TV on Wheels Book Excerpt: Remote Production, Part 1 — Logistics

Ten years ago, Jim Boston and George Hoover published TV on Wheels, a book that celebrated and explained the history, operations, and logistics of remote-production-vehicle operations. The newest edition, published last fall, extends its editorial scope with expanded coverage of engineering topics: going digital, networking, and file management, as well as audio consoles, replay devices, cameras, lenses, and more. Here’s an excerpt from the chapter on logistics.

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The bottom line, no matter what your plans are: don’t count on the weather to cooperate.

The majority of remote television productions in the United States are what we refer to as “set-shoot-strikes.” The mobile unit shows up several hours before the event and sets up to cover the event, then packs up, borrowing a theatrical term for tearing down the show, the “strike.” Most regional sports networks produce their remotes using the set-shoot-strike model, whether it’s Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Basketball Association (NBA) or National Hockey League (NHL) events; even most college sports, with the exception of football, follow this same process.

Set-shoot-strikes work best, and are most efficient, when the event happens at a stadium or venue where television occurs on a regular basis, such as professional sports venues. Due to the frequency of coverage, these venues are generally precabled, meaning that the cable runs from the truck parking area to the camera locations and the field are already in place. Additionally, these venues have permanent power connections for the truck, and permanently installed backhaul connections to get the signals back to the broadcast center for distribution.

Remote trucks designed to predominantly service the set-shoot-strike market must be designed for very rapid setup and teardown. Not only must the technical systems be quick to configure, but also the gear must be stored and organized in such a fashion that setup and teardown go very smoothly.

Organization Speeds Setup
A good functional truck will have gear organized and packed for quick and logical access.

These trucks typically organize and store gear by where it needs to go within the venue, in order to execute the production efficiently. As an example, all the microphones, headsets, and cables used at the announcer’s position, or booth, are packaged together as a “Booth Kit” in one or two cases. A truck that does not do recurring set-shoot-strikes may organize all the audio gear by type: all microphones in one place, headsets in another, cables in a third, intercoms elsewhere, and so forth. Often these are in different areas of the truck, and the time to select and gather the components for the booth can add a full half hour to the setup.

Virtually all U.S. remote trucks are in expanding trailers, or expandos. Careful attention must be given to allow for rapid expansion and setup of the truck’s interior so the crew can sit down and begin to work as quickly as possible. Something as simple as how the stairs and door platforms are stowed can have a big impact on setup and strike time.

For set-shoot-strike events, mobile units typically are wired to support from 10 to 18 camera feeds. A truck this size represents an investment of between $5 million and $6 million.

Today, software-controlled configurations have eliminated most patching in the truck, for audio, communication, and video systems. Since entire setups can be saved and recalled, a repeat client or event is easy to get up and running quickly. Unfortunately, software-controlled systems offer an infinite number of possibilities, and infinite choices take infinite time to setup. Most well-engineered and -run trucks maintain stock layouts for audio, communications, video, and monitor walls to speed setup for a client who has never worked in that particular truck before.

Work-Area Configuration
The goal of modern truck design is to allow individual operators to configure their work area —communications, audio monitoring, video-monitor-wall display layout — themselves using a tablet, rather than having to submit paper charts to the EIC to manually configure their work area as in times past.

Often, the EIC has his or her hands full with the number of feeds leaving the truck: Home and away feeds, clean and/or dirty feeds for leagues, international feeds, second-language feeds, and isolated camera angles for the in-venue screen system all have to be dealt with.

College football generally stretches the set-shoot-strike by a day, adding a separate set day. Since most college football stadiums are not precabled for television, the extra set day becomes crucial for at least a skeleton crew to come in and run any additional cables, and build camera positions.

Logistically, event scheduling is always a trade-off between one long day and two more normal days, with overtime occurring in most instances after 10 hours worked. The expense of a set day, along with possible hotel room costs for the crew, all factor in to budget planning for the project.

National Sports Events
A set-shoot-strike regional event and a national sports event can be fairly similar from the mobile unit’s perspective, other than the addition of a few more cameras and more days on-site, a set day or two, and the possibility of multiple air days. Within this category are the regular Sunday-afternoon NFL games and the other sports events that receive national coverage.

Typically, these events increase the graphics load, often requiring a separate workspace exclusively for graphics, spotting, and scoring. This necessitates a B unit or support truck. These are typically 53 ft. long and may, or may not, be an expando. For NFL and college football, the support truck often carries the camera sideline carts and, for college, the cable required.

There are some smaller golf tournaments that fit this model as well. For golf, the support unit will also have a separate audio console for sound effects.

For a network NFL A game, we are looking at two 53-ft. trailers, A and B units, wired for between 18 and 24 cameras. These units are valued between $7 million and $10 million.

The same desire for efficiency in setup plays out in these larger events as well. In current designs, the A and B units are no longer connected together by dozens of copper video and audio cables; instead, one or two multistrand fiber-optic cables handles the task easily.

The average expando has the following seating: three video/transmission, two audio, seven to 11 production, five to seven replay, one engineering; 18-24 total. A network’s B game or regional sports event will usually be in a $5 million-$6 million 53-ft. expando, which is wired for 10-18 cameras with a system using 6,000-8,000 cables or wires installed within those trailers. A network’s A game uses a trailer that costs $7 million-$10 million and has 53-ft. A and B units, with maybe a utility trailer to boot. The B unit most likely contains graphics, but some are used for audio and replay. The trailers are wired for 18-24 cameras and use up to 8,000-10,000 wires installed in those trailers.

Stepping up the traveling production circus would be a posse of units: A, B, C, utility, BSI RF units, etc. This mini-fleet would cost more, possibly much more, than $10 million to equip and put on the road. This combined system would be able to handle 32+ cameras. C units would handle overflow, things like the first down, and other virtual graphics. The mix of operations spread among the units is usually determined by the desires of the client. ESPN, Fox, CBS, NBC, etc., would all distribute operations among the available trailers, based on their particular production workflow. The normal Fox A game NFL broadcast has A and B handling production, audio, tape, and engineering, while C handles virtual graphics and sideline carts.

The bottom line is that the more deliverables expected from a venue, the more resources will have to be on hand to support that demand.

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