Sports Execs Tackle New Tech, Tight Budgets at HD World Mobile Truck Panel

With sports broadcasting in the midst of a busy fall of overlapping college football, National Football League, National Hockey League, NASCAR, and Major League Baseball seasons, field veterans from Turner, CBS, and HBO gathered at HD World in New York Oct. 13 to discuss the state of the mobile-production industry and outline areas for future improvement.

In the panel discussion Goin’ Mobile: The New Era in Production, moderator Pat Sullivan, president of Game Creek Video, started by joking that he has always wanted to ask the question “How can I charge more money for my trucks?” But it was clear from the ensuing conversation that, while business for truck vendors like Game Creek might be good, they shouldn’t be looking for big price increases from their network clients.

When asked what has been their biggest challenge in the past five years, executives from both CBS and HBO said it was figuring out how to add new technology to stay competitive — such as super-slo-mo cameras, Q-Ball remote cameras, and improved graphics — while operating under tight financial constraints.

“All these things cost money, and, at the same time, the bean counters are cutting the budget 5%-10% each year,” said Jason Cohen, director of sports production for HBO. “There are only so many ways to cut transmission times and cut craft services. That’s been our biggest challenge, trying to shoehorn all the different advances and keep ahead of the other networks and still fit in the budget.”

And Bruce Goldfeder, director of engineering for CBS Sports, pointed out that network brass want to see a tangible return before investing in new gear, which often is difficult to prove with the long-term projects he works on. “It’s hard to incorporate new technology into shows when you can’t show an ROI for it.”

Alternative Streams
The biggest change at Turner has been planning for producing alternative program streams for major events, such as live Web coverage of particular golf holes or pre- and post-game press conferences, in addition to the primary broadcast coverage, said Tom Sahara, senior director of Turner Sports IT and Remote Operations.

Although Turner has a well-established digital business that handles Web operations for the NBA and PGA, he said, those Web initiatives do not operate as “individual silos” from core broadcast operations at big events like the PGA Championship.

“They use many of the same facilities and same people,” Sahara added. “There is so much crossover, we have to look at everything as a single event. We go to all the different production units, collect their requirements, and put the jigsaw puzzle together. We have to come up with an effective plan within cost constraints and schedule constraints [both venues and vendors].”

Sullivan noted that ancillary efforts at major events have meant new business for Game Creek. At the U.S. Open golf tournament, for example, ESPN hired the large Game Creek mobile unit that Fox usually deploys for NASCAR and used it to produce SportsCenter segments from the venue, create interactive TV channels for DirecTV, and deliver streaming coverage for the USGA.

Gains in Audio
Although Game Creek used to spend perhaps 5% of a truck’s budget on audio equipment, said Sullivan, it now devotes up to 25% of the budget to digital audio equipment. The network executives all said that producing sports in full surround sound and delivering that quality to the home is a priority, with Goldfeder noting that CBS did the latest Super Bowl in full 5.1-channel Dolby Digital.

He reported that using embedded audio in trucks has made producing in surround sound easier: “That was the holy grail for me.”

Some major programmers, such as ESPN, have expressed interest in producing sports in full 1080p/60, which requires a 3-Gbps infrastructure. But the executives from CBS, Turner, and HBO all said that was unlikely to happen for their networks, which have just completed significant investments in 1.5-Gbps infrastructures to support uncompressed production at 1080i/60.

Sahara said that some 1080p/60 production could occur in “limited islands” for high-quality mastering but widespread adoption of the format for live sports was a long way off. “I think maybe that could happen in 20 years but probably not in my lifetime.”

Is 3D Real?
The panel also said the jury is still out on stereoscopic 3D technology, even though both Turner and CBS have already produced stereoscopic 3D broadcasts. Goldfeder said new ShadowD rigs from PACE, which combine 2D and 3D cameras into a single rig that can be controlled by a single operator, worked well for US Open tennis but more testing needs to be done to see whether it will work for different sports with different camera angles.

Turner has been investigating 3D for eight to 10 years, said Sahara, but is still waiting to see “is this real or not?” He said it will be interesting to see if consumers “vote with their dollars” this holiday season by buying new 3D sets.

Cohen echoed that point, alluding to the subsidy deals from TV-set manufacturers Sony and Panasonic that are currently driving early 3D networks from ESPN and DirecTV.  “Who’s going to pay for it ultimately, when the funny money dries up?” he asked.

Turning to more-practical matters, the panelists said the current supply of HD trucks is adequate for their needs but they would like to see more depth in freelance personnel across the country.

“It’s the greatest challenge we have now, as we’re traveling fewer techs to each show,” said Cohen. “We can call as many people as we want, but, at certain points, you tap out in markets.”

Both Goldfeder and Sahara said it was a priority for the industry to recruit younger personnel into sports production and provide them with adequate support and training to pick up the expertise required by big-time network productions. Goldfeder said mobile-truck giant NEP is doing a good job of bringing younger people into the business.

Sahara added that industry associations like SVG could also play a role: “We have to start looking for the next generation.”

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