Truck Design Shifts to IT: Engineering Report, Part I

Remote-production-facility providers across the country, and 
around the globe for that matter, continue to see truck design and engineering move from a video-based to an IT-based environment.

“The truck of the future is definitely about being connected,” says Jerry Steinberg, EVP of operations and technology, Fox Sports. “We seem to be at the end of baseband video as a way to move images and sound. As the signal flow becomes IP-based and trucks are connected to studios, they can move signals in a much different way.”

There is little doubt that today’s trucks have become the equivalent of large-scale IT networking environments. First, there are the EVS servers used for replay and camera recording. More and more EVS units, despite their high cost, are making their way into vehicles as tape becomes a thing of the past. And most of the other tools — the production switcher, the graphics and editing systems, audio gear — are computer-based.

And all those tools require additional IT-based networks on board. WiFi, Ethernet, and other means of connectivity can often require today’s engineers to juggle more than 10 networks. And, with operators in the truck increasingly looking to use those networks to check e-mails or surf the Web, it is important to protect mission-critical functions from outside users.

As much as IT is changing the truck infrastructure, it is also changing what can be done out of a single remote-production facility.

Fox Sports, for example, now has EVS servers at its studio operations in Los Angeles, pulling in camera signals from EVS servers in the remote-production unit at the network’s top NFL game each week. The goal? To allow the editors creating highlight packages access to different camera angles instead of just the line cut of the game.

To Tom Sahara, SVP of engineering and operations, Turner Sports, tying remote and studio operations together is the Holy Grail of remote broadcast production. “It’s about everything related to what is happening at the venue,” he says. “If there is a milestone or league record [about to be broken] and there is a need for archive footage, the con​nectivity allows the editor to search the library at headquarters, find a clip, and transfer it back to the remote.”

Reaching that Holy Grail will have a ripple effect on studio operations, reducing edit sessions because more work can be done in the field. And producers will finally be able to search for content at their own convenience, rather than requiring material to be loaded into an editing system.

But there are still issues at the regional level, says Ken Stiver, VP of engineering/operations, Mid-Atlantic Sports Network. “We don’t have connectivity in every venue to send files back and forth, and getting those pipes into venues is difficult.”

Sahara says the use of larger IP pipes also is transforming some of the traditional workflows, such as creating melt tapes or drives and sending physical media back to a broadcast facility for the archive.

“Outside of the hours of the telecast, those large pipes can do file transfers and be actively managed,” he observes. “So, on the truck side, we need to build that bridge that converges the broadcast side with the digital properties. We will produce the program and check a box where it is going to and what format it needs to be in, and then a software application will determine what the final product is.”

As much as IP pipes are changing the hardware and software in a truck, they are also changing the skill sets of engineers.

Says Game Creek Video President/owner Pat Sullivan, “There has been a complete transition from a traditional broadcast engineer when I started in this business in 1998 to guys that are IP- and network-savvy and solve problems by using the networks and IP.”

Perhaps the biggest indicator that 3D is on its way to sports-TV relevance is ESPN’s progression toward a combined 2D/3D production model. Long viewed as the Holy Grail in the quest for cost-effective live 3D sports production, the single-truck 2D/3D setup uses one crew and relies on the left-eye feed from the 3D show for the primary 2D telecast. Casually referred to as 5D, this model has been used by ESPN for X Games, Little League World Series, NBA and college basketball, and several boxing matches.

“5D gets much closer to the end objective, which is to be able to produce a 2D/3D show at the same price that you can produce 2D,” says NEP Supershooters President Mike Fernander. “And without finding a model like that, you’ll never get there. The question is, at what events are they willing to compromise the 2D production in order to do a 3D production and to what degree? I think, over time, there is going to be a blend of the two that will eventually become a single production. ESPN has gone a long way in doing that.”

However, with the exception of NEP and All Mobile Video, no U.S. truck companies have invested in a 3D truck. Much of the industry’s trepidation is due to concern that consumer-electronics companies may not always be there to cover the steep cost of an independent 3D production.

“The CE manufacturers are pushing this, and, if that money goes away, then so does 3D,” says F&F Productions founder/CEO George Orgera. “If they’re not there to pay the bills, it’s not going to happen. Our trucks are capable of doing it if you just add some 3D rigs, but we see no reason for F&F to jump in there right now.”

Sullivan seconds that notion, saying he prefers to invest in alternative up-and-coming truck technologies like 1080p and 3G. “There is no economic model for 3D to exist other than through support from [CE companies]. We have chosen to focus more on 3G and 1080p because I think there is a long-term model for that to pay for itself.”

Content creation for interactive TV services and Web streaming are also impacting truck design and infrastructure. Game Creek Video’s production unit at the U.S. Open golf championship is used by ESPN and DIRECTV to create both an interactive TV service, which allows viewers to choose from different cameras around the course, and Web-streaming coverage.

“We now do three or four broadcasts out of one set of production trucks,” says Kevin Callahan, Game Creek Video’s engineer-in-charge for the Fox Sports mobile units. “At U.S. Open golf, the majority of our truck was dedicated to the DIRECTV U.S. Open mix channels and the Internet streaming. And they looked like traditional shows; you would walk into the truck and have no idea that it was segmenting things. They all looked like full productions, with a second control room operating in tape release and a third control room for a third show.”

As trucks begin to be used for more than one production, there is also the potential for encoders, which repackage the video and audio signals for delivery straight to Websites and mobile devices, to reside in production trucks.

Sullivan says that, so far, remote-production service providers have avoided that move. “Those encoders can be very temperamental, and our guys have enough on their plate without having to deal with that.”

Additional reporting by Jason Dachman

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