For Season Finale, The Mtn. Premieres in HD, on Location
By Carolyn Braff
For two years, The Mtn., the 24-hour sports network dedicated to the Mountain West Conference, has produced a growing arsenal of quality, standard-definition, in-studio programming. For the final weekend of this 2008 football season, however, all of that will change. On Nov. 22, The Mtn. will venture out of doors and into high-definition for nine hours of HD programming delivered on-site from Laramie, WY (vs. Colorado State), and Salt Lake City, UT (vs. BYU).
“Everything we have done for the past two years has been 4:3 standard-definition, and now, for one weekend, to put everything in HD, from all of our graphics to our cameras to our studios to the game broadcast, it’s been quite an undertaking,” explains Jon Rees, VP operations for The Mtn.
Jointly owned by Comcast and CBS College Sports Network, The Mtn. has done plenty of live-game coverage since its launch in September 2006, but it has never produced a studio show remotely, much less remotely in high-definition.
Hi-Def for a Day
Turning the standard-definition operation into a hi-def studio for a day — one that must receive two separate HD transmissions — is a complicated endeavor, to say the least.
“We’re going to do dual path all the way from the sites,” Rees explains. “We’ll have an independent HD master-control room that will handle everything 1080i native. Our studio cameras can shoot 16:9, so we’re going to downconvert the games, pass them through our studio, and hand that off to our 4:3 standard-definition master control and uplink. Then we will upconvert our studio to HD for the HD broadcast.”
In the accelerated planning process of this dual-HD event, routing proved to be one of the more complex issues to solve.
“It’s the signal path more than anything,” Rees says of the HD challenge. “Having two master controls, making sure we understand where the different flavors of video need to go for each control room, that’s been the biggest challenge.”
As Long as You’re Standing…
With a double-header already on the schedule, the network had a choice to make. Rather than produce one game in SD and the other in HD, risking viewer confusion, once the engineering questions had been answered, it made sense to produce both of the day’s games in HD — especially once the Mountain West Conference chipped in financially.
“A lot of the work has been figuring out how things are being routed through this building,” explains Steve Hurlbut, senior executive producer and director of programming for The Mtn. “Talking with the people at the MWC office, we decided that, as long as we were going through all the work to figure it out and change it to HD, we might as well add another game on. And once we were doing the games, we thought it was worth doing the studio show and the Live at the Stadium show in HD as well.”
Once the network decision had been made, then came the hard part: finding two available HD-capable mobile production units for use on the same day.
In Search of a Truck (or Two)
“Our biggest challenge was finding two mobile units to do those games,” Hurlbut explains. The Mtn. generally relies on Kansas City, Mo.-based MetroSports for production trucks and crew, but finding two available HD-capable mobile units for a single date — on short notice — was not a possibility. Luckily, a client had recently backed out of a commitment with NCP, so The Mtn. was able to use two NEP-owned trucks, NCP 5 for the Utah game and SS18 in Wyoming.
“There’s just a lack of HD mobile units out there,” Hurlbut says. “That’s a big football weekend, and college basketball’s already started by then, too. It took us a while to locate a truck.”
A third truck, Metro Sports’ Marvin unit, will support the Mtn. Live at the Stadium show, which will broadcast from Utah’s Rice-Eccles Stadium. Using a set the network uses for Friday-night pep rallies, The Mtn. will broadcast from the floor of the stadium before the game, then again at halftime and for postgame.
A combination of local freelancers and Metro Sports staff will make up the crew of 40 in Salt Lake City and 25 in Laramie, while another 20 staff members work the studios in Denver.
“We’re trying to make sure that we’ve got people on each of the crews, particularly from the tape end of things, that are used to setting up a videotape room,” Hurlbut says. “When we’ve had an HD truck in the past to do an SD broadcast, getting that tape room set up has been a much longer process than normal. Sometimes, a crew is not familiar with how a virtual tape room needs to get patched together. That’s the biggest difference for us.”
Some Setup Familiarity
Aside from a second sideline reporter at each broadcast, the seven-camera setup at each stadium uses the network’s normal equipment complement, so Hurlbut can focus on the remote experiment.
“For the studio set down on the floor, we’ll have two studio cameras and a jib camera that we’re bringing in, which will also be able to feed some shots to the HD truck,” Hurlbut says. “Our set will have four audio drops on there. We’ve done a number of games out of Rice-Eccles, so none of that should cause us any wrinkles.”
One wrinkle the network does have to smooth out is its graphics packages, all of which must be converted to HD.
“One of the bigger challenges was trying to take all the standard-definition material media that we have and figure out how we’re going to convert it,” Rees explains. “Most of that is being done 4:3 anamorphically, editing and putting on wings.”
Moving Into the HD Future
Although The Mtn. is sure that Nov. 22’s broadcast won’t be the network’s last in HD, no one is sure when the next will be.
“There’s got to be some place to put the HD content,” Hurlbut says. “Right now, on all the 20-some cable entities that we’re available on, we’re on the SD portion of all those different tiers. Unless you know you’re going to get some commitments to give you an HD occasional spot, there’s no sense in committing all the time and money to do it.”
DirecTV, which also carries The Mtn. has offered the network HD space whenever it is ready to use it, but The Mtn. has no concrete plans for HD coverage moving forward.
“We’re obviously, at some point down the road, going to go fully HD,” Hurlbut says. “This has been a great experience to figure out some things that we’re going to put in place as we migrate towards a 24/7 HD network.”