Sports broadcasters put emphasis on weight, HD

Nov 11, 2002  •  Post A Comment

The hottest trends in on-location sports production take a back-to-basics approach to design economy. Instead of adding new gee-whiz gadgets or displays of techno-wizardry, sports broadcasting is making a simple move to lighten the load of production trucks in the field and concentrate on high-definition television.
Avitech’s monitor walls, for example, are now both lighter and better geared to enable high definition.
The new emphasis on efficiency and streamlining has put ESPN in a position to take a bold step into the future with its late-September announcement that it will broadcast more than 100 sporting events in high definition starting next April.
The sports network’s headlong plunge next spring into the high-definition broadcast business will launch with a Sunday night baseball game and in the following 12-month period its programming slate will include Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NHL and college football.
Coverage of these events will be simulcast in high definition and standard definition, and the trick will be to use one dual-format truck that shoots in 720p for high definition and also standard definition, said Jed Drake, senior VP and executive producer, remote production, for ESPN. The advent of dual-format trucks from mobile truck vendors is what has largely made such a commitment to high-definition broadcasting possible, Mr. Drake said.
“Previously, you had to roll in a separate truck,” he said. Recognizing the drive toward high definition, manufacturers have adapted their equipment to accommodate high-definition broadcasts. Avitech first introduced its monitor wall nearly two years ago, but this April added an HD module to it at the National Association of Broadcasters show. The module has been installed in the Core Digital Technologies sports production truck.
“It’s easier to monitor the HD signal because it’s part of the wall,” said Michael Fazzi, sales manager for broadcast for Avitech in Redmond, Wash. Economics have made the HD integration possible, he said. The monitor wall ingests the HD signal directly from the sources and adds it to the display, which is cheaper than the previous method of using a dedicated downconverter to the HD source, Mr. Fazzi said.
While the HD addition is a sign of the times, the drastic change in truck dynamics is the use of the monitor wall itself. The wall contains a mere six monitors to display 100 sources. That means the wall is significantly lighter in weight, since less glass is used than in monitor-heavy trucks. When the weight is reduced the trucks can carry more equipment. The monitor wall allows the truck to carry an additional 1,400 pounds of weight, Mr. Fazzi said.
Such a wall is well suited for sports productions since it enables many displays, said Paul Brunkhorst, engineer in charge of the NASCAR series for Broadcast Sports, which operates one of the newer mobile trucks to produce the NASCAR coverage. The lighter truck wall was added specifically for the racing coverage, since Broadcast Sports handles in-car coverage of the racing league. With up to 14 in-car cameras for NASCAR, a monitor wall with multiple displays became necessary, he said. “The NASCAR contract forced us to look at things differently than we had,” he said. Previous trucks only allowed eight paths, he said.
ESPN’s NFL coverage this season has been enhanced with new technical elements. “We are always looking at new ways to enhance our coverage from a technical perspective,” said Mr. Drake. To that end, the network introduced Skycam into its regular-season coverage this year. Skycam is a camera that flies over the field on cables attached to the stadium and is remotely controllable from five points on the field. The network had tested the camera in years past, but the optics are finally ready for prime time, and the overhead view provides a unique perspective, Mr. Drake said.
In addition, the network added a “virtual playbook,” a touch-pad system that former Redskins quarterback Joe Theisman will operate to create instant animation that sticks to the screen. Rather than looking like a telestrated line drawn on the screen, the lines appear as if they were actually drawn on the field, Mr. Drake said. Such animation will look like the down markers now seen on the major broadcast networks. ESPN worked on the projects in the late ’90s. “It was still a science project then; now it is a television system,” he said.