Inside NESN’s 4K HDR Workflow: The RSN’s Red Sox Production Team Shows Off Fenway Like Never Before
Home games are produced in native 4K HDR
NESN has a long history of technological firsts. It was the first RSN to deliver all its MLB and NHL games in HD, in 2006; the first to fully automate studio production, in 2015; and, this year, the first to launch a direct-to-consumer streaming service. However, the New England-based RSN’s biggest technological leap to date may be its decision to produce all Boston Red Sox home games in native 4K HDR throughout this season — confronting a challenge no U.S.-based RSN has ever faced.
“We are proud to be able to provide our production folks with a platform to keep driving the innovative mentality that NESN has always had,” says NESN Executive Producer Howard Zalkowitz. “What’s amazing to me is that we have been able to do this while we’re still in a pandemic, which has challenged our production team and partners like never before in the last couple years. For all of us to come together on this project has been just incredible.”
Challenge of Native 4K HDR: Upgrading NESN’s Facilities, Training the Crew
NESN made the bold decision to build out a native-4K-HDR production and distribution ecosystem, rather than upconverting its existing HD broadcast feed to 4K HDR. All Red Sox games this season in Fenway Park have been produced in 4K HDR, and NESN plans to do the same in the fall for the Bruins at TD Garden.
To pull it off, NESN teamed up with two of its longtime partners: remote-facilities provider Game Creek Video and production-labor–services provider Program Production Inc. (PPI). Game Creek upgraded NESN 94 mobile unit to be 4K HDR-capable, and PPI has provided the 4K HDR-trained technicians that work each Red Sox home game in the truck.
“This is a true partnership between NESN, Game Creek, and PPI,” says Zalkowitz. “We’re absolutely working in concert. It’s a perfect combination of the engineering expertise of Game Creek, the skill level of our PPI technicians, and the approach of our NESN production team. It’s an absolute communal effort to get this executed each game, and one piece would not work without the other.”
Game Creek had upgraded its Riverhawk truck to 4K HDR for MLB Network in 2016 and took a similar approach to bringing 94 (its name refers to Ted Williams’s 9 and Bobby Orr’s 4) up to 4K HDR levels.
“94 is a sister to Riverhawk,” notes Jason Taubman, SVP, technology, Game Creek Video. “We basically took the design template and applied that to 94, and we were off and running.”
Game Creek brought in Sony HDC-4300 cameras and HDC-P50 robos so that acquisition would be in native 4K HDR. In addition, it upgraded all the monitoring and QC to HDR, added Cobalt Digital up/down/crossconverters for the portions of the production that would remain in HD (including replay and graphics), and expanded 94’s existing Evertz SDI router to accommodate the quad-3G setup needed for 4K.
“In 94, there was a chunk of router real estate that wasn’t being used [in HD],” Taubman explains. “We were able to put that into service to accommodate the 4K operation. Obviously, a lot of [our customers] have opted to go with an IP router for 4K, but, in this case, 94’s [existing router] already had the capacity we needed to do it.”
In addition to the truck, in early 2021, NESN unveiled a brand-new studio space that is fully optimized for 4K HDR production. Currently, all Red Sox pre/postgame shows are in 4K HDR, with other studio content remaining in 1080p60 for now.
Inside the Workflow: 4K Cameras With HD Replay and Graphics
Currently, NESN has six live cameras operating in 4K HDR mode — and plans to have 10 later this season once the necessary equipment becomes available (given supply-chain issues) — and three cameras running in 1080p60 HDR.
Four Sony HDC-4300’s are shooting in 4K HDR mode: (centerfield, high-home, left field, and low first). In addition, two Sony HDC-P50 robos (at mid-home and right field) are in 4K HDR mode.
“When you see Fenway in UHD HDR and compare it to the current HD, there is just no going back,” says Kenny Elcock, VP, engineering, NESN. “There is no ballpark quite like Fenway, and our goal is to bring that feeling of being at the ballpark to the fans at home.”
Three Panasonic AW-UE150 PTZ cameras are also 4K HDR-capable (in both dugouts and inside the Green Monster in left field) as is a wireless Sony HDC-3500 roving unit equipped with Wave Central RF transmissions. But those cameras are currently running in 1080p HDR until supply-chain delay allows NESN and Game Creek to convert 12g fiber to Quad 3g SDI.
Since 4K replay would create a major capacity issue in the truck, NESN has opted to keep its EVS replay operation in 1080p60 (as has been the case for industry live 4K productions thus far). With that in mind, three manned Sony 5500 cameras (tight center, low third, high first) showing key 6X-slo-mo replays during the broadcast will remain in 1080p HDR for the foreseeable future.
