Comcast SportsNet Bay Area and California Spur Hybrid Abekas Mira Configuration

The Comcast SportsNet (CSN) studio in downtown San Francisco is only two years old, but housing two 24/7 networks requires the facility’s technology to be constantly on the cutting edge. One of the most recent additions, which has dramatically improved operations for both Comcast SportsNet Bay Area and Comcast SportsNet California, is an Abekas Mira eight-channel server. Whereas an eight-channel Mira is typically used for live sports production in a six-channels-in, two-channels-out configuration, the operations team at Comcast SportsNet had a slightly different application in mind.

“The normal use for the device is in a production truck for live instant replay, where you would feed various camera angles into it,” explains Peter Schofield, senior director of operations for CSN Bay Area and CSN California. “In our configuration, we wanted Mira to be used as a tape-deck replacement for two different studios. We split the device in half, so each control room gets four channels, and then we configured each of the control rooms to be two-in, two-out.”

Indeed, this hybrid setup, in which two operators use two DNF DMAT-AB control panels, came about when Schofield explained his needs to Abekas and the company rethought the original design of its product.

When the Comcast SportsNet facility was built in 2009 to support the two networks, CSN chose XDCAM tape decks to record feeds and play them back in the control room. Both networks’ programming relies heavily on capturing live video feeds from the field, via either satellite or fiber-optic cable, and turning those feeds around for playback during live postgame shows.

“Using tape decks is not the most efficient workflow,” Schofield explains, “so we contacted Abekas. I had done a little bit of research on their Mira product, and we were impressed with their demo.”

During a trial period, the CSN production team had great success with the hybrid configuration of the Mira eight-channel server and purchased it to replace those XDCAM tape decks. The Mira’s ability to play out video while it is still being recorded allows time-shifting that CSN could not previously create.

“We used to use VTR tapes,” says Paul Davis, director for CSN Bay Area and CSN California. “When working on interviews, we would have to wait two minutes until the whole interview was finished, rerack it to the beginning, and then get ready. With the Mira system, the moment the interview is starting to feed, you can rerack it, and we’re ready. It dramatically improves the time that we can turn around whatever comes into our system.”

The Mira server now allows CSN to integrate late-breaking news, such as walk-off home runs, into its live postgame shows. Both networks roll seamlessly, without a commercial break, from the end of game coverage into their postgame shows. With the previous technology, the game-ending plays were not available to use at the top of that postgame show. With the speed of the Mira, however, the CSN team has all of those replays ready to air seconds after the game ends.

“A lot of times, the Giants’ closer, Brian Wilson, makes things dramatic for us,” says Davis. “We’ll ask our playback operator to put together a little package for us, and, with the Mira, he can instantly create it and make it available for air. Because of how fast the Mira system is, we can air that package 30 seconds after the end of the game.”

The edit-suite-like features of the Mira are a bonus for the CSN team, as is the low cost of the system compared with its competitors. But the real gift has been seeing the ways in which production personnel have begun to stretch the server’s capabilities.

“The operators are starting to get more and more familiar with it,” Schofield says, “so they’re doing more and more creative things with it.”

Davis and his team constantly change which two feeds each network’s channels are recording. Postgame interviews are the most popular recorded element, but CSN will record the games of rival teams to give viewers updates on key pennant races and other crucial plays.

“We also have multiple transmission paths from our home stadiums,” Schofield adds. “While they’re doing a live interview on one path, we are able to feed back sound or interviews and record those in the Mira, and then play them out as soon as we’re ready.”

Since adding the Mira server to the team’s production arsenal, Davis says, the improvement to nearly all the network’s shows has been quite dramatic, by virtue of the content’s increasingly quick turnaround times.

Schofield takes that praise one step further: “I would say it’s invaluable. At this point, if somebody tried to take the Mira away from us, I think you would have a lot of very unhappy people.”

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