The road show

It's an arms race," says Steve Clifford, chairman and CEO of Seattle-based National Mobile Television. He's referring to the scramble among mobile-production providers to respond to heightened sports-viewer expectations for more of everything: personnel, cameras, tape sources, effects and miles of cable. "Everyone aspires to have a look competitive with the network look."

His sentiment is echoed by others. Says Mike Werteen, director of production and marketing at Allentown, Pa.-based New Century Productions (NCP). "Our largest shows, just two years ago, required eight to 10 cameras and eight to 10 tape sources. Now, Sunday Night Baseball requires 18 cameras and 18 tape sources, because viewers expect to see every angle imaginable."

Some sports production enhancements are becoming the norm rather than the exception for many clients. Clifford points to Electronic Video Systems' (EVS) digital recording and playback device, which allows producers to show the last five pitches in rapid succession. He says NMT is using EVS for most of this year's Major League Baseball games, especially those for the FOX regional sports networks and ESPN.

"This is an obvious improvement that's visible to the viewer," he points out, adding that other effects that were previously impossible are now being done with new, larger digital switchers. Meanwhile, he says, the Chyron Infinit is almost universal in its use for see-through graphics.

NMT's total of 47 production units in the U.S. now includes three large tractor-trailers and seven support units acquired from ABC Sports on June 7. While ABC is now outsourcing all of its mobile production from NMT, the trucks will also be used for other clients.

Also making a significant acquisition is NEP Inc., which is based in Pittsburgh. The company bought two digital mobile units this month from Unitel, which went bankrupt and closed its mobile facilities. George Hoover, NEP's general manager, says the people who had been operating and managing the trucks have all come onboard, and the 53-footers will continue to do high-end awards shows, having been incorporated into the NEP Entertainment Group in Burbank, Calif.

As for sports coverage, Hoover says the biggest thing to come out of this year's NAB is demand for the Canon 86X1 zoom lens. Previously, the longest zoom ratio was 70X1.

"Our clients now want tighter shots," he reports. "The lens has an image stabilizer that takes the shakes and vibrations out of tight shots. The lenses will see their first use for America in football, primarily NFL."

He also sees continued requests for hard-disk devices such as Grass Valley's Profile and EVS' LSM (live slow motion). He says these hard-disk products offer greater speed of access and most have built-in nonlinear editing capabilities, allowing them to produce features and packages-such as half-time highlights-more efficiently.

NEP's recent events have included men's, seniors' and women's pro golf and the PGA's U.S. Open, the NBA finals, the Stanley Cup and FOX Sports' A-game in football with sports analyst John Madden.

To service its heightened sports activity, the mobile-production company is rolling out two 53-foot expandable units. One of them debuted with NBC's NBA Showtime pre-game program, and, in August, the unit will be covering Sunday Night Football for ESPN.

The second truck is scheduled to roll out in October, dedicated to the World Wrestling Federation. Both units will have Grass Valley Kalypso production switchers and will rely heavily on hard-disk recorders for editing, replays and clip playback.

With three production units and one support vehicle, NCP has outfitted two of those production units in the past year because of the demand for larger trucks to accommodate increased production personnel. Werteen says the 53-footers can be expanded to a 13-foot width and easily hold up to two dozen people, if necessary, for larger shows.

The support vehicle, which is nearly the size of the production unit, is primarily used in transporting equipment and personnel. So far, it has been used for ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball for graphics and tape support, including super slow-motion and video imaging. A few months ago, it was rebuilt for the show. "The show had become so large," Werteen explains, "that it had to be outfitted differently. For example, it had to be configured so that we could put in a golf cart to pull the miles of cable required.

"Even though the main mobile-production truck can accommodate two dozen people," he adds, "it's still not big enough for the largest shows. So the support truck houses another 10 people handling the tape and graphics."

The high level of production expectations, he notes, are dictated by the kind of equipment that networks feel is necessary for their sports programs. That includes instant-access recording devices such as Grass Valley's Profile. These are used along with the switcher for complicated replay moves or quick recording and playback.

Operating with a single truck, New Orleans-based YES Productions is setting out to be ahead of client demand. The company has been in operation since 1981, but its 53-foot expandable unit was built just last January. A recent addition was an Accom DVEous dual-twin-channel DVE.

"Our clients were using it the minute we put it in," says Jim Moriarty, vice president and general manager.

Another part of YES' upgrade into the CCIR-601 world was the acquisition of a Kalypso production switcher. Last year, an EVS hard-drive disk recorder was added. As a four-channel device, Moriarty notes that it allows multiple-channel recording and playback at the same time.

While mobile production in high definition has become more affordable, companies providing HD service are finding they can't live by sports alone. Concerts, special events and even government telecasts fit into the mix.

For example, The Ackerley Group, based in Seattle, hopes to use its 720p HDTV mobile-production truck, recently acquired from Panasonic, for government projects among other things, because the U.S. military prefers progressive images.

Kelly Alford, Ackerley's vice president of engineering, sees the prospect of supplementing major entertainment work and some sports programming with demonstration videos for defense contractors.

"High definition in sports is still pretty much in the experimental stage," says NMT's Steve Clifford. The company added its third HD truck last fall. That truck and one of the original HD units are proving to be not so mobile. They've been largely dedicated to the 350 home events being produced in HD for MSG Network.

Clifford says all the technical problems with HD have been solved. But the big question remains: Just how quickly will consumers begin buying HD sets?