SVG Rewind: CBS Sports Team Reflects on Masters Efforts, New Content Center, New Workflows
Remote operations, transmission flypack, drones, and Flycams were part of the effort
There were numerous firsts at this month’s 2021 Masters Tournament. First, of course, was Hideki Matsuyama’s becoming the first male Japanese golfer to win a major championship.
There were several firsts on the TV-production side as well: most notably, the opening of Augusta National’s Content Center, a new complex of buildings (one for CBS, one for ESPN, and one for the Masters Digital Group) that housed the type of operations typically found in a television compound.
“Everybody was really looking forward to working in the new Content Center,” says Patty Power, EVP, Operations and Engineering, CBS Sports. “It’s just incredible to have the experience of being on a remote [production] that size and able to work in a beautifully designed building.”
The Content Center more closely resembles a nice neighborhood — with sidewalks, street lamps, even welcome desks inside the buildings — than a traditional broadcast center.
“We had management, production, operations, and the VO booths and announcers for ancillary shows — including Featured Groups, Amen Corner, 15-16, and 4, 5, & 6 — all housed in the Content Center,” adds Power. “There also was a large camera-storage area, tech management, and a quality- control area for our group.”
The Masters is the penultimate significant event during a six-month run for CBS comprising the Masters in November 2020, Super Bowl LV in February, the return of March Madness, and next month’s PGA Championship.
“The Super Bowl was the smoothest really large event we had executed,” says Mike Francis, VP, remote engineering and planning, CBS Sports, “but this had another level of complexity and scale that no other event reaches.”
Over the past 13 months, CBS Sports has honed a golf-production workflow that continues to rely on personnel working remotely. That was the case for the Masters, for which much of the ARL augmented-graphics team was located in New Zealand and the TopTracer team operated out of a studio at All Mobile Video in Midtown Manhattan.
Previous golf workflows were expanded and merged with several new initiatives at the Masters. The compound housed more than 50 vehicles, including NEP SSCBS, which handled second-nine coverage, and Game Creek Video Encore, which handled first-nine coverage. Also in the compound were NEP Supershooter 4 for the featured groups; F&F GTX20, in its Masters debut, handling coverage of Holes 4, 5, and 6; Game Creek Video Spirit, producing 4K HDR coverage of Amen Corner; NEP Supershooter 5, making its debut and housing TopTracer and ARL onsite operations; and Game Creek Video Celtic, handling On the Range programming in its first year at the Masters.
Francis notes one of the most impressive aspects of the production: all the units ran off shore power, saving more than 60,000 gallons of diesel fuel.
“We did not run any generators,” he points out. “They were there but in a cold-backup capacity in case there was a utility power interruption.”
The most important addition to the compound was a transmission flypack from Bexel, replacing the NEP ESU unit and handling video distribution to the various entities onsite.
“It helped service all of the distribution of signals to the office spaces in the Content Center,” Francis explains. “We simply outgrew the NEP ESU unit that we’ve gotten a lot of utilization out of over the years. We found that the flexibility we were able to get in the NEP Bexel flypack fit our needs a little better.”
The flypack also played a large role in ensuring that signal timing was accurate for all onsite production teams.
“We used PTP instead of analog black burst,” says Francis. “That streamlined the process significantly, as timing was something we would usually spend a good portion of the day doing. I give all the credit to Jason Taubman [SVP, technology] at Game Creek Video and Dan Turk [chief engineer, NEP U.S. Mobile Units] at NEP: they have been living with PTP out on the road and knew the extra design precautions we needed to take.”
A Tektronix 8000 master clock locked to GPS for timing and made the flypack the master clock. The trucks that were built on SMPTE ST 2110 network connections easily connected their local PTP switches to the flypack, and the baseband and earlier-generation IP trucks (like Supershooter CBS and Game Creek Video Encore) used a bilevel analog black burst.
“PTP was the core of it all,” says Francis.
The Tech Toys
For many viewers at home, the highlights of tournament coverage included the use of drones, two Flycams, and the Atlas shallow–depth-of-field camera.
“I give a lot of credit to the folks at Augusta National for working with us to try new angles and new technologies,” says Jason Cohen, VP, remote technical operations, CBS Sports. “We’ve opened up the show to be able to showcase the course in a way that was never done before. All those angles and all those technologies provide very different benefits but all with outstanding results. And that is capturing the essence of the course and the tournament in a unique and compelling way.”
The drones, he adds, continue to be well-received in golf coverage. “At Augusta National, that is probably still the number-one most talked-about enhancement, which was added because of the look and the angle that it can give. It was a different experience from the fall-foliage perspective of Augusta [when the 2020 tournament was postponed to November]. We have different colors in the spring, [and] with some patrons returning.”
Cohen gives a shout-out to Kaze Aerial and BSI, which worked together to make the drone coverage all it could be, enhancing the technology and modifying the flight paths by putting receivers in different places.
“They could get a vantage point of the course but fly a little bit farther away, so the players aren’t bothered by the sound,” he says. “I give those guys a lot of credit.”
Two drones were used to enable almost continuous coverage. The larger one carried an RF transmitter and sent the signal to the BSI tower receive point and then to the compound. The smaller drone used the RF signal from the controller to get the signal to the controller and from there to the compound.
“They had different capabilities,” Cohen explains. “The bigger one was quieter and also had a better lens, so you could zoom in more and get a little bit tighter on the action. They both gave us the ability to stay up in the air as much as possible and get different angles and parts of the course covered.”
The Flycam units also proved popular, and its effect benefited from the fact that patrons were on the course.
“They gave a lot of great foreground elements to the Flycam and made those shots a lot better,” notes Francis. “The Flycams blended into the environment, with a lot of careful planning to camouflage the components on both.”
The camera rig called Atlas by CBS played a key part in coverage of the final groups on Saturday and Sunday, and Cohen considers the shallow–depth-of-field camera a natural fit for golf coverage.
“Golf is a perfect sport for this type of technology,” he explains. “It’s a controlled setting, and you can focus on one athlete at a time. There aren’t a bunch of people at the same time, making the operator try to figure out who to put in focus. It was easy to follow one golfer and create that separation from the backdrop, and I think it was a success.”
Adds Francis, “I think golf may even be the best application for it, because light is really important for the large-sensor systems, and the daylight we get at a golf course is hard to beat.”
The Atlas system performance was improved by a new camera gimble created by Inertia Unlimited President Jeff Silverman.
“It’s a bit like a movie rig and allowed the camera operator to just grab it and go,” says Cohen. “Originally, we planned to toggle between shots from that camera and a traditional handheld, depending on the moment, but we had such good luck with it that we stayed with it as much as we could.”
Now the CBS Sports production team turns its attention to the PGA Championship, to be played at The Ocean Course on Kiawah Island. SC, May 20-23. And the team will look to build off the efforts of the past six months.
“They’re all superstars,” says Power of the CBS Sports team. “And the nice part about it was the collaboration between operations and production and the team at Augusta National. We gave production the tools they needed to tell the story, and that was a huge effort — from Jason Cohen’s group to Mike Francis, Tom McShane, Scott Davis, and Ed Coleman — that began last November. Now we are in the home stretch with the PGA Championship a couple of weeks away. The past few months have been an amazing undertaking.”