SMT Back in the Saddle for NBC’s Triple Crown Coverage

SMT is no stranger to the horseracing game, having provided data-driven graphics and other technology to NBC’s Triple Crown coverage since 2007. But, when NBC reacquired the rights to all three Triple Crown races in 2011, SMT was suddenly thrust into the spotlight as the Peacock network made amping up the real-time graphics in its coverage a top priority.

The expanded use of data-driven real-time graphics has proved a resounding success in the years since, helping to not only present the up-to-the-second odds and running order but also illustrate many of the sport’s subtleties to viewers that are often horseracing novices.

“I think more information is always good, and these kinds of [graphics] elements give viewers at home the necessary context,” says Don Tupper, VP of business development, SMT. “During the prerace, every single graphic NBC has on the air includes a live update of the racing odds. Then, during the race, you have 15-18 glorious animals out there, and it is a requirement of the fan to get an accurate order of the horses, which [our graphics] are able to do. They are dynamic and change on the fly, so it allows the fan to feel like they are actually there before, during, and after the race.”

NBC deploys several SMT products for its horseracing coverage: the Live Leaderboard System, ISO Track System, Autograph Ticker, SMART System, Track Map System, and Data Matrix (DMX) Switchboard. NBC rolls out the full suite of technologies for the Kentucky Derby but sometimes scales back for the Belmont and Preakness depending on whether a Triple Crown is in play. SMT also supplies these products for the Breeders Cup in November.

DMX and Autograph Get Social
Much of SMT’s work at Triple Crown races is driven by DMX Switchboard, which absorbs, collates, and synchronizes live data feeds into SMT’s proprietary Live Horse Racing database. It provides up to 16 separate channels for integrating live data and timecode-synchronized data into a mix of on-air and off-air graphics displays both in real-time and replay modes, enhancing NBC’s live race presentation and pre- and post-race analysis.

The Autograph Ticker, which produces an on-air display of real-time odds and bet payouts using live data from the Tote provider (in-house wagering system). This year, NBC also ramped up the use of the ticker as a social-media tool, curating and visually displaying social-media feeds from viewers, broadcast-team members, and jockeys.

SMT’s Social Media DMX module integrates live Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram feeds into the overall DMX workflow and interfaces directly with NBC’s Chyron character generator to create on-air graphics. NBC’s social-media coordinator curated this content from the production truck and fed it into the DMX system, which fed it to the ticker, the on-air talent’s monitors, and producer Rob Hyland’s monitor.

“NBC had put social media on the air in the past but never at this level and never with our Social Media DMX,” says Tupper. “It is a nice complementary piece, especially on a big show like this, where the interfaces can’t change. We are not going to introduce another connection to the [Chyron] Duet. We want it all to come through the same central distribution system. It needs to be able to flow into the production seamlessly. That’s the trick; you can’t add significant headcount or travel costs.”

SMT also added a trending feature into the workflow for all three Triple Crown races this year, tracking a predefined list of hashtags to see what topics were trending. NBC placed a graphic to visually display this info on the far right above the ticker, just outside the 4×3 safe frame to provide bonus content to HD viewers.

“It was very well received,” notes Tupper, adding, “It’s something that we’re looking to bring to all of [NBC’s] programming moving forward.”

Wire-to-Wire Graphics on the Track
DMX also drives many of the SMT elements once the horses leap out of the gate and the race begins.

SMT’s Live Leaderboard System highlights the running order of the top six horses, using positional data updated 30 times per second per horse. Meanwhile, the SMART System visually inserts “distance to the finish” indicators along the track surface to alert viewers when horses are at the 300-yard, 200-yard, and 100-yard points and the finish line. And the Track Map System gives viewers a sense of the lead horse’s real-time position and split times for the lead horse via an on-screen graphic.

Weathering the Storm for ISO Track
Another weapon at NBC’s disposal is the ISO Track System, which allows on-air talent to identify, point to, and visually track two horses live and in replay. The system also enables real-time data on a particular horse to appear when that horse is displayed in the ISO Track System.

Ordinarily, this system collects visual data from the blimp camera. However, a litany of weather issues made for a more complicated setup at the Kentucky Derby this year.

“In Kentucky at the Derby, the weather was so bad that they couldn’t fly the blimp, so they put a fixed-wing plane up, which still puts out pretty pictures but is obviously running at a much higher rate of speed than the blimp,” notes Tupper. “So we had to adjust on the fly with ISO Track to account for the new fixed-wing aircraft. That was a fun, last-minute project that was something we had never seen before. But, ultimately, the on-air product was flawless and well received. The frames change quickly when the plane is moving that fast, so it is a different challenge.”

It was more of the same in Baltimore at the Preakness, when weather issues prevented NBC’s flying any aircraft at all, but SMT was able to work on the fly.

“We did ISO track over a high-hard camera instead,” says Tupper. “That was a different application, but, thankfully, the system was flexible enough to support it.”

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