Token Creek Tackles HD College Productions
By Carolyn Braff
This season, more broadcasters turned to HD for their college-football packages than ever before, giving viewers at home a much clearer view of the on-field action. However, producing HD-quality games at not-quite-television-ready venues has put the production companies in charge of those packages at a third-and-long disadvantage week after week.
“Especially with older facilities that weren’t built for TV, you’re always going to have some challenges,” explains Steve Sontag, engineer in charge of Token Creek Mobile TV’s Hiawatha truck. “Just getting a large trailer in place and getting it at something approaching level so that the chairs don’t all roll around inside can be tough.”
Hiawatha, a 53-foot HD truck, is covering a package of Atlantic Coast Conference football games for Raycom Sports this season, sending Sontag from Boston to Atlanta and back again. Hiawatha also does an NBA package in San Antonio, so, come November, Sontag’s travel log will lengthen considerably as the truck commutes between San Antonio and the ACC host of the week.
“Most of the places in the ACC we’ve been to have been pretty good,” Sontag says. “Georgia Tech is a very difficult place to physically get a truck into, but then you’ve got places like North Carolina State that are easier than some professional venues.”
For universities that are not used to hosting outside television productions, Sontag explains, the lack of infrastructure — including cable — can complicate the production of a high-definition feed.
“At most of these venues, they’re not putting a lot of money into the TV infrastructure, so now that we’re doing high-definition, it can be a bit more of a challenge to get cameras to fire and get video feeds to and from a booth,” Sontag explains. “When Hiawatha was a standard-definition truck, we had Sony 900 cameras in there, and they would fire down just about any piece of copper that you had to hook them up to. Now we’re using the Thomson LDK 8000s, and because they’re high-definition, they’re just a little more finicky.”
Finding Internet connectivity, which is now a standard requirement, can also be difficult, although Sontag says that every stadium now has Internet available, even if it takes an entire day to get it. Luckily, he has that kind of time, because his crew gets an entire set day for each of his shows, generally parking on Friday morning for a noon kickoff on Saturday. Sontag’s colleague Brendan Clark, EIC on Token Creek’s Varsity truck, however, does not have that luxury.
“If Brendan has a game at 3:30 on Saturday afternoon, he comes in Saturday morning,” Sontag explains. “That’s a whole other level of headache when you’ve got that real hard time limit up against you, when the game is going to start.”
Varsity, a 53-foot HD expando unit, covers a Thursday and Saturday package of college football games for ESPNU HD, which puts Clark in some less than ideal football-production environments.
“One of the first things we see is, the smaller schools don’t have a place for a large, 53-foot trailer to pull into thatŐs close to the stadium,” Clark says. “For the most part, we end up doing our research over Google Maps to see what we’re getting into. Our engineers usually show up early and figure out how to get the truck and trailer in there.”
Broadcasting in HD means that several additional considerations must be taken into account, such as the proximity of the uplink truck to the rest of the operation.
“If youŐre trying to push HD down a cable, you might have to switch from copper to fiber in order to get your signals across,” Clark says. ŇIf the uplink truck can’t park close enough for you to get a shot of the satellite, you might have to fiber your signal up to your satellite uplink.”
For last Thursday’s game between Jacksonville State and Tennessee-Martin, Clark’s operations team worked with the host school to set up the Varsity truck across a row of parking spaces in a public parking lot in front of the stadium. Clark also had to set up his own generator, run his own cables, and get his own DSL modem online, all in the few hours between setup and kickoff.
“There’s a definite difference between the smaller venues and the bigger ones,” Clark says. “When you get to the bigger programs that have a bit bigger athletic department budgets, they usually have cabling, a better place to park, and power available.”
Also, they don’t normally need the auxiliary lights that were brought in for last Thursday’s production.
“Some of the new facilities rival a lot of NFL facilities,” Clark says. “We were just down at Wake Forest the other week, and they have a beautiful setup. For doing a show the size that we do, it was perfect, and you can do a much larger show very easily. They have very nice I/Os, the power was close, they even had office rooms and edit rooms set up. It was well thought out because they know that they’re having these network trucks in there all the time.”