Technical Overview: Inside the First HD British Open

The 150th Open golf championship tournament took place this year at the sport’s spiritual home, St Andrews in Scotland, and was fittingly broadcast for the first time in native HD. Host broadcaster the BBC and U.S. network ESPN laid on comparable technical productions to capture the rain and windswept event, which culminated in relative unknown Louis Oosthuizen’s lifting the Claret Jug.

The Open was among the last major televised sporting events to go HD, although, in previous years, ABC and Turner had upconverted the host feed to 720p and 1080i, respectively, with additional footage shot in native hi def. Last year, the BBC and its outside-broadcast contractor, SIS LIVE, tested HD cameras and fibre connections after termination boxes were installed at the Turnberry course by the Royal & Ancient (R&A), golf’s governing body and organiser of The Open.

Fibre for Data and Broadcast
A full-fibre network is now operating at St Andrews, put in primarily as a data-transmission system for the R&A, which uses it for ticket-bookings information, telephony, and IPTV. “The R&A was keen to get broadcasting coverage on the back of that,” says Jon Mason, head of project management at SIS LIVE. “They were hoping to reduce the amount of cabling at the course and asked what we would like in the way of termination boxes. We had approximately 20 fibre nodes round the course, and other broadcasters put in their own terminal equipment, all of it going back to the TV compound.”

This area housed the BBC, Asahi TV, and IMG at one end and ESPN at the other. SIS LIVE supplied in the region of 55 cameras, predominantly Sony HDC1500 cameras, with Grass Valley LDK8000s as wireless units and the Inertia Unlimited X-mo high-speed HD camera in RF mode.

A first for SIS LIVE at The Open was the Vortex elevating camera mount, although this was used only on the first day, until its motor burned out. Special cameras included seven radio devices, four handhelds, a Segway-mounted camera, a radio camera on a Jimmy Jib, and 8-in.-diameter dome units used originally for sailing. These were controlled remotely on the 18th fairway near the Swilcan Bridge.

HD Truck Debuts
SIS LIVE had several trucks on-site. Making a first appearance at an Open was new HD truck OB1, which produced the main host coverage. It was designed for golf and worked on coverage of Wentworth, as well as the Boat Race and the Grand National. OB3 was used for the BBC’s domestic feed, which included additional cameras and vision mixers. Unit 12 provided the golf submix, allowing play taking place at the same time to be recorded on EVS servers and played back after the main live sequence.

Telecast HDX converters were used to get signals from the cameras, which Mason says had been expected to work over copper, into the fibre network. He adds that the aim of reducing the length and number of cable runs was achieved: “We would have been looking at 2 km of cabling over triax, but the longest we had over fibre was about 600 metres. Had we been using traditional cable there would have been problems.”

Infrastructure and Special Gear
Facilities and infrastructure for ESPN’s coverage were organised through IMG, with OB trucks and the main cameras provided by CTV Outside Broadcasts. Special cameras and equipment was supplied by Aerial Video Systems. IMG Media SVP of Production Bill Lacy says ESPN this year “made a massive increase in the scope of the production” over what ABC and Turner had done in the past.

The number of cameras was doubled to 35, with more editing facilities and EVS servers also added. Presentation was enhanced through the use of the Protracer tracking system, PinPoint Visualisation 3D graphics, and PerfectPath to map players’ swing. Also added was the Strata camera crane, used on the 17th tee looking down the fairway.

“We think it’s a game-changer,” ESPN VP of Production Mike McQuade told Golf Week. “It changes the way you cover the sport [and] shows the depth, the clarity, and the overall scope of the venue.”

Independent Feeds
Lacy says the ESPN production was “virtually independent” of the BBC host feed, with the First, Second, and last four holes covered through CTV, not SIS LIVE. “We were still taking a lot from the BBC, though,” he says.

“A reason for doing this,” he adds, “was to be able to make different editorial decisions during play. Last year at Turnberry, Lee Westwood [from England] and Tom Watson [U.S.] were playing at the same time. The BBC director put Westwood on live and had Watson recorded. An American network would have wanted that the other way round.”

ESPN Signals
CTV had a large number of scanners and support vehicles at St Andrews, including OB 6, OB 9, and OB 10. These produced feeds for ESPN’s IPTV service and SportsCenter, as well as its main TV output. The HD signals were originated in 1080i and converted to 720p for transmission. Three trucks were connected over MADI for the surround-sound mix. This was the first time CTV had worked in 5.1 for ESPN. The DaySequerra DTS Neural format was used to encode discrete 5.1 channels as a stereo downmix (Lw/Rw).

ESPN Senior Audio Technical Manager Kevin Cleary went to CTV OBs’ base in north London to set up the DTS units. According to CTV OB head of sound Ian Smith, lead audio mixer Jamie McCombs was keen to ensure that the 5.1 mix was also balanced for the stereo downmix.

Audio Mix
The 5.1 mixing was done on a Calrec Alpha console, with the main ESPN output run through a Sigma desk. Mic feeds were taken from the BBC host signal, which included Soundfield surround mics at the First tee and on the 18th green. Sound for the BBC and host output was distributed on-site in linear format and transmitted as Dolby E.

Coverage of other golf tournaments by Sky and American broadcasters was already in HD, prompting a debate as to why The Open has been among the last to make the switch. Part of the reason is the scale of courses like St Andrews. BBC Sport explained in a statement , “The introduction of programming in HD is a continuous process. The BBC fully recognises the demand for HD across all genres. As an ongoing process, we have been expanding the range and volume of live sport made available in HD. We have had to balance the range of programmes available on the BBC HD Channel to deliver value for money for all BBC audiences across the genres, and the technical complexities involved in broadcasting The Open, as well as the associated costs involved, all contributed to the timing of making The Open available in HD.”

Discussions are due to take place next month between SIS LIVE and the R&A regarding a similar fibre network at the venue for the 2011 Open, St George’s at Sandwich in Kent, which is known as the English St Andrews.

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