SVG Summit Tackles Future of Remote Production
The future of the sports broadcasting industry came into a bit more focus at the SVG Summit last week and it seems everyone can expect the bigger events to get bigger, smaller events to provide new business opportunities, and everyone to be grappling with just how and if the sports industry embraces UltraHD and how new long-distance “at home” production workflows might impact the broader business.
“The challenge is to keep the trucks attractive to customers and make the high-end trucks flexible to meet the needs of folks as production needs are growing all the time and the size of the shows are bigger all the time,” said Pat Sullivan, Game Creek Video, president. “So we have to keep our older assets viable and our newer assets at the very cutting edge to meet customer needs.”
But the big question facing everyone is where, exactly, are the new business opportunities? And in era where the typical sports fan has literally dozens of channels, Websites, and other platforms vying for their attention what needs to be done in order to maintain growth?
“If we’re talking about business growth and profitability then TV ratings have been pretty much flat for the past three years,” said Rob Hunter, former ESPN executive charged with looking at developing technology opportunities. “The number of eyeballs is flattening out as there are not that many more new events. So the growth has to be found in the secondary and tertiary events where many more events will need to add up to the [revenues] generated by one big event.”
Finding growth in smaller events, however, demands a much more focused production that does everything it can to keep costs low as viewership will most likely be low.
“One way to keep costs low is to have the camera and mic signals fed to the studio and the other is to use a [Newtek] Tricaster or flypack,” said Phil Garvin, Mobile TV Group, president and general manager.
The former is a viable alternative unless the producers and directors need to be on site. The Big Ten Network, for example, cut the amount of productions it needs to do from a truck from 450 to 200.
“Until everyone is ready to not be at the venue that model will only apply to small events,” Garvin added. “And you could have [production] centers around the country with fiber coming in to them that [are used to produce those events] and take away the bottom portion of our business.”
The general consensus is that there are some economic benefits to such a model. Travel and expenses and other operational expenses will be lowered greatly. But those cost savings come at a price, especially in terms of storytelling.
“In my former life in the NFL a key part of how the story was told was the producer and director sitting with the QB and coach or offensive linemen,” said Sullivan. “How can the production people tell the story if they are in Los Angeles and the game is in Foxborough?”
George Hoover, NEP, CTO, raised another possible issue: the ripple effect on manufacturers of the equipment that is at the center of sports productions. If the number of servers, production switchers, and other devices required fall from, say four per truck to only four per network, then the future of technology development could be at risk.
“When a network pays for the rights, the crew, and the people on site the trucks are relatively inexpensive in the overall mix,” he added. “The industry needs to work more efficiently and take less time in [setting up for an event]. And the staffing levels are not much different than they were when we worked with one-inch tape. Do you need 39 EVS operators on site or can you have graphics rendered into the switcher on site?”
Headed in Two Directions
“We need to make regional events a better viewing experience because it can pay off in the ratings,” said Garvin. “There is an opportunity to build the production values of regional sports events and, unfortunately, the networks want us to do that without raising rates.”
And more than ever the phrase “higher-quality” look means more super slo-motion cameras used during the production.
“There has been an explosion in high frame-rate cameras,” said Kevin Callahan, Fox Sports, director, Remote Operations Engineering and Technology. “During the 2008 Super Bowl in Phoenix there was one and then it became a part of the NFL A game and then the B and now every show has one, even college basketball.”
Sullivan added that the camera buying decisions today are focused on high-frame rate cameras.
“On the shows we do for Fox there are four or six high frame-rate cameras and, as I have told the folks at Sony, those came at their expense as those cameras can be used for live shots as the quality has increased dramatically,” he explained. “The experimental nature of those cameras has been reduced and they are a legitimate alternative to standard cameras.”
The UltraHD Future
Along with the desire to do more with less comes the need to somehow also plan for an UltraHD future that is a bit unclear at the moment. The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in two weeks promises to server up plenty of Ultra HD hype as next-generation sets will most likely be bigger and/or more affordable.
“The question is whether any production will be done in 4K and I am dubious,” said Hunter. “We’re five years into 1080p and there still hasn’t been a live 1080p production even though the trucks can do it.”
Those 1080p capable trucks can be used to produce Ultra HD as the 4K signal can be transported over the 3Gbps infrastructure required for 1080p.
“But it’s not practical long term for 4K production as using four 3Gbps paths for one 4K signal is not practical,” added Callahan.
Garvin added that all the mobile production community can do is wait and see.
“When we started HDNET in 2001 the equipment existed and we could do a production that felt a lot like an SD production,” he explained. “But that does not exist in UltraHD today and there is nothing we can do until the cameras and optics are developed. We would be wasting our money to do anything in 4K now.”
But investments will start to be made within the next 18 months. The HD truck market, for example, is pretty well saturated and the older HD trucks are not as attractive to clients and will need a refresh. And there will be a need to make sure those trucks can handle the bigger shows, the new shows, and the small shows.
“There never is a good time to build something new because in two years the client will want new stuff,” added Hoover. “So you really have to look at the balance between what the costs are today and when the technology will change.”