2014 NFL Preview: Fox Sports Looks To Build on Super Bowl Momentum

Fox Sports enters the 2014 NFL season on a high note, coming off Super Bowl XLVIII in February — a game that not only ranked as the most watched telecast in U.S. TV history but also featured a parade of tech innovations and live-production firsts. However, Fox Sports, which enters its 20th NFL season this weekend, has never been one to rest on its laurels.

Instead, the production and operations teams have upgraded the entire fleet of NFL on Fox mobile units, solidified capabilities with high-speed and 4K cameras and in-game audio, boosted file-based workflows between remote productions and the Los Angeles broadcast facility, wholly revamped the graphics package, and increased the use of augmented-reality graphics in studio.

“It is a very important year for us, and we are continuing our commitment to the [elements] that are most important to us: clarity in replays, excellent audio, and things like that,” says Fox Sports SVP of Technical and Field Operations Mike Davies. “We don’t want to put all of our toys on one show, though. We try to spread them out across all of our shows — six and sometimes seven games a week — so that, when people watch NFL on Fox, no matter what game they are watching, they see that [high level of] quality.”

Football streamers are in for a treat this season. Fox Sports will stream 101 NFL games (including four playoff games) on tablets through the FOX Sports GO app and on desktops at www.FOXSportsGO.com (games will not be available on mobile phones because of league restrictions).

Trucks Get Makeover Across the Board
Following last season, Fox renewed its deals with mobile-unit providers Game Creek Video, NEP, and F&F Productions, with equipment upgrades across the board. All NFL on Fox trucks have been standardized with Grass Valley Kayenne switchers, EVS XT3 replay servers, and Calrec Artemis or Apollo audio consoles.

The five-truck FX unit, which works Fox’s A game has upgraded to the powerful Kayenne switcher with K-Frame and quadrupled the size of its audio router, allowing embedded audio across all EVS record channels. Next year, Game Creek will roll out new trucks for Fox’s A-game and U.S. Open golf coverage, allowing the refurbished FX trucks to move to Fox’s B game in 2015.

@Home Workflows Come of Age
Fox Sports has been deploying an “@home” approach on its A game — exchanging file-based content between the remote and its Pico Blvd. Los Angeles broadcast facility ¾ for nearly five years. However, this year, Fox has upped the ante by adding EVS C-Cast Xplore , which allows editors in L.A. to remotely access XT3s in the truck through lo-res proxies, select shots they want, and send them to a Watch Folder. The files are sent to L.A. via Signiant or Aspera (Fox is testing both this season) accelerated file transfer, allowing editors to quickly turnaround highlight packages.

“Instead of [our] taking everything back and having to wait for the file as we have had to do in the past, Xplore allows us to look at a shot, input our own in- and out-points, and transfer it back to ourselves, so we have more control over the content coming back,” says Fox Sports Director of Technical Operations Kevin Callahan. “We have been doing this in baby steps so that, when we get to next year, we can roll it out and have consistent results.”

Callahan adds that Fox plans to roll out Xplore and lo-res–proxy capability across all its NFL games next season.

Fox and CBS: Cohorts in Metadata Assignment
@home workflows won’t be the only change making life easier for editors at Pico, however. Fox has also teamed with CBS Sports to establish a standardized taxonomy and metadata-assignment strategy to streamline the process of exchanging NFL content.

“In the past, CBS and Fox would … exchange clips with no metadata attached,” says Callahan. “Now we have come up with a system that has consistent file-naming across CBS and Fox shows. The enriched metadata for each clip will make it easier to find things. Right now, everyone selects the first shot they can find so you will see the same angle of the same player every time. Now people can be a little bit more creative in finding reaction shots and close-ups and such. There is a lot of work that happens after the Sunday game that is just duplicated and not needed; we are trying to alleviate some of that.”

Graphics Get a Facelift
Fox also elected to overhaul its graphics package in the offseason, reworking the NFL on Fox logo (now branded FOX NFL) and animations as well as the insert package and Fox Box score bug (both of which run on Vizrt character generators).

“Coming off Super Bowl, we felt the branding graphics we were using were getting a little long in the tooth,” says Gary Hartley, EVP, graphics/creative director, Fox Sports. “It was an opportunity to reposition our branding in a more sophisticated fashion without sacrificing our core personality of being loud and colorful.”

After working with Creative Works London to develop the graphics for the exterior monitors at its sprawling Times Square set during Super Bowl week, Fox opted to bring in the firm for the graphics redesign. Hartley believes that, having not worked on American football in the past, Creative Works was able to give the package a fresh and non-traditional look.

“It’s definitely a fresh take on football,” says Michael Dolan, VP of design, Fox Sports Graphics. “It’s not all chrome and metal like you would typically see in an NFL package. It really breaks that mold.”

Augmented Reality Ready To Blow Up
Fox is emphasizing augmented-reality graphics for its Fox NFL Sunday studio show. The system uses ncam real-time camera tracking on one jib, one Steadicam in the studio, a Vizrt rendering engine, and a Vista Spyder matrix switcher to display the graphics in the monitor arrays.

Fox plans to use augmented reality to create such elements as a non-traditional “virtual playbook” segment, which breaks down a play from all angles.

“We are putting a greater emphasis on augmented reality and are looking to be much more aggressive in that area,” says Zac Fields, VP, graphics and technology, Fox Sports. “Even though we have been doing it for a few years, we are really trying to utilize it now as a tool to tell stories better and differently.”

Having rolled out the ncam technology at the Super Bowl this year, he says, Fox will continue to explore new ways to take the technology on the road.

Rethinking Player Tracking With Zebra on Horizon
With the NFL installing Zebra Technologies’ real-time player-tracking system in 17 stadiums, Fox has opted not to deploy the ChyronHego TRACAB and Sportvision player-tracking and pointer graphics systems it used on for the past two seasons. Instead, it will focus on testing how to harness the data generated from Zebra’s system within its own production tools.

“The [Zebra] system is going to be really beneficial to production,” says Fields. “We are pushing that behind the scenes. It’s nothing that the viewer at home will probably see on-air this season, but we will continue to develop that stuff as the NFL starts integrating that into all the stadiums.”

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