Slam-Dunk Graphics

Success in the National Basketball Association is the result of two factors: speed and accuracy. The NBA is counting on those same skills off the court. NBA Entertainment, which runs NBA-TV and works closely with the league’s broadcast outlets, has built a system that allows graphics operators to give viewers statistical information with the speed of Allan Iverson.

And because it draws data from a vast store of up-to-the second game stats, it’s expected to be 100% accurate. “As soon as a statistic is triggered in the arena, it’s available to us,” says James Keepnews, NBA Entertainment senior manager, IT engineering.

The trick is what NBA Entertainment calls the Digital Television Interface, or DTVi. The computer program was developed on behalf of the NBA by IDS, a Jacksonville, Fla.-based firm that is involved with sports data.

The system allows graphics device to be tied into the NBA’s statistical database. That translates into instantly updated graphics without manual data entry.

And it’s already a hit with networks that carry NBA games; 26 out of the 31 NBA teams plan to use the system. Among broadcasters and cable networks that have signed on: WGN Chicago, Comcast Chicago and Philadelphia, KCAL Los Angeles, and several Fox Sports Networks.

“The teams embraced it quickly,” says Steve Hellmuth, NBA Entertainment senior vice president, operations and technology. “They recognized the value.”

One of the reasons they did so is the added connection to the other games in the league: “Broadcasters will be able to access stats for all concurrent games, and that’s a sea change for us.”

To make life easy, all the NBA’s arenas are connected on a wide-area network. As the action unfolds on the court, it’s instantly relayed to the database in Secaucus, N.J.

NBA-TV uses the system for a very specific need: to make it easier for a single operator to build graphics with a character generator for NBA-TV’s four telecasts each week. Game feeds come in from the different broadcast partners without any graphics (a “clean feed”). And with a small staff and the need to do HDTV and SDTV productions simultaneously (and with one graphics operator), automating the process makes the process efficient and fast.

“Templates are built for the Duet, and scripts have been written to tie the database and the Duets,” says Mark Rokosa, NBA Entertainment senior director, engineering. Game stats constantly flow into the database, and the system automatically pushes that data into the templates.

It’s that automatic twist that ensures accuracy.

Statistics like shooting percentage used to require production assistants’ breaking out a calculator. Once they did the math, they would tell the graphics operator, who typed in the information and got it to air. The automated system gets the key information to the viewer in a flash.

A second bonus is that, unlike in the previous system, templates can be changed or built during the game. Before, the production team had to conceive of potential statistical storylines prior to the game.

“Now we can get stats to air in a few mouse clicks as opposed to having them manually input,” says Rokosa. And the stats can keep up with the quickly developing storylines.

The new system is available to all the NBA’s broadcast partners, and it’s expected to be rolled out by a number of them. It can be used with any character generator, as long as the CG (computer-graphics) device has a serial interface. That’s an important feature, since the devices the sports networks use can range from the old-warhorse Chyron Infinit to up-and-coming devices like the VizRT Trio. Says Keepnews, “It’s totally configurable to what they’re comfortable with.”

And new developments for DTVi have just begun.

Historical data is expected to be available soon, making it possible for the data to compare a player or team’s current performance with games played earlier in the season.

“The year-to-date is available now, but the historical is being uploaded,” says Hellmuth. Pushing the data off the Secaucus server and onto one at the arena makes it easier for broadcaster to build graphics quickly.

With the system gaining believers within the NBA, what’s next?

Hellmuth says it’s possible other sports teams—at the college and the professional level—will want a database as rich and varied as the NBA’s.