Pac-12 Networks Innovates Live Remote Sports With IP Production Model
On a sunny Friday afternoon in late February, Pac-12 Networks is preparing to carry live coverage of a Stanford University Women’s Lacrosse game. The producer and director, however, are nowhere to be seen in Palo Alto, CA.
That’s because, 35 miles up the Bay Area Peninsula, a vast majority of the production crew is getting things ready in the network’s San Francisco-based studios. This is one of many games aired throughout the year using Pac-12 Networks’ “IP Production” model, which is revolutionizing how live sports coverage is produced.
“At-home” production is a modestly growing trend in the industry, but no one does it as efficiently and effectively as Pac-12 Networks. Using a conference-wide IP network, P12N is able to connect to 97 of its on-campus athletic venues and transmit video, audio, internal communications, tally lights, etc., back and forth as data, essentially turning the San Francisco studios into the traditional onsite television-production truck.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s right down the road at Stanford or nearly 1,300 miles away in Colorado, it’s as if the crew and gear are right at the stadium. It’s opening a world of opportunities for the network and the conference.
“Our techniques are not streaming media. This is not highly compressed,” says Scott Adametz, director, system architecture and technology, Pac-12 Networks. “Using our unique technology, we are able to provide our remote events with multiple video paths in different directions, wireless Internet access for all of our truck personnel, file transfer, IFB, communications, intercom, and telemetric data. What differentiates us from doing at-home productions is that we don’t use video circuits. There are no video circuits employed at Pac-12 Networks for IP Productions. Everything is data.”
How Female Batman Villains Are Innovating Sports TV
The secret behind Pac-12 Network’s IP Production is a high-tech, patent-pending box no larger than an ottoman or end table. P12N ships this production box with nothing more than a Sprinter van to provide power and proper cabling for cameras. Otherwise, the box just needs to be plugged into a built-in box onsite via a fiber cable — an opticalCON by Neutrik — and all the camera feeds, audio, intercoms, etc., are encoded to JPEG2000 and sent as data across the IP network to San Francisco.
The box contains the Nevion video encoders, RTS intercom systems, up/downconversion hardware, and digital-signal processing, which Adametz refers to as the “secret sauce” that gives the box its power.
P12N has four of these boxes, each affectionately named after a female Batman villain: Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, Catwoman, and Ruby Ryder. They provide the technology that allows so much of the gear and personnel to stay back at home in San Francisco and still pull off a high-quality telecast.
Through the network, P12N is able to transmit each camera feed with audio, tally light, and comms from and to the venue, allowing the director and TD in San Francisco to make all the cuts as if they were in the production truck. Even the A1 produces a 5.1 surround mix in the studios for every single event. And, in some cases, the on-air talent even remains at home.
This greatly cuts down on the need to crew and equip each of the 850 live events that P12N produces over a nine-month college sports season onsite. Now the only hands needed at the event are the camera operators and an A2 for running microphones and effects mics, and the network can do that without sacrificing quality.
“That is a challenge for us in terms of finding crews, getting facilities and uplinks,” says Jonathan Leess, SVP, production planning and operations, Pac-12 Networks. “So this technology has allowed us to be incredibly efficient, use less people in the field, and use more people here [in our studios].”
An Improvement, Not a Compromise
The IP Production model completely changes the game for how Pac-12 Networks can produce live events. Of those 850 live events, 277 will be done using this technique, and Pac-12 expects that number only to increase in the coming years.
“This is in our DNA,” says Adametz. “This is how we do productions. This is not a sacrifice for us; this isn’t settling on making something an ‘IP Production.’ If we can make it an IP Production, we want to do that.”
At-home workflow is commonly seen as a bit of a compromise, a route to produce ancillary events more cost-effectively. What makes Pac-12 Networks’ workflow stand out is that this has quickly become the production method of choice, one that actually improves the overall quality of the productions. It allows the network to use enhancement tools that would normally be reserved for an A game on football weekends across its entire portfolio of live event programming.
“It obviously saves us a bunch of money,” says Adametz, “but we also don’t have to cut production quality. A live baseball event will have LiberoVision, it’ll have Viz Arena, it’ll have ChyronHego Paint. It will have all of these enhancements that we normally wouldn’t have been able to do. Now we can have a crew just working on replays [for multiple events] and prepping them for enhancement in game.”
In addition, the impact of JPEG2000 also has crews working at an ultra-high resolution with ultra-low latency.
“This is far better quality than satellite,” says Adametz, “and we deliver it to our uplink without further compression. So, once it’s been encoded to JPEG2000, it never loses quality again, until it gets sent up to the bird for distribution. I have never been able to do this in my broadcast career, never been able to say ‘from baseband to delivery with one encode.’ Plus, it’s JPEG2000 so it’s even the best possible [codec].”
The San Francisco studio houses four control rooms, allowing P12N to produce up to four IP Productions simultaneously. Each game will have its own producer, director, technical director, A1, and more, but a bullpen area allows technicians and operators to work multiple events on everything from graphics insertion to advanced graphics and specialized replays.
It should be noted that, while full IP Productions are unique, P12N uses IP transmission for virtually all of its live coverage, including football and basketball. A traditional production truck is onsite for those games, but the IP workflow allows P12N to deploy only one truck onsite and treat the home studio as the B and/or C unit supplying additional enhancements.
In terms of both cost saving and technological innovation, Pac-12 Networks’ use of the conference’s IP network, is a broadcasting triumph.