MLB Network, DirecTV Blaze 4K-Production Trail With Weekly Showcase Series
With each passing week, MLB Network, DirecTV, and Game Creek Video are further mastering the complexities of live-4K production on the MLB Network Showcase series.
In these early, bleeding-edge days of live 4K production, only a handful of broadcasters are producing sports events live in 4K/UHD on a regular basis. BT Sport UHD kicked it off last summer with high-profile European soccer matches and was followed by Rogers Sportsnet and Bell Media’s TSN in Canada, which have produced dozens of NBA, NHL, and Toronto Blue Jays home games. And now the latest addition to the live-4K sports landscape, MLB Network and DirecTV’s slate of weekly MLB Network Showcase games, is off and running.
“Every week, we discover something new, but there are less and less surprises every week,” says Susan Stone, SVP, operations and engineering, MLB Network. “The thing with baseball is, it’s not like you can come in the day before and set your cameras, because we’re the third [broadcaster] in [after the teams’ RSNs]. So, until batting practice starts, you really don’t have a chance to see how everything looks. We certainly have all learned a lot in four weeks, and now we feel like we’re in a groove. As technology advances, our show can be even more robust.”
A False Start But Now in Full Swing
DirecTV, MLB Network, and remote-facilities provider Game Creek Video began plotting out the 4K-production model for MLB Showcase early this year. The 4K-production effort began quietly in Toronto on April 8, when MLB Network produced the Blue Jays home opener against the Red Sox as a test that was not transmitted. Days later, DirecTV officially announced that it will carry the full slate of 25 MLB Network Showcase games this season.
However, because of technical issues prior to the first game (Giants at Dodgers), on April 15, the 4K/UHD telecast was not delivered to DirecTV viewers. A 4K test production without DirecTV carriage in St. Louis for Cubs-Cardinals on April 19 was successful. On April 29, the Yankees at Red Sox game from Fenway Park became the first successful MLB Network Showcase 4K telecast on DirecTV and was followed by another Yanks-Sox 4K telecast from Yankee Stadium on May 6. The MLB Network-DirecTV 4K production returns to the Bronx on Thursday for Yankees-Royals.
“Out of issues we had [during the first game] at Dodgers Stadium, it became clear that we needed to take more time to vet all facets of the production and of transmission,” says John Ward, SVP, content operations, DirecTV. “And that’s essentially what we did in St. Louis following Dodgers Stadium. The truth is, we’re learning exponentially every time we do this. This is all bleeding-edge technology right now, and it takes very, very strong attention to detail and testing. Everyone is committed to this, and we feel like we’re really homed in now and have a product we can be proud of.”
Inside the 4K/HD Workflow: Achieving a One-Truck Model
MLB Network’s key to sustaining a repeatable, financially viable 4K-production model for baseball has been to deploy a single truck that can serve both the 4K and HD shows, rather than two trucks side-by-side. Not only would the use of two trucks for every game be pricey, but, for the third broadcaster into the compound, there simply would not be room for another mobile unit at most ballparks. In the end, Game Creek and MLBN were able to come up with a workflow that produces the entire show in 4K and then downconverts to 1080p for MLB Network’s HD telecast.
“The key question for MLB Network was, how can we do our normal HD show with all the bells and whistles without any compromises and also service 4K for DirecTV — all out of the same truck?” says Jason Taubman, VP, design and new technology, Game Creek Video.
To serve both shows, Game Creek set up the Grass Valley Kayenne K-Frame switcher inside its Riverhawk mobile unit in dual-suite mode (the provider’s B2 truck serves as the B unit). Riverhawk’s existing Evertz EQX router was not at capacity, allowing Game Creek to add additional router I/O and use Evertz’s new up/down/crossconverter to blend the signals. Riverhawk’s existing 3G infrastructure allows the quad-split 3G-SDI streams that make up each 4K camera feed to be routed throughout the truck without any additional infrastructure.
MLB Network is deploying 10 Sony HDC-4300 cameras licensed for 4K resolution; two HD cameras dedicated to Statcast, the league’s statistics system; and a robotic booth camera upconverted to 4K. Six outputs come from each HDC-4300: four 4K 3G streams, a 1080p stream, and a utility HD path for the video room.
Since Sony HDC-4300s can be licensed only for 4K or high-speed — not both — replays are being created in 1080p in the EVS environment and upconverted to 4K. As a result, the HD/4K production has the same number of replay channels at its disposal as it would on its typical Showcase HD production.
