Massive Kentucky Derby Production ‘Like a Super Bowl’ for NBC Sports Group

Sony HDC-4300 cameras continue to proliferate. NBC rolls out four in 6X slo-mo, plans eight per NFL game

Fifteen years ago, when NBC Sports took over the broadcasting rights for the first gem in horse racing’s Triple Crown, NBC’s 90-minute Kentucky Derby telecast offered a handful of feature elements and handicap segments delivered by a small group of broadcasters and reporters at Churchill Downs. My, how things have changed.

Tomorrow’s three-hour Derby telecast on NBC will be the culmination of 15½ hours of live coverage (29 hours total) over two days on two networks with a production that includes more than 300 crew members, 54 cameras, 15 announcers, and half a dozen mobile units.

“Because of the massive amount of cameras, it’s like a Super Bowl for us,” says NEP Technical Manager John Roché. “We need two full trucks to get up to those levels. And we are operating with an even larger number of high-speed cameras this year.”

Sony HDC-4300s at Core of Derby Production, More on the Way
Simply put, this year’s Kentucky Derby is a colossal production — even by the standards set by NBC Sports in recent years. NEP’s ND1 (A, B, C, and D) serves as home to the NBC telecast; NEP SS24 (A and B) is serving NBCSN’s coverage. The 54-camera complement includes a record four Sony HDC-4300 high-speed/4K cameras (all running in 6X slo-mo). The HDC-4300 made its NBC debut at the Derby last year in 4K mode, but the Peacock opted to use all three systems in 6X slo-mo without 4K capability this weekend.

churchill-downs-Main“The reason that we utilize 4K is primarily for the NBSeeIt [zoom-in replay], and that really doesn’t work as well in horse racing,” says Roché. “The most important thing in horse racing is obviously the finish, so we are focusing more on the 6X mode on the inside and outside of the track to get a more definite look at a possible nose-to-nose finish. Those two cameras will get more benefit from a 6X than they would from a 4K NBSeeIt shot.”

The increase from one to three HDC-4300s on the Derby is indicative of NBC Sports Group’s overall strategy. The network will have 16 of the systems at its disposal this NFL season and use eight apiece on its Sunday Night Football and new Thursday Night Football packages.

“We are definitely enhancing our high-speed [complement] for our football coverage,” says Tim DeKime, director of sports operations, NBC Sports Group. “Most of them will be running 6X and a couple at 4K as well. We’ve determined with our director Drew [Esocoff] that some of the handhelds we had last year are now going to be 4300s. We’re also reducing our rental count of [high-speed specialty cameras] and replacing with the 4300s.”

Notes Ken Goss, SVP, remote operations and production planning, NBC Sports Group, “With our partners at NEP, our goal is to continue to expand the [Sony HDC-]4300 platform in our productions. Obviously, the multiple–frame-rate capability provides a valuable new tool and put the production [team] in the right position to succeed. We went from one to three this year [at the Derby] and will grow to eight each on Sunday Night and Thursday Night Football and then continue to grow from there.”

In addition to its quartet of HDC-4300s, NBC will bring back reporter Donna Brothers’s wireless RF helmet camera for her post-race interview with the winning jockey and will add a new helmet camera on the outrider, who escorts the winning horse and jockey to the winner’s circle.

“When the winning horse and jockey gallop out after the race, that’s a great moment where the jockey meets the outrider, and there’s a great scene [with] great audio [since] we’ve got him miked as well.” says Rob Hyland, coordinating producer for the Derby, NBC. “For the first time, we’ll be able to take an intimate shot of the outrider and the jockey for that moment of celebration. That would never happen for us [in the past]. We’re excited about that RF camera that we’ve added. That’s one of the things I’m looking forward to see throughout this weekend.”

Plenty of RF, Robotics at Churchill Downs
In all, NBC will deploy five RF cameras, and a jockey, trainer, and owner will be miked for final jockey’s instructions and post-race reactions. BSI is providing NBC with all RF cameras, microphones, comms, and RF coordination.

“There is an awful lot of RF technology out here,” says Roché. “Nearly every announcer we have out here is wireless, so it’s a massive wireless RF world. Our vendor BSI is providing all the audio and video for that. They’ve been almost perfect for the last five years and a great partner for us.”

In terms of robotics, NBC enlisted Fletcher Sports to facilitate several unique camera positions, including a new 360-degree robo on the infield, a camera suspended 80 ft. high on the Churchill Downs videoboard structure, and a robo in the paddock saddling area.

“Last year, Rob and Drew had us add a robotic 360 camera in the paddock, and they absolutely loved the shots they got from it,” says DeKime. “So we decided to put that in the infield as well this year to get the flavor of the infield and capture all that is going on with the infield crew.”

Beyond the Broadcast
In addition to the coverage on NBC and NBCSN, NBC Sports Group is producing the first-ever live–virtual-reality experience for horse racing, instituting its most comprehensive social-media plan ever, and live-streaming its coverage on NBC Sports Live Extra.

For the first time ever, NBC Sports Live Extra will offer a mosaic of four camera angles: the NBC broadcast, a grandstand camera, an overhead camera, and an infield camera. During the race, the infield camera will be replaced by “Collmus Cam,” a live camera inside race caller Larry Collmus’s booth at Churchill Downs. NBC Sports Live Extra’s Derby Day coverage will also include bonus analysis by NBC Sports commentators and replays and footage from the key “Road to the Kentucky Derby” prep races. NBC Sports Live Extra will stream Kentucky Derby Week coverage on NBC and NBCSN via “TV Everywhere” for authenticated MVPD subscribers.

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