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Telemetrics camera control system for MLB Network

It's about the boys of summer. It's about America's romance with the game. It's about MLB Network and Telemetrics bringing the experience of live baseball home to millions of fans through the use of Ballpark Cam, a remotely controlled ballpark camera system.

Ballpark Cam is a one-of-a-kind camera system that Telemetrics developed for MLB Network. It enables on-air personalities of the Secaucus, NJ-based network to take viewers directly into ballparks across Major League Baseball for pregame look-ins at players warming up, live candid views of game and park activities, and player interviews in the dugout before or after the game.

Jake Soto, engineering manager, Ballpark Camera Systems for MLB Network, says the system was conceived as an overarching way to give fans at home a view into the park. He explains that up to that point, if viewers had a subscription package, they might be able to see several games across the country, but no one was offering looks into every single park for every single game.

Capturing the action

The system was phased in over a three-year period starting in 2008, when ballparks throughout the league were equipped with point-of-view (POV) cameras that were positioned in the dugouts and centerfield. The dugout cameras, used for capturing field and stadium views, are each mounted to a Telemetrics Televator EP-S3 weatherproof elevating pedestal, which is a remotely controlled motorized column that can be quickly elevated in height from 4ft to 12ft. The centerfield cameras are mounted on PT-LWP-S3 pan/tilt heads that feature shot convergence technology and are enclosed in weatherproof housings. The additional cameras have since been installed in all but one of the 30 parks, and the final installation will be performed early this year.

Each of the parks is additionally equipped with a video router and four video encoders for multiplexed video transmission. All camera feeds are connected to a multiviewer device for single-channel transmission in an HD format to a 4 × 4 matrix for preview, and every ballpark feed is done in the same sequence (i.e., a-clean video; b-dirty video; c-switched or camera video; d-matrix or multiviewer). Telemetrics DS-4 device servers are installed in the studio and remote sites to allow communication between the devices over the network connection.

Communication and control

The ballparks are each connected to the Secaucus studio via dedicated high-speed fiber. On game days, the control room operators “turn on” the link to connect to the ballpark. The system polls a park to see if it's up and if so, it will load the logo on the touch-screen panel. To make the connection for allowing remote control operation, the operator simply touches the team logo icon on the custom-designed remote control panel (RCP) screen, and the system will automatically start to receive the video feeds from that ballpark.

Video routers at the Secaucus location are programmed to direct the video to the main control room, a second control room, and to the engineering and acquisitions departments, for a total of five control panel sites. An additional two sites with control panels are used by MLB Productions, and on any given day, as many as six or eight people can be on the system.

Soto says that as long as users know the logos of the teams, they don't have to know much about baseball to operate the system because of its intuitive design.

Users must log in, and each user is assigned individual rights for control of specific ballparks and cameras. If a control panel is loaned to a local broadcaster for its use in controlling and including video from the Ballpark Cams in its broadcast, the control panel can be programmed to control only those cameras in that particular ballpark to eliminate the possibility of them inadvertently making changes to other Ballpark Cams. Additionally, the system is designed so that multiple databases are used to back up the control information, and all changes are synchronized for consistency.

Up to 16 ballparks can be simultaneously displayed in a 4 × 4 matrix with unified pan/tilt/zoom and focus control for every camera, as well as heater, blower and wiper controls. As many as 20 camera pre-sets for pan/tilt/zoom and elevator have been programmed for each of the approximately 180 cameras. The system also provides individual camera identification per the camera IP address to help ensure operational precision.

According to Sergio Penetra, senior engineer for Telemetrics, the concept was about eight months in development and then a further two years of continuous development as MLB Network fine-tuned their requirements and program offerings. He says that the system is flexible; if the network wants to make a change or add a feature or piece of equipment, Telemetrics can change the software to accommodate them.

Smile for the cameras

The systems are in constant use during the regular season through to the end of the World Series, around the end of October, at which time maintenance and system reconfigurations or upgrades are done. The systems are turned back on in February. During the baseball season, MLB Network is on live for approximately 12 hours a day during the week.

Soto says the system has changed the way the network broadcasts. When the network first started, it did six interviews that first season. Now, it does at least six interviews an hour and for the entire time the network is on the air live; 75 percent of it includes video from the Ballpark Cams. Soto adds that for the players, the systems have become part of the dugout culture and definitely part of game day for them.

Likewise, Soto says that the network has been able to cut down on production costs because it doesn't have to move cameras from place to place to cover the games or have commentators and a camera crew on-site to conduct interviews. Further, the network has been able to develop new programming around the system, such as “The Rundown” and “Intentional Talk.”

Team effort

Operational status is programmed into the system, and issues such as communication link problems will show on the indicators as a red or yellow status, depending on how far the connection is reaching. The system features basic diagnostics and is supplemented by separate software for more advanced diagnostics. New software features are made available in hard copy to Secaucus, and Telemetrics can make firmware changes remotely.

In addition to Telemetrics, CBT Systems of San Diego was involved in the initial system design and was responsible for installation of the cameras throughout the ballparks and the integration of the system at MLB Network.

Sergio Penetra is an engineer at Telemetrics.