ABC, crews settle in for Super Bowl

Sunday night the NFL season culminates in Super Bowl XL, a game that delivers guaranteed phenomenal ratings and an even more phenomenal technical telecast. Nearly a dozen production-related trucks and vehicles will be on hand from NEP Supershooters of Pittsburgh, PA at Ford Field in Detroit. The goal? To ensure that ABC’s telecast goes off without a hitch.

Super Bowl’s are typically not the place to experiment with new broadcast technologies. ABC, like the Seattle Seahawks and Pittsburgh Steelers, simply have too much at stake to get cute.

In addition, the sheer magnitude of the broadcast, with nearly 400 ABC employees involved and 39 cameras, means the large size will be more than enough to keep the engineering team’s plate full.

“That means longer cable runs and the attendant problems of having something happen to the cables,” says Preston Davis, ABC Operations and Engineering president. Nothing can cause headaches and disaster more quickly than a tripped or cut cable and having cables run more than three city blocks only ups the tension.

RF issues

The game coverage isn’t the only part of the broadcast that will check a technician’s mettle. James Stoffo, founder of Professional Wireless Systems (PWS), a division of Masque Sound, will handle all of the entertainment RF engineering for the use of wireless mics and in-ear monitors for the entertainment side of the broadcast. That includes the pre-game entertainment like the national anthem, halftime entertainment, and postgame entertainment and the Lombardy trophy presentation to the champion.

With close to 1,500 RF devices in use during the game the frequency juggling act can require some nifty moves that will match the on-the-field cuts of Seattle Seahawks running back Sean Alexander. Stoffo will be in charge of about 100 frequencies, handling everything from Keith Richard’s wireless guitar transmitter to handheld mics used to interview the Super Bowl XL MVP.

“It’s not only about dealing with the congested RF situation but also dealing with the additional range needed,” says Stoffo who will handle the pre-game, halftime, and post-game entertainment shows as well as the Lombardy trophy presentation. “Unlike a regular concert which might be 30 feet away we need to make sure the in-ear receivers can work from more than 400 feet away.”

Shure success

Shure microphones will be used along with 15 Sennheiser wireless transmission systems. “One of the challenges with an event like the Super Bowl is you’ll have different type of artists on stage together and they might all hold the microphone differently,” he says, adding that the ecletic mix of rap, rock, and pop starts only exacerbates the problem. A rapper, for example, might hold the mic with the diaphragm of the mic below the antenna. The angle could cause problems for the person holding the receiver dish which is supposed to pull in the antenna’s signal.

That’s one reason Stoffo built his own receive system with an elliptical-shaped dish that focuses the RF signal in a spotlight-like pattern. The more focused receive area lets the person holding the dish track the microphone no matter what position the transmitter is in. “We also use tight filtering, not just standard wideband, with the help of special cavity filters than block everything but a couple of MHz of frequencies around the receive frequency,” he says.

Stoffo’s pre-game ritual can often be as intense as that of the players and coaches. An initial site survey and RF sweep about two months prior to the Super Bowl let him pick the 80 or 90 frequencies he would like to use. He then submits that list Jay Gerber, the NFL’s frequency co-ordinator, who then gives Stoffo his own set of frequencies.

Watchful eye

“This Sunday I’ll be constantly monitoring RF frequencies before the National Anthem and halftime with a crew of four armed with spectrum analysers,” says Stoffo. The goal is to find any unauthorized users who might be on Stoffo’s frequencies although the level of RF security is tight. An RF check-in point for media and others requires all devices to be cleared before they can be switched on.

The Super Bowl always requires large number of cameras but this year ABC is adding even more HD coverage. For the first time a new Sony slow-motion system will put to use, capturing HD video at up to 320 frames per second. Davis says ABC will also use two HD wireless RF systems from Aerial Video Systems to send HD signals from two handheld cameras roving the stadium.

Randy Hermes, CEO of Aerial Video Systems, says the wireless systems were first demonstrated at the end of the season during a regular season contest. “It was the first successful demonstration of a wireless HD system that had low latency of around 50 milliseconds which is unbelievably faster than other systems,” he says. The technology was created by UK-based Link Systems who will also supply the systems to NBC for use during the Olympics.

The month of February, 2006 is already shaping up to be a watershed for HD and sports. HD broadcasts continue to drive HD sales and with the Olympics and the Super Bowl moving closer to being 100% HD events manufacturers of gear are ready and willing to help out. “HD is still an emerging market,” says Hermes. But after this month they’ll be emerging no more.

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