The start of the 2014 NFL season is not only huge for major broadcasters with new TV contracts. It is also the leading priority for companies that have made notable improvements in the mobile trucks that are used to cover all of the gridiron action.
“The NFL renewal cycle is the biggest renewal cycle in the remote industry,” says George Hoover, CTO of NEP, which is the largest among the mobile truck providers. “These are long-term packages that drive a lot of the technology upgrades in the industry. So after the last contracts were negotiated [in December 2011], all the networks went out to the market to ask for new trucks and upgrades of their units for the 2014 season,” to help make the new coverage begin right.
The results won’t be as revolutionary as the shift to HD in the 2000s but viewers will see a number of improvements in the way games are produced that will percolate through the entire sports production industry in upcoming years. That will mean better graphics, improved routers, 4K replay systems, greater use of slow motion cameras and faster turnaround of highlights.
The demand for new trucks and technologies also threw down the gauntlet to a very vibrant mobile truck production industry that has been riding a wave of strong ratings for sports and a proliferation of new outlets.
“The business is doing very well,” says Brent McCoy, operations manager at Lyon Video. “Every year is the best year ever.”
Packed With Gear
With the rising cost of sports rights, networks are naturally investing in newer technologies to attract viewers. “I think the biggest trend has been significant increases in the amount of technologies and equipment that is being brought to bear for these productions,” says Pat Sullivan, president of Game Creek Video, which is building six new trucks—including two for CBS (which adds Thursday Night Football action this season), two for ESPN and one for Fox.
One major trend is the growing use of Ultra- HD or 4K cameras. “Almost everyone is using some form of 4K camera as a specialty shot for replays,” Sullivan says, which means that “additional operating space and positions have to be built into what is already a confined space.”
The use of 4K replay systems is also moving into the regional sports networks. Frank Coll, director of operations and business development at MIRA Mobile Television, notes that the new truck they’re finishing for the PAC 12 Network in the 2014 football season will include capabilities for a 4K replay system.
“Two years ago the use of 4K to zoom in on replays was a science project, but now it is a fairly mature product,” says NEP’s Hoover.
Currently, no major U.S. network seems close to launching full-blown UltraHD feeds, but Philip Garvin, general manager, Mobile TV Group notes that more UltraHD content is becoming available online and that set prices are quickly falling, which could boost penetration. “I think everyone is mindful of the developments in UltraHD and how they could impact the industry,” says Garvin, who was an early pioneer in HD and partnered with Mark Cuban on the launch of HDNet. “A lot of people are wondering how it will play out.”
Other potentially revolutionary changes for the industry are the ongoing push to provide better fiber connections at stadiums and the switch from copper wiring to fiber.
Over the last few years this has already reduced the time it takes to set up a mobile production unit and created tighter links between trucks and network broadcast centers. “Instead of a couple of hours carrying around heavy copper cables, that has been all replaced by fiber so it’s half an hour to plug the trucks together,” says Hoover.
Adding Fiber to Sports TV Diet
In the next few years, however, blazing fiber connections could transform sports production by allowing more things to be done at the broadcast center. The PAC 12 Network, for example, already uses some small trucks that have cameras connected by fiber back to their network center, where the game is switched and announcers provide play-byplay coverage.
“As connectivity improves we will see more and more production done remotely, which will mean a completely different type of mobile unit than we have today,” says Coll at Mira.
Using smaller units connected to a broadcast center where most of the production is done is particularly attractive for small events that don’t produce much revenue. “The market for big trucks is very mature and saturated but there is tremendous growth in smaller, more specialized events,” Coll says. “But it is a big challenge for the industry to come up with cost-effective solutions for covering those productions.”
This isn’t hurting the demand for big trucks—if anything they are getting larger, as clients demand more capabilities. And faster connectivity means additional editing and production can be done in broadcast centers and crew sizes can be better controlled.
“The move to what the industry calls fat pipes allows the truck to connect their graphics and replay servers as an extension of the broadcast servers and operations back at the network center,” Hoover says.
Along with faster connections, many broadcasters are eyeing a transition to IP routers and infrastructure. “ESPN’s new tech center has an IP-based system,” says Coll. “The mobile industry isn’t quite ready for that yet but I think you will start seeing more of that in the next couple of years.”
McCoy at Lyon agrees. The company recently built a new truck that is capable of being easily upgraded to IP routers. “We definitely see a future in it but it is still a ways away,” he says. “Right now you still have some latency between audio and video and some other issues that need to be worked out.”
Slow and Steady
As truck companies watch those more revolutionary changes, they continue to make a number of incremental shifts to the trucks, and these will become apparent in the production of sports over the next year, both for major networks and regional sports channels.
“I think the most interesting developments are in the area of super-slow motion cameras,” says Garvin, pointing out that Mobile TV Group has bought 18 Grass Valley LDX XtremeSpeed cameras since March. “We are moving toward the point where the standard game action will be captured with super-slow-mo cameras, which can provide much better detail in replays.”
All the mobile truck companies contacted by B&C also report that they have embraced embedded audio and are moving to the newest generation of graphics systems, servers and production switchers. “We’ve installed 12 new Kayenne routers [from Grass Valley] this year,” says NEP’s Hoover, along with the newest generation of graphics systems and EVS systems.
The newer, more powerful switchers are also helpful in non-football and regional sports, adds Garvin. He notes that they’ve been building dual feed units for a number of years that can produce home and away feeds in one truck. Along with the more powerful switchers, they are building vehicles that can produce two feeds from the same equipment, which will lead to huge cost savings. “One of the values of the side-by-side dual is that [the] price is close to one-half of the rate” of getting separate single-feed mobile units for both the home and away feeds, he says.
MOBILE TRUCK TRENDS TO WATCH
ULTRAHD OR 4K: The use of 4K cameras for HD replays is spreading from NFL coverage into regional sports networks but the big question is when networks will start producing all UHD feeds, which would require major upgrades in equipment.
SLOW MOTION CAMERAS: High frame rate cameras or super-slo mos are not only getting wider use; regular game cameras are increasingly offering higher frame rates, which would improve the replays from all the cameras.
REMOTE PRODUCTION: Fast fiber connections means that more aspects of the production can be done at broadcast network centers, a trend that could potentially change the way mobile units are designed and used.
LOW-COST UNITS: Demand is growing fastest for smaller events such as high school football, but truck providers face major challenges in finding technologies and business models for producing these sports on very tight budgets.
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