DIRECTV’s Los Angeles Broadcast Center Serves as Tech Nerve Center
Stepping into DIRECTV’s Los Angeles Broadcast Center (LABC) is like checking into the television equivalent of the largest airport you’ve ever seen.
DIRECTV SVP of Content Operations John Ward remembers the first time he toured the facility as an employee of Fox Sports prior to joining the satellite-TV company in 2005.
“I was blown away by all of it,” he says, staring up at a mostly dark monitor wall that stretches on for days. It’s a mid-October Tuesday afternoon: baseball season is over, basketball is yet to start. When this room is humming on a busy game night, it’s a sight to behold.
DIRECTV serves 197 markets across the country, and the company’s sports division is the exclusive out-of-market home for sports fans of every major league, offering NFL Sunday Ticket, NBA League Pass, NHL Center Ice, MLB Extra Innings, and other global sports packages from domestic soccer leagues, rugby, and more. The LABC is the nerve center of it all.
Hidden in a warehouse park on a 196,000-sq.-ft. plot of land in Marina del Rey, the LABC was built in 1999 and has been the company’s chief technological home ever since. Its sports division has used the facility to route and deliver approximately 94,000 events this year (counting HD/SD, various mosaic channels the company helps produce for major golf and tennis events, and more). The growth has been staggering. When Ward took over the sports group just a handful of years ago, DIRECTV trafficked about 45,000 events.
The LABC’s main distribution room ingests, routes, authenticates, and redistributes 200-300 events per day and runs nearly 24/7 with much of the international programming the company offers.
At the center of the room is a massive screen that outlines the night’s events. It’s a layout Ward says was inspired by Grand Central Terminal in New York City.
“Think of a train schedule,” he explains. “This lists in chronological order all of the events that have to be placed on the air, and it goes back and forth with our traffic system to identify where it is. We’re constantly monitoring feeds but also, when we put an event on-air that’s for an out-of-market sports package, checking what’s scheduled versus what’s actually on the air. Sometimes they may not match, and that’s what our staff is doing a lot of the time.”
There are many layers to DIRECTV’s sports plan. Subscribers to the Sports Pack receive national and regional sports networks from across the country. On RSNs not in the user’s market, however, live games are blacked out unless the customer has purchased the related out-of-market package. For example, a DIRECTV user in New York City will receive YES Network and see all Yankees games on the channel. However, that same customer will also receive ROOT Sports Pittsburgh, but, when a Pirates game goes live, the network is blacked out unless that user has purchased the MLB Extra Innings package. Executing all of that correctly is both an automated and a manual job that takes place at the LABC.
“Airing these sports events requires what we call ‘touches’ to turn conditional access on and off,” says Ward. “As you’re watching your RSN channel, it’s when we call in regular PAD [program associated data], meaning, if you buy Sports Pack, you have the rights to that RSN.”
More Than Just a Distributor
DIRECTV is also home to some of its own original programming. The Dan Patrick Show, The Rich Eisen Show, NFL RedZone, and NFL FantasyZone are DIRECTV original productions.
The NFL RedZone set is located in the LABC and is a small, rather unassuming space considering the power it wields for hundreds of thousands of fans across the country every Sunday. The program’s studio and control room feature Sony cameras, a Grass Valley Kalypso production switcher, a Studer audio console, and a jib.
The Rich Eisen Show recently debuted a new studio set at DIRECTV’s other L.A.-based facility, in El Segundo. The control room for Eisen is located at LABC, as is the master control for Dan Patrick, whose studios are all the way across the continent in Milford, CT.
Commitment to 4K
According to Ward, the cameras inside the NFL RedZone studio will likely be getting a refresh in the near future and could include 4K camera heads.
DIRECTV is positioning itself as a 4K pioneer. It already acquires a vast portion of its original entertainment programming in 4K, including Rouge, Kingdom, and Guitar Center Sessions on Audience Network. Internally, DIRECTV already edits in 4K and downconverts to 720.
“We are crazy pushing hard on 4K,” says Ward. “We believe in it. It’s going to be great stuff, and we want to be one of the leaders in 4K.”
In December, the company will launch a satellite that will provide capacity for up to 55 4K channels. The service is expected to be operational by spring. Ward adds that DIRECTV is looking to start doing linear 4K productions in 2016 and is already beginning to push video-on-demand in 4K.
“There’s a lot of things in the building that we need to address about routing,” he says. “Some of the compression stuff we’ve got to do [before going all out on 4K].”