“The technology’s just not quite there for 4K replay right now because you would need a whole C unit and a lot more equipment to make it work,” says Zalkowitz. “And you still need to be able to show the spin of the ball on that tight-center replay and shots of those close calls on the basepaths — not just for our viewers but for the integrity of gameplay. We decided to run those [three] cameras in 1080p HDR live so we have 6X super-slo-mo on those shots. They all get upconverted into our 4K feed.”
All graphics, including the scorebug and all insert graphics, are produced in 1080p SDR and upconverted to 4K HDR.
Currently, the ads inserted into NESN’s Red Sox linear broadcast and live stream are also upconverted to 4K HDR, although the RSN is exploring producing 4K HDR ad content with its sponsors and partners.
According to Zalkowitz, the move to 4K HDR has not disrupted the Red Sox production team’s workflow inside the truck — with one major exception. Since the main centerfield camera is on-air for roughly a fourth of the game, NESN made 4K HDR a must for that position. However, since the league’s PitchCast tracking system uses this camera and is not currently 4K-capable, NESN has opted to go without live PitchCast graphics on either HD or 4K HDR broadcasts (although PitchCast is still available via replays).
“Because the [upconverted] 1080p PitchCast signal was degrading the 4K picture, we decided to go without it for now,” says Zalkowitz. “We understand that live PitchCast is an important part of a telecast for many viewers, and we’ve been working with MLB on a 4K system. But due to supply-chain delays on video cards and the development time need for the system, there is no timetable for implementation. We’ll continue to replay all close pitches.”
Audio continues to be an important part of NESN’s Red Sox home games. NESN was the first RSN to mike the bases and teams up with the Red Sox to mike a player for every Wednesday home game.
4K HDR Ecosystem: Backhaul, Playout, Distribution, Storage, and Beyond
In terms of backhaul for the 4K HDR feeds, NESN has established 12-Gbps direct fiber paths from its broadcast center in Watertown, MA, to both Fenway Park and TD Garden in Boston.
“We have been fortunate in that NESN has invested deeply in [connectivity] to all our venues,” says Elcock. “We have 4K capability from both Fenway and the Garden as a result. None of this would be possible without those fiber paths in place.”
In Watertown, NESN relies on Imagine Communications’ Versio playout system and other gear to bring the 4K HDR coverage to viewers.
In 2020, NESN tapped The Switch’s hybrid fiber/internet network to replace its existing satellite distribution platform with an eye toward launching 4K HDR broadcasts. NESN works with The Switch to provide each of its 4K HDR distributors (currently, DirecTV, Verizon Fios, and FuboTV) with a 1.7-Gbps payload that includes one UHD HDR stream and multiple HD streams.
NESN deploys Imagine Communications media-asset–management and storage solutions to archive all the Red Sox home games but plans to expand this infrastructure in 2023 to produce more internal content in UHD.
“We have ownership’s backing and investment in this technology initiative,” says Elcock. “As an engineering guy, you couldn’t ask for a better situation than that. That’s one of the unique things about being at NESN: we have a track record of being innovative when it comes to technology and want to continue to be a pioneer in the future.”
Continued Evolution: Fine-Tuning Sox Coverage, Adding Bruins in the Fall
At the season’s midpoint, Zalkowitz says he has already seen significant improvement from both a backend and an on-screen perspective in NESN’s 4K HDR broadcasts. For example, after requiring an additional day for setup early in the season because of 4K HDR, the production team, GCV engineers, and PPI technicians are able to complete a single-day set-shoot for the first game of a Red Sox home stand.
He also credits Senior Coordinating Director Mike Narracci, Senior Producer/Senior Director Dan Aspan, and Senior Producer Amy Johnson, and the entire Red Sox team for embracing the challenges of 4K HDR and finding new ways to enhance the broadcast over the first half of the season.
“We’re learning something new every day and getting better with every game,” Zalkowitz says. “Fenway is a canvas all its own, and, trying to paint in a whole new way with 4K and HDR, we show off the ballpark more than ever. We have more sweeping, long shots, and we’re still seeing how HDR works in daylight versus dusk versus nighttime. I think we’ve already come a long way both in front of and behind the camera.”
With the experience of half a season of Red Sox 4K HDR home games, NESN is working with the Bruins and TD Garden on producing the NHL team’s home games in 4K HDR this fall.
“That’s the plan,” says Zalkowitz. “We still have work to do, but we’re very optimistic that you’ll see Bruins games in 4K HDR this fall. From there, we’re only going to continue to get better and evolve.”