unit and the towers, and electrically well-grounded large metal docks with metal roofs. To compensate, the camera operator found some sweet spots to feed content ahead of time from. Those clips were captured on a NewTek 3Play 4800 for later near-live playout. More about NewTek’s 3Play later.

Local direction

The delay from the live cameras on the race course would have been a big problem with inexperienced camera operators. In fact, cameras had to direct themselves because their images weren’t seen or switched in the control room until 10 seconds later. Because of the format of the event, shots were easy to predict. Bonded cellular was an exciting alternative to dedicated microwave systems, but we’ve decided that next time we’re going to try to supplement it with a better Wi-Fi system, with repeaters and high gain antennas.

We’ve made this decision primarily due to challenging terrain that limited connectivity in some spots, and in order to potentially minimize the delay in those spots. Or, maybe we’ll try something entirely new and different. Isn’t that what broadcast engineering is all about?

Bonded cellular technology seems to shine brightest in situations where typical broadcast microwave and satellite systems are not reliable, such as on a rocking boat.

We learned that more cards are better. A particular bonded cellular system may be quite reliable on an average day in the city, but results might not be similar in a crowded remote valley, unless you can find the right spots that can reach the local cell tower with your signals.

Star of the show

The Shootout consists of about 150 powerboats competing one at a time for top speed down a single race course over two days. This format leaves plenty of time for replays, stats and color as individual race boats get on and off the course. For this, we used radio sports announcers who couldn’t stop talking and NewTek’s 3Play 4800 for video support. It was a great combination.

We had used the same 3Play at a different race event earlier this year and received training from NewTek’s James Miller. This time, James was busy. I watched James train the operator we used the first time, but that operator was off to college. Instead, KRMS radio station traffic manager Samantha Bartley was assigned the task at the last moment. The afternoon before race coverage began, I taught her everything I knew about operating the 3-Play in about 10 minutes. She knew computers, and her eyes lit up.

The morning live coverage began, one of our camera operators who had operated a 3Play in other sports productions answered her questions and taught her some shortcuts.

Unanimous consensus was that Samantha mastered the 3Play system within the first hour or so of use. In her “spare” time she assembled impressive highlight reels between live replays. She was producing dazzling work with virtually no television experience and little outside direction. There was plenty of air-time for the 3Play to perform, and Samantha took that opportunity to a whole new level, dazzling everyone and providing a transparent workaround for our Hottiecam/Dockcam reliability issues.

From an engineering perspective, the 3Play was easy to interface and monitor because of its loop-thru inputs and variety of outputs including a DVI multi-viewer interface. It only required one production switcher input for its replay functions. Cameras were looped through the 3Play to the production switcher.

Learn and live

After 14 hours of set-up and rehearsal the day before the race broadcasts were to begin, all inputs were verified and labeled, and we were ready to broadcast the next morning. What happened on my way to bed in the studio changed everything.

Regular readers of "Transition to Digital" newsletter tutorials know I have three primary rules in my personal book of broadcast engineering behavior standards. Rule One is to not become the news. Rule Two is to always have a ready Plan B in place. Rule Three is to surround myself with knowledgeable experienced people. That night, I discovered Rule Four.

On my way to retrieve a sleeping bag from my vehicle, I fell down a flight of outdoor deck stairs — you-know-what over elbows, bouncing down a hill across a cement sidewalk into a pile of rocks. I’ve seen my share of productions go downhill in a hand basket, but I had never seen one go downhill like this before and frankly, I could have used a hand basket. That was the fleeting thought in my spinning brain the moment I was knocked unconscious. About 3 a.m., Life Flight flew me 100mi north to the University of Missouri Hospital in Columbia, where I spent the next week in ICU. As it turns out, I was the luckiest person at the Shootout, and thanks to everyone and God, on the road to recovery.

In the early morning hours, as the crew learned what all the outside commotion was about, my good Rule Three friends implemented Rule Two. People traded positions, got up to speed and made the best of the situation. The show went on. Viewers, advertisers and the TV stations that carried the live events were happy. Few that didn’t know were the wiser. Rule Three also helped me prepare this tutorial, because I was out for the count. Incidentally, on Sunday afternoon, the Shootout broadcast averaged a 2.13 rating. It peaked at 10,629 households and was No. 2 in its time period.

A simple solution

My new Rule Four is to be prepared for personal disaster. I’ve worked thousands of sports productions and ENG shots and never seen any crew members LifeFlighted anywhere, until my accident. It was 3 a.m., and EMT needed my MPOA (Medical Power of Attorney). I was out cold, but my employer found my unlocked cell phone and started dialing my contact list of people with my last name. Some answered, my MPOA binder was retrieved, and I promptly received the emergency surgery I needed. That, my friends, was a miracle. Most people don’t answer 3 a.m. phone calls.

I almost always carry a remote box in my vehicle. It’s usually full of audio, video and computer cables, adaptors, wall warts, mics, lenses, power cords, probes, gaffer tape and all the other magical apparatus it takes to avoid panic at a production or project. I thought I had everything I would ever need in that box. Turns out, that MPOA I so desperately needed that night was in a file cabinet at home.

My remote box now contains a legal copy of my MPOA, along with a list of prescriptions and a call list of everyone I want notified and who they are. It’s all sealed in a large brown envelope at the bottom of my box. I’ll remind everyone where it is next time I do outside engineering or production work. I’m also suggesting that everyone I work with and you do the same. It’s a simple solution that puts everyone’s mind at ease and could prove a very simple way to save a life that could be your own.

Author’s note: There’s not enough room for proper credit due so many people involved in the rescue of me and the production. You know who you are, and you did great. Thank you to everyone who came to my assistance and for your prayers.