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Super Tech for the Super Bowl

The prospect of airing the Super Bowl for a worldwide audience usually inspires TV producers to try to make the broadcast a technological marvel. But Fox Sports may have achieved a first recently when its planning required a groundskeeper’s permission to dig up the field. In what is likely to provide one of the more memorable aspects of the Feb. 6 broadcast from Jacksonville, Fla., Fox is embedding tiny cameras in the grass at Alltel Stadium. If the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots meet on the 3-yard line, viewers will be able to look up into the linemen’s faces before the snap.

Ed Mangan, the NFL’s Super Bowl groundskeeper, “helped us figure out a way to place the cameras in the turf,” says Peter Larsson, general manager of Broadcast Sports Technology, which built the cameras for Fox. About the diameter of a pencil and 2 inches in length, the TurfCams will be connected to the production trucks by cables running through 3-inch plastic piping buried more than a foot under the grass. The cameras will provide ant’s-eye views from the middle of the field at the 3-yard and 20-yard lines, as well as from the stadium tunnel used by the players, and from perches inside the four pylons marking the front corners of the end zones.

“That’s one of the places on the field where there is incredible action. The players run for that corner,” says Jeff Court, Fox Sports VP of field operations, clearly eager to try out his new toys. Of course, Court is already familiar with what he’s getting: Fox used similar cameras near home plate during the Major League playoffs last fall—with riveting results.

But the “gopher cams,” as Court calls them, are hardly the only special hardware Fox is rolling out for this Super Bowl. The network’s production compound, staffed by 400 Fox employees, is three times larger than that for a regular-season NFL broadcast. From the high-definition broadcast equipment down to the microphones the announcers use, much of the production hardware will be making its Super Bowl debut.

Preparations began last March, Court says, with a visit to the host site to get a sense of the available space and facilities. One hurdle immediately became apparent: Alltel Stadium, home of the Jacksonville Jaguars, has a relatively small parking lot by NFL standards, and, with Fox’s oversized contingent, as well as crews from such organizations as HBO, NFL Films and Japanese broadcaster NHK Television, Court worries that “there won’t be any room for those going to the game to park.”

Many of the Fox crew members began arriving three weeks before the game to begin the process. “They’re long days, but by the time you get to game day, everything is well-tested,” Court says. There’s a certain level of comfort, he adds, in knowing that the crew working the game is essentially unchanged from the one that was in place in 1994 when Fox launched its NFL coverage.

“110-112 decibels”

The crew might be the same, but the technology for the broadcast has changed radically. High-definition was only a dream a decade ago; this year, it will be a wall-to-wall element of Fox’s broadcast, from the pre-game hoopla through to the post-game interviews. The crew has the HD aspects of the telecast fairly well in hand, since Fox has broadcast HD games all season long and spent the past two years doing productions in widescreen. So the production team is well-versed in shooting with HD, and especially the wider picture, in mind.

Although the audience watching on regular TV sets won’t be able to detect a difference, HD viewers are likely to be wowed by Fox’s slow-motion replays. The network is using six Thomson LDK-6200 Super Slo-Mo cameras. They’re the first in the world to capture slow motion in HD, recording 120 frames per second on the EVS replay server. When the 120 frames are broadcast at 60 frames, the viewer sees a slow-motion but super-clear image. “We tried it out for one of the games earlier this year, and the reaction from the production team was, 'Oh my,’” Court says. Before the cameras went on the market last summer, slow motion in HD resolution wasn’t an option because the cameras and recorders couldn’t handle all of the data. “The Super Slo-Mo really was the last great missing link,” says Jeff Rosica, Thomson VP for strategic marketing and business development.

But a lot of HD-set owners are going to be disappointed on game day because satellite and cable operators don’t carry Fox’s HD feed in many markets. EchoStar doesn’t have an HD carriage agreement with Fox. DirecTV has one, but only in the 25 markets where Fox owns its own stations. Sinclair Broadcasting—which owns 20 Fox affiliates—hasn’t granted local cable systems the right to carry the HD feeds in any markets, including Baltimore and Syracuse. The same goes for some other Fox affiliates, including Pittsburgh. Comcast averted a similar blackout in San Francisco last week.

Despite all the emphasis on camerawork and image delivery, Fox has also focused on the audio side of the broadcast. Cheering NFL crowds might reach ear-splitting levels during regular-season games, Court says, but Super Bowl crowds take the noise up a notch. “When that stadium is rocking, it’s at 110-112 decibels,” he says. That’s why Fox is equipping its announcers with new microphones from the Danish company DPA.

Even with headphone-mounted microphones, announcers sometimes have to shout to be heard above the crowd noise that filters through. Court says the DPA microphones do a better job with noise reduction, giving the audio team greater control over the mix between commentator and background noise. Fox is also deploying two Holophone H2-PRO surround-sound microphones, developed by Rising Sun Productions in Toronto.

A videogame-like view

One of the biggest challenges faced by Court and the rest of the Fox Sports team is simply getting used to the scale of the network’s own operation. There are 300 technical crew members on hand for the game; a typical regular-season game tops out at 65. Extra crew means extra organization and bigger facilities. The tech compound, for example, is 430 by 70 feet. Court calls it the equivalent of a mini-broadcast center, complete with temporary studio sets. One pre-game set will be located in Metro Park, requiring a fiber-cable run of 3,800 feet.

All told, Fox will employ 35 HD Thomson Worldcam camera heads and bodies with Canon lenses to capture 720p images. Not all of those cameras, however, will be covering game action. Manned cameras in the stadium will account for 26 of them. The rest are mostly robotic and those used for shooting on the sets outside the stadium. And then there’s the CableCam, which will fly overhead, giving viewers what Court calls a “videogame-like” view of the action.

The camera feeds will be brought into an NEP Supershooters transmission truck, which will function as a centralized distribution system. By bringing all the feeds into one location and then sending them back out to other trucks for recording and playback, the production team will be liberated from the complication of figuring out how to share feeds among the trucks.

Despite all the extra people, extra gear and extra hype, once the game begins, the responsibility for executing the broadcast will be concentrated in the main production truck, NEP’s SS18, where the personnel and the jobs they perform will be no different from a regular-season game. “The core people take the same positions,” says Court.

Even the Fox Sports veterans on hand, though, don’t know quite what to expect from the teensy hidden cameras down on the field. The TurfCams used during the Major League post-season performed well, but baseball is rarely a contact sport, and the home-plate area provided a nice flat dirt surface that didn’t block camera shots.

Football offers neither amenity to producers with delicate gadgets to deploy. In order to shoot the Eagles and Patriots in action without the view blocked by leaves of grass, the in-the-field cameras (which are not HD) have to be positioned to shoot nearly vertically. They’re not rigidly mounted, so there’s no threat of gouging a player who lands on one with an unpadded part of his body.

The danger is entirely to the camera. “If five or six NFL players land on one of the cameras,” Court says, “you can say goodbye.”