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SVG@NAB Viewpoints: ‘At-Home’ Workflows, High-Speed/4K Cameras Help Sports Producers Stay Agile

April 28th, 2015 Posted in Headlines By Jason Dachman

Team SVG was out in force during NAB 2015, with nine reporters scouring the show floor and checking out the latest in technology as well as sitting down with dozens of industry leaders on both the exhibitor and attendee side. These reports from the entire SVG editorial staff offer nine individual perspectives that, collectively, form a single vision of what NAB 2015 meant for today and, more important, tomorrow.

There was no shortage of tech themes at this year’s NAB Show: 4K/UHD, 8K, ultra-high-speed cameras, HEVC, the move to IP, cloud-based workflows, and object-based storage, to name a few. But, for my money, the most resounding theme was an element that has already begun to change the face of remote production: “at-home” production.

Although there is disagreement over the official term (we at SVG Americas prefer at-home over centralized or remote-remote production), the idea of backhauling camera feeds from a remote production to a centralized control room at the broadcast center has already taken hold for a cavalcade of live sports shows, and the abundance of solutions at NAB 2015 suggest that will only continue.

Examples From Hall to Hall
In many ways, an amalgamation of several of the buzzy banners that headlined NAB 2015 (the move to IP, the cloud, and next-gen compression schemes), the at-home model reduces costly onsite crew, facilities, and other resources to either let sports networks produce shows more cost-effectively or allow less popular sports +to be televised or streamed to a small but no less passionate fan base. This centralized model has already begun to take hold to produce a variety of college sports events (Pac-12 Networks, Big-10 Networks, ESPN college basketball and its SEC network, to name a few), Major League Soccer games (Univision and ESPN), ESPN’s X Games, and many more mid- to lower-tier sports properties. In addition, broadcasters large and small have relied on various levels of at-home workflows for several years at events like the Olympics and World Cup, where accreditations and space at the International Broadcast Center can prove costly.

Dozens of booths I visited during the show were showcasing their own pieces of the at-home–production puzzle (Adobe, ATEME, Deluxe, Ericsson, Evertz, Media Links, Net Insight, Nevion, and The Switch, to name just a few): IP connectivity and management to link the remote and broadcast center; HEVC, J2K, or other advanced compression schemes to bring more camera feeds back home using less bandwidth (via fiber, satellite, or even the open Internet); or cloud-based solutions that allow editors and producers back home to pull content directly from the remote. And countless more booths highlighted similar workflows and technologies.

The at-home model goes a long way to accomplishing what became a battle cry at this year’s show: the need for agility. As the 4K (and 8K) debate rages and fans’ media-consumption habits change on a whim, sports broadcasters yearn to be agile in hopes of preparing themselves for whatever may be on the horizon. Tired of costly physical-infrastructure investments and bosses screaming about how they haven’t even recouped their investment for HD, let alone justified a 4K investment, broadcast engineers are turning to software- and cloud-based solutions (and, yes, even the dark arts of IP) to remain agile in a world fraught with potential technological pitfalls.

This is precisely what makes at the at-home-production model and the IP-contribution schemes that go with it so attractive to broadcasters: cut costs onsite now while preparing the operation for an uncertain future.

Of course, obstacles remain. The at-home model requires costly connectivity, whether fat fiber pipes or a dish in the sky (although contribution and distribution over the open Internet have made serious gains in the past two years). That may not be a problem for the Pac-12, Big 10, or SEC, all of which have robust fiber networks connecting their respective campuses and broadcast centers, but the majority of U.S. sports venues still lack affordable connectivity that would allow at-home productions to meet their bottom line.

Nonetheless, as even the largest of shows begin to embrace these workflows for certain portions of their shows — NFL on CBS, ESPN, Fox, and NBC included — it seems that at-home production is quickly becoming more than just a burgeoning trend but, rather, a way of life. And, judging by the showing at NAB 2015, there are plenty of vendors ready and willing to help make that happen.

Licensing Options Address Agility
Although at-home production may have the biggest impact on live sports production in the long term, one headline with a major immediate impact on acquisition centered on two booths: Grass Valley and Sony.

Grass Valley’s LDX XtremeSpeed 6X camera took the industry by storm last year: dozens of units were shipped to rental houses and mobile-unit providers, and it quickly became a go-to option for live sports productions that wanted slo-mo images without having to worry about a triggering mechanism or difficulty matching HD cameras. Grass Valley and Sony took it one step further at the show, unveiling high-speed/4K hybrid cameras that have essentially the same form factor and functionality as traditional HD broadcast cameras.

Grass Valley’s LDX 86 Universe switchable camera system can be changed from a standard HD camera to either a 4K camera or a 6X HD camera via a temporary software license (on a perpetual or one-week basis). This allows live sports productions to address the hot trends of 4K and ultra-high-speed capture without buying dedicated specialty cameras. In addition, the company introduced the K2 Dyno Universe, a replay server that allows 4K or 6X replay without doubling the number of servers, rack space, or operators.

For its part, Sony introduced the HDC4300 camera, the world’s first camera to use three ⅔-in. 4K imagers. The camera has optional licensing for 4K capture or up 8X slo-mo recording and ships with the ability to capture 1080ptgy/60 fps natively as well as 1080p/180 fps. Sony has already secured large agreements with Game Creek Video, NEP, and Bexel to ship cameras for their customers, including CBS, Fox Sports, and NBC Sports.

Both Sony and Grass Valley’s optional licensing programs for 8K and high-speed functionality in these systems once again highlight both the industry’s desire to stay agile in an ever changing market and camera vendors’ willingness to respond with viable transition models.

While widespread full 4K/UHD productions are likely years away — although Mobile TV Group’s launch of a Grass Valley-centric 4K/6X/slo-mo truck signals that they may not be that far off — optional licensing programs like these allow live sports productions to prepare for the future while catering to the present (more high-speed cameras) — without betting the farm on one format.