A Super All-HD Debut

Jan 30, 2006  •  Post A Comment

When the Seattle Seahawks meet the Pittsburgh Steelers this Sunday in Detroit, it will mark a new television viewing experience: the first time that virtually every frame of the Super Bowl coverage will be shot and broadcast in high definition.

ABC used the recently concluded season of “Monday Night Football”-the show’s final season on ABC-as the testbed for many of the new technologies that will make their Super Bowl debut. ABC will also up the ante a bit by pushing new HD capabilities to the limit in the Super Bowl itself.

The Coolest Toys

That requires a bit of a balancing act by the network. As the most-watched TV event of the year, the Super Bowl provides no room for error. But it’s also a showcase for the coolest new technology.

“The Super Bowl is the time to experiment and try something new to make a splash,” said Mike Strein, director of digital television development for ABC. But ABC will put many of those new technologies through the wringer in a final week of testing before the game kicks off.

“You want all the best toys you can use, but you don’t want anything to impact the show. That’s why we are making sure things work before we get out there. The producers and directors want to push the envelope, but don’t want to miss the play that turns the whole tide,” Mr. Strein said.

This will be ABC’s third Super Bowl in HD. Its first was in 2000, also the first Super Bowl to be broadcast in HD. And while the game itself has been televised in HD in the past, this year marks the first time that every aspect of the game will be produced in hi-def.

Most of the equipment ABC is installing was used during “Monday Night Football” last season, but some tools will make their first appearances.

For instance, ABC will use wireless HD cameras for the first time in the Super Bowl (it has used them for aerial shots in “MNF”). The network’s Super SloMo cameras in HD also will make their first Super Bowl appearance after a tryout on “MNF.”

Wireless Cameras

Once in place, ABC will be able to capture every aspect of the game and the in-game coverage in HD. That’s a change from past telecasts. “If you watch an HD football game, you see elements that have not been in HD, various different things that are noticeable,” said Jay Gleeson, manager of sports remotes for ABC. “So now just about everything, every picture, I believe, you will see will be an HD picture.”

The two wireless HD cameras, from Aerial Video Systems, allow reporters and camera crews to go anywhere in the stadium. “That’s to keep the fans [in the action] and take them up in the stands, walking down the aisles, standing in the concession line,” Mr. Gleeson said.

Wireless cameras have been available for some time in analog, but are new as an HD technology. “The wireless camera is one of the last pieces available. It’s been the first year it’s available,” he said.

This kind of camera also allows crews to go in the tunnels and follow the team as the players exit the locker room. Past Super Bowls have shown these shots before, but they have always been captured in standard definition and then upconverted to HD.

ABC expected to receive last week the next-generation Sony Super SloMo camera that will enable it to show even more detailed slow-motion shots than in the past. Super SloMo became available last year and was used during “Monday Night Football” with cameras that operate at “2X,” meaning the action is slowed down by 50 percent. During the Super Bowl, ABC will put to use a Super SloMo camera that operates at 3X, Mr. Strein said.

“It gives you a little bit more. You see the rotation of the ball. You see 30 percent more frames in your view. You can slow it down to a smoother picture,” he said. ABC used seven of the Super SloMo 2X cameras during “Monday Night Football.” It will use those and add the new 3X camera to the mix Sunday after testing it in Detroit before the game.

“Our production team doesn’t want to be remembered for the one that got away,” Mr. Gleeson said. “So you don’t throw caution to the wind. You make sure it works. The whole 18 games of ‘Monday Night Football’ is nothing but a rehearsal for the Super Bowl.”

A ‘Seamless Show’

Before this past football season, ABC and other broadcasters have upconverted slow-motion footage and other footage into HD. Upconverting has been useful because it allows a broadcaster to include a production element it wouldn’t otherwise have, such as the slow-motion effect. But the final picture lacks clarity and quality.

“Now we will have the whole seamless show,” Mr. Strein said. “The standard-definition audience doesn’t see the difference. The HD audience is seeing big, beautiful high resolution. When you upconvert, you lose the resolution and the size, and now we merge everything together. It’s a continuous HD picture.”

ABC will also ratchet up its graphic capabilities. The network will use six rather than the usual five cameras to configure the red zone line and yellow first-down lines to offer even more viewing angles. Those additional cameras enable bigger close-ups for the virtual graphics that are superimposed on the field.

Viewers want these kinds of innovations, according to a recent survey conducted by the Consumer Electronics Association and the newly created Sports Video Group, an industry association designed to foster the use of technology to cover sports. The survey found that nearly 80 percent of HD sports fans said the Super Bowl was their top HD event of the year.

“Any steps taken to improve the viewing experience will not only be appreciated by the existing set owners but also make people who just bought a set to watch their favorite team in the Super Bowl that much more pleased with the decision to fork over two to three thousand dollars for a TV,” said Ken Kerschbaumer, editorial director of the Sports Video Group.

The ABC effort could help convince other broadcasters to adopt some of these missing-link HD pieces after the Super Bowl, such as wireless HD cameras. “If ABC is comfortable enough to use it during the Super Bowl, it really validates its use for other sporting and even news events,” Mr. Kerschbaumer said.

Super Bowl Production by the Numbers

For Sunday’s game, ABC will use:

  • 10 production trucks from NEP Broadcasting

  • 39 cameras for the game itself

  • 36 camera operators (some cameras are fixed)

  • An additional 15 cameras for the pre-game and post-game shows

  • Seven cameras for the halftime show