View From the Top: MLB Network’s Haden on IT Technology, Asset Management

SVG is proud to announce the launch of a series of editorial pieces aimed at providing our members with industry leaders’ revealing insights on the current state of the business and its rapid evolution. Each month, a top industry exec will offer his or her view on tech trends, intriguing new workflows, and how to navigate the perils of today’s ever changing landscape.

As VP of engineering and IT for MLB Network, Mark Haden ensures that the facility meets the technical needs of MLB Network as well as MLB Productions. With a staff of more than 40 professional technicians, Mark oversees day-to-day technical operations as well as broadcast and office computer networks for this “lens-to-satellite” facility. He is also responsible for refreshing technologies and keeps an eye toward the future, investigating new and promising innovations and techniques.

It’s an exciting time for our industry. In MLB Network’s seventh year on the air, we are on the verge of incorporating even more amazing technology into our content. Things we previously thought of as “high tech” are now commonplace. The viewer benefits are tangible.

Haden_MarkGenerally, the technology side of our business increasingly comprises IT-based systems. Flexible appliances are replacing purpose-specific equipment. This convergence is allowing many innovations that can be used to more fully tell the story of live events and highlight show analysis.

IT technology has taken file-based content workflows to the next level. Our new server system leverages enterprise-class IT components that will allow component-by-component upgrades over time as each technology improves or when demand dictates. In 2008, we decided to create our own media-asset–management application, Diamond, to allow customization in covering the news of Major League Baseball. This has served us well. Right now, it is tightly coupled with our server farm, archive, and edit platform, Adobe Premiere.

There is a lot of asset-management–industry interest in how we deployed the enterprise-class technology for this system. Most of the appliances are housed in a conventional data center located a half mile from our main facility. The backup power and HVAC needs for the system was too great to invest in upgrading our existing physical plant, so there was no choice but to build it offsite. We connected the systems via dual-lateral dark fiber, using KVM over fiber and an optical router for redundancy. Putting such an innovative system in a completely separate building and tying it in is an accomplishment that we take pride in at MLB Network.

Linking remote-production facilities with network plants is also an emerging trend, described as “at-home workflow.” Linking storage pools will give production staff the ability to adapt on the fly and enhance stories happening on location with the vast content resources stored in the plant. Our remote producers are increasingly using our files-over-WAN system called Diamond-Cutter.

More than a year ago, MLB Network partnered with EVS and built a robust quick-turnaround file system based on a 10-GB infrastructure — the first such facility in the world. Speed is the key. Our signature studio show MLB Tonight is, essentially, a news show and must be fleet of foot. Our control rooms leverage IT technology, newsroom systems, and robust on-set content servers to keep pace with news from 15 ballparks concurrently.

Baseball is a statistician’s dream, and we continue to see breakthroughs in richly integrated statistical systems that drive on-screen graphics. At MLB Network, we have robust data-mining tools that enhance granular breakdowns of plays and events in our game, although with rich graphics comes the risk of on-screen clutter and viewer distraction. We keep this in mind as we apply these graphics carefully.

We are truly excited about enhancing our studios with the latest display technology and augmented/virtual-reality engines. The computing horsepower available now is making startling virtual elements rendered in near real time a reality.

LED displays have come a long way. I am excited to keep an eye on emerging curved systems and those with increased resolution (pixel pitch). Unfortunately, the moiré issue will still exist and will always need to be considered in designing and setting up shots on set. Understand that the use of scrims to minimize or eliminate moiré is not a cure-all; they soften and blur the image. A new methodology needs to be found.

I look forward to the use of 4K/Ultra HD outside of “region-of-interest” applications. A remaining hurdle is that, with full-size imagers, depth of field is thin. Once again, camera operators will be challenged to keep tighter shots in focus.

The smaller imagers minimize this issue but don’t provide a true 4K image. High-speed systems are being used to a greater extent, and I like that we appear to be heading in that direction as well. We as an industry must ensure that we don’t accept motion blur as the price of higher resolution. It is imperative that we achieve higher frame rates at the same time we increase resolution: what good is it to zoom in on, for example, a close play at first base when the ball is blurred into the shape of a baton?

Clearly, broadcast engineers now require a deep understanding of IT. Finding staffers with this core knowledge is becoming difficult. Supply is not keeping up with demand. We all need to communicate to our technical schools, colleges, and universities that there is a real demand for these people, who require specific training. This area should be viewed as a growth field by our schools and young people.

Again, it’s an amazing time to be a broadcast technologist. Moore’s Law enables us to rely on brilliant worldwide vendor engineering to tell our stories like never before.

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