Hut, Hut, HD

The belief is that sports will be a major driver of HD. This fall the industry will test that belief as ABC, CBS and ESPN step up with three HD National Football League games a week. CBS, in a joint announcement with DirecTV last week, declared its commitment to broadcast its primary NFL game in HD each week.

But football fans who want to see every game in HD will need to subscribe to NFL Sunday Ticket, which is only available through DirecTV. Viewers who receive their CBS HD signal via over-the-air or a cable system will be subject to the game's regional availability.

Ken Aagaard, CBS Sports vice president of technology, says the network will produce NFL HD telecasts differently from the way it has handled them in the past. This year, production will be done in HD and then have an SD 4:3 feed made available.

Larry Barbatsoulis, CBS Sports director of engineering, says that past NFL HD telecasts from CBS left the SD production team blind to the HD production. Not so this year. "With this season they'll be able to deal with the HD," he says.

Mobile truck vendor NEP Supershooters will supply the HD truck known as Nova (it was previously used by the now-defunct Action Sports Network under the name Columbia). The truck is stocked with Sony gear, including the MVS 8000 switcher and Sony HDC series cameras. Other gear includes an Accom DVEous HD digital video effect.

ABC is also getting in on the action with last week's HD broadcast of its first Monday Night Football
game of the year. National Mobile Television's $10 million 53-foot truck with 22 Thomson cameras and Thomson HD production switchers made its official Monday Night
debut after recently getting a workout from ESPN-HD.

Ken Michel, ABC vice president of network engineering said the only glitches were satellite issues during the first 15 minutes that were out of ABC's control. Once they were cleared up, Michel says, the HD production and 5.1-audio channel broadcast went very well. "The integration of all the equipment was a monumental feat from NMT as it has very complicated signal management."

To HD viewers the biggest change was something that wasn't available during ABC's 2003 Super Bowl telecast: an HD version of the 1st and Ten marker. ABC Sports uses Sportvision's version of the marker, providing a yellow graphic overlay that shows the viewer where the first down mark is. Sportvision worked hard earlier this year to make its products HD compatible, resulting in products for ESPN-HD's baseball coverage and Monday Night Football.

Hank Adams, Sportvision CEO, says the HD version requires more computation power, so it involves a couple more PCs.

"We went to an HD camp that ABC Sports held the week before the Monday Night Football
game and showed that we could pull off the HD 1st and Ten," he adds.

The new system has another benefit as well. The technology was moved upstream towards the camera so the graphic information can be recorded to isolation tape decks and be seen during replays.

The HD first-down marker line will give an early-season advantage for ABC's and ESPN's HD NFL coverage. CBS uses Princeton Video Image's 1st Down Line system and Aagaard says the company is working on an HD version that he hopes to have in place by the middle of October (the system is currently being used for baseball coverage).

HD aside, football and the yellow line will become synonymous this season. ESPN and ESPN2 will use it for all of their college and professional games and CBS and Fox will use it for every NFL telecast. Even though CBS's use of the PVI system prevents Sportvision from having a market lock on the yellow line, Adams isn't complaining.

"The technology continues to get cheaper and the broadcasters have made the commitment to take it to all their games," he says. "It's a substantial jump for us and we're practically doubling the number of games we're doing. We could do close to 300 games this year."

CBS Sports will have six PVI units in its New York City facility that will be available to insert the line. An operator in New York will keep track of what camera the director is on and work with a "spotter" who will tell them what yard line the play started on. PVI's visual recognition system then lays down the line.

With CBS signing on, its viewers are left with one question: what about HD college football? It's become a staple on CBS over the past couple of years, though an announcement has yet to be made. But the truck from Core Digital that CBS used last year won't be involved with the NFL telecast, so it will be ready and waiting.