Live From the Ryder Cup: NBC Sports Oversees Massive Tech Effort

Ken Carpenter, NBC Sports golf coverage technical manager, outside of NEP’s ND4 production unit.

From the outside looking in, the Ryder Cup may not seem like a golf event that would require a massive TV-production effort. Until the final Sunday, only 16 golfers are on the course at any one time (on Sunday, the max is 24). But the importance of the biennial event, which pits 12 golfers from the U.S. against 12 golfers from Europe and requires that each continent have a production that meets the needs of viewers, requires a massive effort that includes almost 1,000 miles of fiber, 900 production staffers, more than 185 cameras, and a production compound with dozens of production trailers, trucks, and satellite vehicles.

“We have fiber for pretty much everyone, and, if we weren’t sharing it, I don’t think there would be enough fiber in existence to meet everyone’s needs,” says Ken Carpenter, technical manager for NBC Sports’ golf coverage. NBC utilities laid down the fiber that is provided by CP Communications, whose team then helped terminate the cable runs.

Because the Ryder Cup is in the U.S. this year (at Medinah Country Club in Medinah, IL), NBC Sports plays the role of host broadcaster. It is joined by ESPN, which is broadcasting the first day of coverage today (NBC handles production of all course coverage); the Golf Channel, which is broadcasting shoulder programming around NBC Sports coverage; and Turner Sports, which is on hand for Internet streaming coverage. And then there are the European broadcasters: European Tour Productions, which produces a core feed for European broadcasters; BSkyB, which is handling live coverage for the UK and also producing 3D coverage; the BBC, which is creating a two-hour highlights package that runs as soon as the final putt drops. All told, more than 900 broadcast-production professionals are on hand to deliver what is arguably the most compelling tournament in golf.

NBC Sports also has a partner on the production in the form of European Tour Productions (ETP). NBC Sports has 49 of its own cameras, and ETP has 40 of its own. But all cameras are available via NEP’s ESU truck, giving the NBC Sports production team a wealth of options when it comes to crafting the story of the 2012 Ryder Cup.

“It works out very well,” says Carpenter of the relationship, which has ETP and NBC Sports alternating as host broadcaster. “They are a great bunch of people, and they give us boots on the ground when we are over there and help us with the vendors, and we do vice versa when they are here.”

Live Power, for example, provides generator power for everyone in the compound, and NBC Sports is also able to have the camera-scaffolding company extend the rate NBC pays to ETP.

NEP’s ND4 truck is the main production area for NBC’s efforts; NEP ND5 handles video overflow of EVS operators, graphics, and other needs. Two CP Communications trucks, RF6 and RF8, are also on hand for fiber and wireless needs for the long hours of coverage. Transmission to the NBC broadcast center is via Calhoun satellite and AT&T fiber.

“It’s grueling, as there are 36 holes of golf on Friday and Saturday and 12 twosomes on Sunday,” Carpenter explains.

The Ryder Cup is unique among golf tournaments, featuring teams of 12 golfers from the U.S. and Europe competing against each other in three days of action. The first two days offer four matches, each called “foursomes” and “fourball”; the final day comprises 12 singles matches. The tournament also does not use stroke scoring but instead involves players’ winning and losing holes. The result? All the matches may end earlier than an 18-hole match because a team that is up five holes with only four holes to play has already won the match, which ends at that point.

The unique format also means that there are only four matches in the morning and four matches in the afternoon on Friday and Saturday. As a result, NBC Sports and ETP don’t need to have camera operators stationed on all 18 holes. Instead, 35 for NBC and 30 for ETP will move from one hole to a later one once the action at their hole is complete.

“The crowds at an event like this are always the challenge,” Carpenter notes. “The production team has to do an educated guess as to how far it will take to get from one part of the course to the next.” The required buffer means that the camera operator on the first green tomorrow will also go to 11 or the Super Motion camera operator works on holes one, six, and 16.

The vast majority of the cameras are manned, but two robotic cameras are located in the water at the second and 13th holes. “They are there to cover balls that roll back into the water as we can’t see the water from our green cameras,” says Carpenter.

Although the images are often the biggest part of golf coverage, the Ryder Cup format makes audio nearly as important. First, there is the nature of the competition, which features a lot of conversation between the players and caddies as they discuss shot selection and strategy (on the second hole of the first day, however, fans were treated to a less-than happy debate about ball placement). Six parabolic microphone dishes will be with the groups on Friday and Saturday, with that number expanding to 12 on Sunday.

The emphasis of on-the-course audio and video coverage has led to some issues with respect to RF management because the Chicago airwaves are already dense with wireless traffic. It also introduces the biggest production challenge: managing the explosive crowd cheers as nationalism replaces the polite applause that can define a golf tournament.

“We call it the ‘Ryder Cup Roar,’ and, from an audio-dynamics standpoint, you go from hearing crickets chirping to a deafening football-stadium–like roar, “ says Carpenter. “The big challenge is managing those dynamics.”

Of course, big cheers means, most likely, that the U.S. team is winning, something that most likely means winning ratings as well. So making sure NBC golf audio mixer Steve Chapman finds himself battling dynamics all weekend may be the kind of tradeoff NBC Sports and U.S. golf fans are willing to make.

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