“The fly in the ointment is, we didn’t have a vendor who could deliver 4K replay in a compact or affordable way. So we concluded we could do live cameras in 4K but all of the replay is upconverted to 4K,” says Taubman. “For the 1080p60 replay, we upconvert an entire M/E into 4K, which gets reentered into the switcher and used in 4K. So the whole show is switched in 4K, and then, at the end, it’s delivered simultaneously to DirectTV in 4K and also to a downconverter for MLB Network’s HD distribution.”
The move to 1080p required MLB Network (which is a 720p house) to re-render all its graphics and replay elements in 1080p. The Statcast replay builder and Vizrt insert graphics are now 1080p, but MLB Network is still working with TV Graphics on the score bug, which remains 720p.
The production workflow in the control room is nearly identical to that of the HD show, with the exception of the technical director’s operating the dual-suite switcher. In addition, the monitor wall remains HD, although a 4K monitor displaying the DirecTV program return feed has been added to the production room.
“Any new technology obviously has to work with the financial framework of a broadcaster,” says Stone. “So to be able to stay within our typical [HD] workflow is really the only viable model to make this technology progress. You have to serve both the HD and 4K viewers. To have side-by-side broadcasts, like we started with HD and 3D, is not viable here. To be able to do it all out of one truck has certainly been a challenge, and there have been some bumps in the road, but the end result has been worth it. We are going to have 23 4K games on DirecTV, which is a pretty amazing run.”
Major Challenges: Securing Camera Positions, Syncing Audio
While the team’s 4K-production prowess has come a long way in just four weeks, challenges remain. MLB Network has arrived a day early to provide set day for the crew, rather than the single-day set/shoot/strike typical of Showcase productions (although MLB Network will attempt Thursday’s game at Yankee Stadium without a set day for the first time). In addition, being the third broadcaster onsite after each team’s RSN squeezes MLB Network’s camera-position options — especially considering every HDC-4300 requires fiber connectivity.
“The main challenge we have being the third broadcaster in is making sure that every single [camera] position at the ballpark has fiber, which is required for a [4K] show like this,” says Tom Guidice, VP, remote operations, MLB Network. “We have a ton of cable on the B unit just in case we have to run fiber into some of these locations. But we have been very lucky so far that these ballparks have had the fiber we need, but that won’t always be the case.”
Once the production was up and running, one of the major challenges to surface was syncing the audio for the various 4K and HD feeds going into the program. The 1080p signals have roughly five frames of latency, and the native-4K sources have about two frames, making for a complex mixed switching environment when it comes to tracking the audio.
“With various delay values in different places,” says MLB Network Technical Manager Gabe Nucci, “our A1s have had to do quite a bit of juggling to keep it all in line.”
Contribution, Transmission, and the Evolution of DirecTV’s LABC
DirecTV is using a 100%-IP contribution scheme back to its Los Angeles Broadcast Center (LABC), which relies on Ericsson MediaFirst (formerly Envivio) video processing. Onsite in the truck, the quad SDI streams that make up the 4K feed are fed into encoders, which run on four-node HP ProLiant G6 servers with a Deltacast capture card. The four quadrants are combined into one full-raster HEVC-encoded 4K program and transported in an 80-Mbps IP stream over two redundant fiber lines from AT&T and The Switch to the LABC. In Los Angeles, DirecTV converts the stream to a distribution level and sends it out to DirecTV Genie HD DVR (HR54) set-top boxes, where the signal is decoded for display on 4K-ready TVs.
“Look, this is brave new ground,” says Ward. “I think that, as we get further along the experience of doing this, the technology will evolve and that will make all of this a lot easier. Right now, there is a lot of support needed onsite and on our end at the broadcast center. It ties up a great many resources and people just to ensure that all of this is running smoothly. We’ve certainly now set up a path of high repeatability of these games and other events, hopefully.”
He adds that DirecTV plans to build out a dedicated 4K master-control room in the second half of 2016 to handle the operations needed for live 4K production and transmission. He also acknowledges that the full 4K-technology ecosystem is far from complete but that the vendor community has embraced the challenge thus far.
“It’s been a great experience because, even though they are competing, the vendors are all talking to each other,” says Ward. “It’s fantastic because everyone’s learning and everyone’s sharing — whether it’s working with Hitomi on a 4K lip-sync generator or Tektronix on diagnostic tools that help you look at a signal and troubleshoot a signal and make sure audio and video levels are good. We’re working with various vendors, and they’re all stepping up and coming to the table with their ideas.”