Scoop Dreams

For most NBA players, keeping in touch with local fans is as easy as a trip home. But the growing contingent of foreign-born players is finding it a challenge. For San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker, who was born and reared in France, giving his French fans a chance to hear from him regularly—if at all—is cost prohibitive for the NBA and broadcasters.

All that changes next season.

NBA TV will make it possible for foreign journalists to interview players in the U.S. via video-conferencing technology. The system, based on Sony's PCS-1/1P video-conferencing system, is currently being used for NBA TV's Destination Finals.

Last year, HD production of games was the big news from the league. This year, its efforts have swung 180 degrees, focusing squarely on deploying video-conferencing systems in the arenas of all 31 NBA teams.

The systems are connected to NBA TV's Secaucus, N.J., headquarters via T1 lines that have traditionally been used to transmit statistics to and from live games.

"It's a yin-and-yang experience," says Steve Hellmuth, NBA TV vice president of operations and technology. "On one hand, we're busting our butts to deliver the best-looking pictures in television history. And on the other hand, we're delivering video-conference–quality video."

The Sony PCS-1 system is stored in a shipping case in each arena. When the system is needed, the case is opened and plugged into the NBA's private T1 network. After the system gets an IP address, the talent sits in front of the camera, puts on a headset, and begins the interview. The NBA TV room in Secaucus controls the camera via a pan-and-tilt unit. It's located in a neutral site at the arena so each team can have access to it.

"The audio quality on the unit is very good, and that's why we picked it," Hellmuth explains. "Viewers can look at bad pictures, but they can't listen to bad audio. If they do, they'll change the channel."

He considers the system a perfect solution for the league. To date, four other major sports leagues have contacted NBA TV about it. And for good reason. Live interviews with a videophone would typically cost about $2,200 each.

With the new system? "We can do the same interviews for zero after the capital costs," says Hellmuth. "The T1 lines are already in the arenas, so we just segmented them to provide the bandwidth."

The system won't be operated during NBA games. While the action is heating up on the court, the transmission of statistics takes precedence. But before and after games, the system is in action.

Hellmuth says that serving international broadcasters next year is an important application. The league will also work with small local U.S. broadcasters that can't afford to send reporters on the road with a team.

Transmission rates are only 1 Mbps, and the video is VHS-quality thanks to an MPEG-4 encoder/decoder on the system. Says Mike Rikosa, NBA TV senior director of engineering, "We found that codec had the best quality."