MLB Network Steps Into Batter’s Box for Year Two: What Lies Ahead

The 2010 MLB season begins in earnest today, and MLB Network enters its second season with new technical capabilities and offerings for fans. Topping the list? In a matter of weeks, all 30 MLB stadiums will be outfitted with Grass Valley K2 servers, and an NTT MPEG-4 transmission system that will allow for camera feeds, network feeds, radio feeds, and more to be pumped back to MLB Network headquarters in Secaucus, NJ.

Baseball fans should also expect the CBT Systems’ BallPark Cam camera systems — with robotic cameras installed in centerfield, the home-team dugout, and the upper deck behind home plate — to be in all ballparks by the end of the season (about 20 will be up and running by the MLB All-Star game in July). Those camera feeds are then available to MLB Network, giving it a unique opportunity to interview players and deliver live look-ins to viewers.

“The beauty of BallPark Cam is the K2 servers allow for signal harvesting and streaming back of the historical, visual history of baseball in HD at 100 Mbps,” says Mark Haden, VP of engineering and IT for MLB Network. “And the immediacy of the cameras will allow us to look in at batting practice down the road, something that most networks don’t cover.”

CBT Systems President Darrell Wenhardt,  the system designer and integrator, has been working on the installation of the systems in the ballparks, which he describes as “basically 30 different clients with diverse personalities.”

The typical BallPark Cam system includes a Canon camera behind home and the home team dugout and a Panasonic camera in centerfield.

Different Ballparks, Different Needs
When it comes to installing the cameras, the biggest challenge is that there is no uniformity to dugout size and specifications. Wrigley Field, for example, has a small dugout that was the norm when it was built all those years ago. “Because of those differences,” Wenhardt adds, “we needed a third type of camera system for when we have a lack of space.”

That is where Camera Corps’s Q-Ball HD remote-camera system comes in. The Q-Ball incorporates 10x zoom optics (5.1mm-51mm) and pan/tilt motors in a sturdy, weatherproof aluminum sphere with a diameter of 4.52 in. It incorporates a one-third-inch, two-megapixel 16:9 CMOS sensor capable of 720p or 1080i resolution at 50 or 59.94 Hz with a greater than 50-dB signal-to-noise ratio.

Several Q-Ball systems will be used in Wrigley Field, and Yankee Stadium, Dodger Stadium, and U.S. Cellular Field (home of the Chicago White Sox) will each have one system in place. U.S. Cellular Field’s will be used for a new program on MLB Network called The Club, a reality series slated to begin in July that will focus on Ozzie Guillen, the always entertaining and vociferous manager of the Chicago White Sox.

Down the road, BallPark Cam will allow the network to save money on pre-game shows and post-game interviews. Talent, with the help of an IFB, could simply stand in front of the BallPark Cam camera and report back live to Secaucus. “We’ wouldn’t need to send a satellite truck, crew, or buy satellite time,” Haden observes. “That’s a nice return on investment.”

Camera-to-Server Communications
The size of the dugouts isn’t the ballparks’ only difference. The location of the truck compounds also affects BallPark Cam because the server system interconnects to the TV-production truck. “The newer ballparks are more uniform in where the compounds are, but three of the ballparks have compounds that are in the parking-lot area,” says Wenhardt. In that case, the system is placed in a large aluminum container with heating and air-conditioning.

“One of the things we learned in the offseason is, we needed better communications between the core rack systems to the camera locations,” says Wenhardt. “We’re using the Studio Technologies Live-Link system to have two bidirectional HD-SDI signals, microphone line signals, two IFB signals, two Intercom signals, and 10/100 LAN-card connectivity between the rack and each camera location.”

That system will improve the speed with which the network can remotely control the cameras from Secaucus, says Mark Henry, director of broadcast IT for MLB Network. “They cut down the latency in control, and updated firmware is a lot more responsive. You move the joystick, and you get response as if in the ballpark.”

Once in place, the system transports local-TV return feeds to Secaucus, where they are recorded and then edited into highlights. At the end of the game, the transmission circuit switches from live mode to file-transfer mode, and an HD recording of the game is sent to Secaucus for archive needs.

Double the Archive Capacity
All that extra work in the field has been complemented by extra work on the home front. MLB Network had a busy off season in Secaucus, expanding its Grass Valley storage area network (SAN) so that it can better meet the needs of production personnel, clients, and studio operations.

“It has quite a bit more firepower,” says Haden of a library archive system that virtually doubled in size. “We also added a lot of channels of EVS [XT] with IP Director to build highlights and feed set content and added an Evertz VIP series splitter/scaler that expands one image across four sources pixel by pixel. The beauty is, now we only need one Vizrt engine to feed four on-set monitors, freeing up valuable engines.”

Edit rooms were also added to MLB Network’s facility, and data storage in the IT department and core routing were also expanded to give the network the scale it needs to keep up with the hundreds of hours of content flowing through the system daily.

In terms of audio, an upgrade to a Calrec Alpha console from an Omega console is expected to improve operations as well. “It gives us more audio routing bandwidth and agility,” says Haden.

He says this year’s “improvements are a continuation of a path laid out by MLB Network’s upper management, who refused to take a shortsighted approach and allowed us to implement smart, cost-effective solutions for year two.”

Adds Wenhardt, “This is a tribute to the basic guesses we made early on that have stood up well in getting the network up and going. We have the right tools to build out the infrastructure.”

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