Op-Ed: The Future of Live Sports Broadcasting: Challenges and Opportunities in Remote Production

Latency and bandwidth are major concerns; reducing onsite crew and gear can reduce costs

A list of the most-watched televised events in history makes clear what the biggest draw for broadcasters and networks is. From the Olympic Games to the FIFA World Cup, to high-profile boxing bouts and the world’s leading tennis championships, live sports productions regularly deliver some of the world’s biggest TV audiences. Today’s fans have more ways than ever to gain access to their favorite sports stars, teams, or leagues, and the ease of streaming services is helping to further connect globally dispersed audiences. As a result, the demand for live event coverage is at an all-time high.

Kevin Mockford, Director, Contribution Distribution and Broadcast Segment, MediaKind

Broadcasters today face the challenge of acquiring compelling live sports content in the quality that today’s fans expect and at a cost that makes commercial sense. This has led to major developments in remote-production (or at-home) solutions as broadcasters and rights owners seek to reduce onsite personnel and equipment at an event. These advances are particularly timely, given the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting social-distancing rules.

In a remote-production workflow, the video, audio, and data feeds are taken from the venue to an offsite production facility, where the process of creating the complete program content is carried out. This applies to vision mixing, audio mixing, adding graphics, and even adding remote commentary.

This approach avoids the expense of transporting people and equipment to and from a venue. By minimizing time spent in transit, broadcasters can better utilize their highly skilled staff and expensive equipment. And it could mean that one production team is able to cover multiple events in one day from a single location, in the process helping to neutralize carbon footprint.

The Challenges in a Remote Approach
Inevitably, live remote production presents challenges and compromises that must be addressed, with costs often just one of many considerations.

Maintaining synchronization between all video, audio, and metadata feeds is a critical element in remote video and audio mixing. For example, an operator switching between two cameras capturing the final putt on the 18th green doesn’t want to see the ball appear to momentarily jump back out of the hole.

Whatever technique is used to achieve and maintain this synchronization, it must be robust enough to handle such real-world operational challenges as transmission links momentarily dropping out or equipment failing and being replaced by a backup unit. Under such circumstances, correct synchronization must be restored easily and quickly, ideally without operator intervention.

There is also a strong desire to minimize end-to-end latency in the production and distribution chain for live sports coverage, but it can become even more important if the production is being performed remotely from the venue. How crucial this is and to what extent the maximum latency can be tolerated depend exactly on what control tasks are being performed remotely. These could include camera control, video and audio mixing, and returning video and audio to the venue.

In addition, the availability of data bandwidth at a venue and the cost of connectivity can vary enormously. However, it is key to the technical and commercial viability of remote production. Without the necessary amount of bandwidth to transport all the video and audio feeds to the production facility at the necessary quality and within the desired transmission latency, remote production is simply not possible.

The good news is, there are several ways to address these technical challenges.

Compression-Based Remote Production
If there is sufficient bandwidth between the venue and the production facility, sending uncompressed video and audio offers the highest quality and lowest latency for remote production. If this is achieved using the latest real-time media-over-IP standard, SMPTE ST 2110, the required timing information is inherently embedded within the streams, making synchronization at the production facility straightforward.

The absence of video-compression/decompression delays promises minimal latency. Yet the bandwidth required, particularly with the move to UHD productions, can be prohibitive, and the costs of such connectivity, if available, are very high.

If the availability or cost of sufficient bandwidth from the venue to production facility means that some form of compression is required, light-compression standards (such as JPEG 2000) offer a credible alternative.

JPEG 2000 can provide up to 10:1 video compression without noticeable degradation in picture quality and can do so while introducing only two- or three-frame delay (plus the network delay), thereby meeting all but the most stringent latency requirements.

However, we are likely to see JPEG 2000 superseded by JPEG-XS in remote production, because it has two key advantages. The first is that it’s able to provide sub-frame end-to-end latency while achieving compression performance similar to JPEG 2000. Second, it has been designed to be efficiently implemented on CPU platforms, as well as in FPGAs and ASICs. In contrast, JPEG 2000 does not suit CPU implementation.

If sufficient bandwidth is not available or the cost of the bandwidth is deemed too high for the use of light compression, a higher-performance video codec is required. MPEG-4 AVC has been used, but this increasingly means the use of HEVC.

HEVC can provide between 120:1 and 150:1 or better visually loss-less compression, which equates to a huge bandwidth saving over the light-compression codecs, but at the price of increased latency. HEVC cannot provide the sub-frame latency offered by JPEG-XS, but solutions designed for low-latency, high-quality contribution links can prove sufficient for remote video and audio mixing.

Alternatives to Fiber-Based Connectivity
Given the latency requirements of remote production, fiber connectivity is often considered an absolute prerequisite. However, this is not always the case. If remote control of the onsite equipment is not required, then the additional latency of satellite transmission does not preclude its use. In fact, where fiber connectivity is not available nor is there the additional security of an alternative transmission path (in case the fiber link fails), satellite links have been, and continue to be, used.

Another alternative to direct fiber connectivity is the use of mobile networks. Digital newsgathering systems that provide live video and audio links via the mobile network — often bonding multiple connections together to obtain sufficient bandwidth — have taken over a large part of the newsgathering market in the past few years. The end-to-end latency that such systems can provide is similar to those provided by satellite-based systems, and therefore, they can equally be used for remote production.

The challenge here is obtaining and maintaining sufficient bandwidth during the event, particularly when the crowd arrives and use their mobile phones. The rollout of 5G could potentially address this issue, as well as promising lower latency. This rollout is in its infancy, however, and the network-slicing capability needed to provide the guaranteed connectivity and bandwidth essential for live event coverage is not currently a top priority for the telecom operators. It may therefore be some time before 5G-based remote production becomes widespread.

Is Remote Production Here To Stay?
Remote workflows have become essential to the media industry, and technology development is helping service providers deliver new offerings with greater ease and robustness. With the ever-increasing availability and reliability of high-data-rate IP connectivity at venues, combined with the desire to reduce the cost and environmental impact of event coverage, the increased adoption of remote production is inevitable.

The discussion has so far been focused on transporting all the video, audio, and metadata from a venue to a central production facility. In the future, however, we are likely to see the emergence of what could be termed “distributed production” with increased use of cloud platforms. Until then, broadcasters have more opportunities than ever to better utilize highly skilled staff and expensive equipment when live sports events return to our screens.

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