NBC Sports Weathers the Storm at Churchill Downs for Massive Kentucky Derby Show

The Kentucky Derby production will deploy 54 cameras, including a Sony HDC-4800 4K camera for main play-by-play

It looks to be a wet and wild Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs tomorrow, with torrential downpours once again testing the mettle of NBC Sports Group’s production and operations teams in the days leading up to the first gem of horseracing’s Triple Crown. Despite the rain and mud, however, the Peacock will once again roll out one of the largest productions on the annual sports calendar, including a record five hours of race coverage on Saturday and a total of 15+ hours throughout the week. NBC’s show will also feature a whopping 54 cameras, including the debut of a Sony HDC-4800 4K camera (recording at 120 fps) as its main play-by-play camera.

“I think it’s fair to say this event has come a long way in the 16 years that I’ve been privileged to be a part of it,” says NBC Sports Group’s Kentucky Derby Coordinating Producer Rob Hyland, “Every year, I think it will get a little bit easier to understand and tackle this major show, and maybe I get a little bit more comfortable with it. But, every year, it’s just as exciting, and the nerves are just as great because you never know what you’re going to get, and that’s what’s so special about this event to me.”

Play-by-Play Cam Goes 4K With Sony HDC-4800
NBC’s 54-camera complement will feature the Churchill Downs debut of a Sony HDC-4800 4K high-speed camera positioned as the primary play-by-play camera. Operating at 120 fps, it will be outfitted with a new Canon UHD 86X lens (fresh off the NAB 2017 exhibit floor) and will be integrated with Sony’s BPU-4800 4K server to allow cutout-and-zoom replay capability.

“We have the ability to zoom anywhere at any place on the track,” says Hyland. “If there is some crazy issue that happens or a jockey loses a whip on the backstretch, we have the ability to find the small detail, and we’re excited about that. In a 20-horse field, anything can happen, and, usually, it does. We have the camera now to help us locate when that does happen.”

According to NEP Technical Manager John Roché, NBC will also deploy four Sony HDC-4300’s (operating in 6X-slo-mo mode), as well as a slew of HDC-2500’s and HDC-1500’s — all outfitted with Canon lenses (a mix of 11:4.7, 14:4.3, 22:7.6, 95:8.6, and 100:9.8 lenses).

In addition, NBC will roll out five RF wireless handhelds to cover barns, paddock, and track, as well as RF POV helmet cameras on reporter Donna Brothers (for her post-race interview with the winning jockey) and the outrider (who escorts the winning horse and jockey to the winner’s circle).

In terms of robotics, NBC will have an RF robo on the starting gate to cover the race starts, as well as robos suspended 80 ft. high on the Churchill Downs videoboard structure, in the paddock saddling area, and the tunnel leading to the track. There will also be POV cameras in the Stewards Room, in NBC’s announce booth featuring race-caller Larry Collmus, and on the red carpet. Aerial coverage will be covered via fixed-wing plane.

The audio coverage will feature approximately 110 microphones, including up to three RF jockey mics.

Inside the Compound: Plenty of Trucks, Crew for Record Coverage
NBC’s Kentucky Derby compound is once again a colossal throng of mobile units with NEP’s ND1 (A, B, C, and D units) and SS-15 sharing cameras, EVS replay channels, and tape resources for both the NBC and NBCSN shows. The crew onsite is an army in itself, comprising 50 production staffers, eight technical- and operations-management folks, 175 on the technical crew, 30 support staffers, and 14 on-air talent.

“For our crew of 300, does it involve a lot more technical planning in terms of where to get engineers earlier in the day and how to get people fed and all that stuff? Yes. But we’ve got the best technical crew in the business, led by John Roché and [NBC Sports Group Director of Sports Operations] Tim DeKime to make sure that gets done.”

The trucks and crew are serving NBC Sports Group’s monumental programming slate, which includes NBC’s record five hours of coverage on Saturday, as well as NBCSN’s Kentucky Derby Access (Thursday/Friday), Kentucky Oaks (Friday), and Kentucky Derby Prep (Saturday) coverage leading up to the main event. In all, the Peacock sports networks will cover 21 races over three days (including five races on NBC on Saturday). In addition, NBC Sports Group digital and social-media coverage has never been larger.

“[The expanded coverage] doesn’t change our philosophy,” says Hyland. “As I’ve said to people before, horseracing is, in effect, a complex, outdoor studio show. Yes, we are going to broadcast 21 races over the next three days, but our production philosophy doesn’t change. The challenge really becomes what we do to engage the viewers in between these races that happen every hour, and we do that through videotaped features, in-depth race-analysis packages. Really, it’s no different than when the show started at 4:00. It’s just there is more of it.

New Touchscreen Aids Handicappers
In an effort to boost the pre-race handicapping coverage throughout Saturday, NBC has added a new touchscreen for analysts/handicappers Bob Neumeier and Eddie Olczyk to use. The analysts can select the specific upcoming race and the horse on which to display odds and can show the audience at home how to wager, using an allotted amount of money and the projected payout.

“[The analyst] will take the viewers through the whole process, almost as if you were at the betting window. Using this touchscreen to explain what his goal is, the horse that he selected, and the potential outcome of it,” says Hyland. “For a lot of these viewers, it’s the only horse race they’ll watch all year. I think that we can teach the audience how easy it is and how fun it is, especially when we have five races on NBC on Saturday. Let’s give the viewers at home a reason to care about not just the Kentucky Derby but all the races we’re covering.”

Thanks to NBC Sports Group Director of Sports Operations Tim DeKime, NEP Engineer in Charge Keith Kice, and NEP Technical Manager John Roché for providing information for this article.

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