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MLB Steps Up to the Plate

There's new grass on the field at MLB Network—literally. Opening Day for the 2009 Major League Baseball season is still more than three months away, but opening day for MLB Network, the league's new 24-hour cable service, comes Jan. 1, when it launches to some 50 million cable and satellite homes.

The finishing touches are being put on the high-definition production and technical headquarters in Secaucus, N.J. Its centerpiece is the whopping 9,600-square-foot Studio 42, which is designed as a half-scale replica of a baseball field. There's synthetic turf on the infield, and a 25-foot out-of-town scoreboard that will display real-time updates; it's modeled after the scoreboard in Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park.

Studio 42 (so named to honor Jackie Robinson; neighboring Studio 3 tributes Babe Ruth) will be used as a demonstration center by MLB Network analysts (and former MLB players) Al Leiter, Joe Magrane and Harold Reynolds, and is one of many indications of the network's attempt to swing for the fences. The 140,000-square-foot network facility, which once housed NBC Universal's cable news network MSNBC, includes 38 nonlinear editing suites and is the early foundation of a file-based digital archive that MLB is creating from the league's vast trove of film and tape archives.

The self-contained facility will also, come mid-February, house MLB Productions, the league's in-house production arm that creates, among other things, commemorative DVDs and promotions. MLB Productions is now located with Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM), the league's Web division, in Manhattan. MLB Network will have full video and data connectivity to the MLBAM facility, and to all Major League Baseball parks, through a fiber-optic network.

MLB Network originally sought to make its home in New York City, and last January announced plans to work with Vornado Realty Trust to create a $435 million, 21-story headquarters in Harlem by mid-2010, with Secaucus as a temporary solution. But the Vornado project lost its funding, and Secaucus has now been tapped as the network's home for the foreseeable future.

The facility's technical infrastructure, which was designed and specified by CBT Systems of San Diego and integrated by The Systems Group of Hoboken, N.J., has been built to last with a file-based digital workflow that supports full HD production in the 720-line progressive format. Key vendors include Sony, which is providing studio cameras and production switchers; and Thomson Grass Valley, with a tapeless production and playback system consisting of 36 Thomson Grass Valley K2 HD media servers, 25 Aurora HD editing systems and software that handles the entire HD postproduction chain.

MLB Network has worked with Thomson and CBT Systems to create a live system that will let games be logged in real time, with corresponding time-code information and statistical data from MLBAM. The National Basketball Association is already using a similar concept to digitally archive its games.

MLB is also starting the process of gathering hundreds of thousands of hours of archival material, much of it on ¾-inch U-matic tape and film, and ingesting it as digital files, which could create new monetization opportunities. “It's a matter of preserving our visual history and also being able to share it,” says Mark Haden, VP of engineering and IT for MLB Network.

Maximum Flexibility

Though pitchers and catchers won't report to spring training until mid-February, MLB Network will feature live programming right from the start with a nightly one-hour studio show, Hot Stove, airing 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. Once the season is in swing, the network will be live with MLB Tonight, which will provide live look-ins at games, updates, highlights and analysis, from 6 p.m. ET until the last West Coast game is completed, which will often be 2 a.m. ET or later. So studios 3 and 42 have been designed with multiple broadcast locations and high-definition displays to give a variety of looks.

“The biggest challenge in designing the set was giving us a lot of places to go to,” notes MLB Network VP of Operations Susan Stone.

The 5,600-square-foot Studio 3, the primary home for MLB Tonight, features 62 video displays. They include a 30-by-7-foot rear projection screen, a 108-inch LCD monitor from Sharp (a major MLB sponsor) and a Perceptive Pixel touch-screen display, such as those used by CNN and Fox News Channel, that will allow talent to interact with and change graphics and images on-screen.

Studio 3 has a rotating desk and six distinct broadcast areas, including a balcony, stat center and interview area. The ceiling is ringed by backlit logos of all 30 MLB teams, and the lighting can be altered to give it the feel of day or night.

Studio 42's half-scale infield measures 45 feet from base to base, with a pitcher's mound 30 feet from home plate. It also has a replica outfield wall, complete with padding, brick designs and three different seating areas that can hold up to 173 people.

MLB Network will begin live remote coverage with the World Baseball Classic in February, moving onto spring training games and then offering 26 MLB games through the season on Thursday and Saturday nights. Some 95% of MLB stadiums are now outfitted for HD production, and MLB Network's plan is to take the clean feed from the home broadcaster and enhance it with its own on-site HD production truck and supplemental cameras.

After much discussion, MLB Network decided to use the 720p format instead of 1080-line-interlace because it believes 720p shows the motion of baseball more accurately and will degrade less when recompressed by cable operators to save bandwidth. As Haden says: “That's our best shot of maintaining quality to viewers.”