Future of Remote Production in Focus at CCW

The exhibition space at last week’s Content and Communications World in New York City may have featured the newest technologies available for sports-production professionals, but it was the discussion in the sessions that helped attendees understand that the equipment on exhibit is headed for some fairly fundamental changes in the coming years.

For example, during “The Future of Remote Sports Production” session, attendees were treated to a discussion of an industry segment that is looking to move beyond baseband to IT. Fox Sports and Game Creek Video, for example, are in the second year of pushing content via fiber back and forth between the Fox Sports facility in Los Angeles and the network’s NFL A-game broadcast.

“Last year, we were doing it on a week-to-week basis, and now we are pushing files back on a day-to-day basis,” said Jason Taubman, VP of design and new technology, Game Creek Video. “Now we are moving files in both directions, and there is better integration into the workflows.”

Remote and Home Get Closer Together
As network connectivity between remote sports venues and home broadcast facilities continue to grow more robust, so do the workflows. File sharing and remote access of video servers are just two of the ways remote production will increasingly seem less remote in the coming years.

John McCrae, executive director of field operations, CBS Sports, laid out how CBS Sports is using the Brevity system to transcode content and deliver it to remote locations over 100-Mbps Internet pipes, saving money by reducing the need for courier services to deliver tapes or hard drives to a remote-production team.

“And operators can do things like put an exclamation point in the file name so it will automatically go to [the broadcast center] in New York,” he added. “Otherwise, it stays locked to the melt.”

As CBS and others renew their mobile-unit deals, they look for the capability for people at the studio to browse the local storage on the remote-production units.

“It’s a big game-changer,” said McCrae of remote connectivity that extends the benefits beyond the content for game coverage, including the ability to allow the studio show to access different camera angles and clean feeds. For example, promos for shows and TV lineups can be changed and updated seamlessly.

But there are limits on the workflow. Although NFL stadiums can easily provide 10-Mbps pipes for graphics and 100-Mbps for file transfers, college stadiums, for instance, may not have enough available bandwidth.

“And some college basketball arenas were built in the 1920s and 1930s,” added McCrae. “While [the schools] have great IP to the dorms and classrooms, they may not to the arena or stadium a couple of bocks away.”

Then there are things like firewalls that may prevent easy access into and out of the network.

According to Jay Deutsche, director, projects and systems architecture, EVS, it is important to at least get the production teams in both the remote and broadcast-center locations into the habit of accessing metadata between the two points.

“Maybe move a little bit of content back and forth,” he suggested, adding, “As the infrastructure grows and the bandwidth becomes more open and less expensive, the amount of content can grow and grow. Eventually, the two locations will connect, and they will not be two discrete entities.”

The workflow currently uses either EVS XT2 or XT3 video-replay servers, with the XT3 units capable of automatically creating low-resolution proxy videos.

“The ability for someone at the broadcast center to look for human-defined metadata and things like stats and downs and not be obtrusive to the operations in the truck is key,” added Deutsche.

The trick at that point will be streamlining operations so that all the devices within a facility are seen as one entity. “You will want to be able to search the entire network for content, regardless of where it lives, and then act on it,” he said.

Although the national networks are currently embracing new file-based workflows, the regional networks are still challenged from both a technology and budget standpoint.

Ken Stiver, VP of engineering and operations, Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, observed that most RSNs will not put money into the pipes and would prefer to simply keep content in the main production unit.

“Where we do file transfers is from the studio to master control, things like promos or interstitials,” he said. “But we don’t use file transfer for games.”

But that may change. Eventually, Deutsche predicted, there will be an opportunity to allow those in the field to access low-resolution proxies over archived content and then bring content across the network as needed. “It will be a facility for true bidirectional workflows, where they can look for content based on log sheets.”

The IT/IP Effect
IT and IP technologies are doing more than just changing the way the remote facility connects to the broadcast center. They are impacting truck design and operations in the field. Fiber cabling, for example, allows multiple units to be tied together and act as one massive unit. Gigabit Ethernet is also playing a key role in turning independent trucks into large production hubs.

“IP-based distribution is the way forward, as the shows are getting bigger and the answer is not to buy a bigger router because there is none for sale that would fit into a TV truck,” said Taubman. “So we are looking for ways to make the infrastructure bigger and smaller at the same time, and we can do that with packet-switched technology.”

Such a move would also create easier workflows for broadcasters involved in creating and delivering content to the second screen, as well as for those working on the away telecast. “Both teams would share video and melts and live on the same server,” Stiver pointed out.

“You can deconstruct the dual-feed truck and extend the network between two trucks so that the away-feed team has its own monitor wall and space,” Taubman explained. “They would be separate but have access to all of the resources and file-based content.”

For dotcoms, he added, the days of being happy with a backbench split and working off an auxiliary switcher panel are coming to an end. “They need their own trucks, and it is hard getting my head around how small that facility can be.”

Deutsche cautioned that the move to IP won’t happen overnight.  “The IP topology is being done to some degree, but it is not end-to-end.”

Going to IP is part of a continuing move toward IT-centric broadcast products that will resemble older gear less and less. For example, the use of software upgrades will no longer be a one-way street where the end user pays for the upgrade and then has it in perpetuity. Instead, there will be flexibility, allowing software-based features to be turned on (and paid for) only when needed.

McCrae cautioned, however, that it could become a slippery slope, with software upgrades that were once free being paid for. Hiring a truck and then having to pay additional charges for software upgrades (and keep track of which trucks have already been upgraded so that the production team knows what to expect) could be a challenge for all.

And then there is the ultimate endgame. “Only about 4% of the content created for a sports broadcast gets on-air, but what if you expose [the other 96% of the content] and make it more interactive?” asked Deutsche. “So, some day, viewers will not just see what the director wants them to see but [will see] everything, and that takes things to a whole new level.”

EVS C-Cast, for example, exposed metadata and media so that the production team can easily offer different camera angles to viewers of an important play.

“Viewers can click on a camera and drive the bus, choosing what they want to see,” he added.

McCrae agreed that, eventually, fans’ having control over what cameras they watch will, hopefully, result in higher ratings. “Advertisers want to buy eyeballs.” he said.

Eye on 4K
One of the buzz topics at CCW was 4K, and, while it is currently used by Fox Sports in a “super-zoom” capacity (allowing a Full HD close-up to be extracted from the larger image), it could challenge those who build remote-production facilities designed to last until 2020.

“If we could buy the 4K bits today, we probably would,” said Taubman. “But the best we can do is buy a 3 Gbps infrastructure.”

McCrae opined that 4K is a tougher quandary than HD. For CBS Sports, there are 300 network affiliates, including some that still have not transitioned to HD and would need to be addressed before 4K becomes a nation-wide phenomenon. So figuring out whether a new truck should be 4K-capable is a difficult question, even for a truck that will hit the road in 2014 or 2015.

And then there is the production food chain. The graphics, switchers, EVS servers, and everything else will need to be able to support 4K.

“Right now, we are just getting to 1080p with a production switcher, and 4K is still a way off from that,” said Deutsche. “But, once demand is there, vendors will step up to the plate and enable 4K for an end-to-end workflow.”

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