Executive Perspectives: Mobile-Production Leaders on the State of the Industry and What To Expect in 2018
4K, HDR, at-home production continue to challenge the industry's mobile leaders
Although the mobile-production business continues to thrive — with more live-sports events being produced in 2017 than ever before — truck providers face a host of technical and economic challenges as they serve client needs today while also preparing for tomorrow. As major sports broadcasters look to trim costs, remote-facility vendors are being asked to deliver more for less, as well as to confront the increasing use of at-home production workflows. In addition, technology is evolving at a breakneck pace, with more and more mobile units being built on IP infrastructure in preparation for the future. Meanwhile, these vendors are laying out their roadmaps when it comes to 4K- and HDR-capability in their trucks. SVG sat down with more than a dozen industry leaders to discuss the current state of the business and, more important, where it’s headed in the coming years.
Here are the executives we spoke with: Mary Ellen Carlyle, SVP/GM, Dome Productions; Craig Farrell, president, Alliance Productions; Philip Garvin, GM/founder, Mobile TV Group; Robby Greene, president/COO, IMS Productions; Mike Johnson, director, engineering, Dome Productions; Glen Levine, president, U.S. Mobile Units, NEP; Tim Lewis, president/founder, Proshow Broadcast; Mitch Rubenstein, president, Ross Mobile Productions; Chad Snyder, account manager/GM, Lyon Video; Pat Sullivan, president, Game Creek Video; Jason Taubman, VP, design and new technology, Game Creek Video; Dan Turk, chief engineer, NEP Mobile Units; Peter Wehner, director, engineering, Mobile TV Group.
Do you consider the current state of the remote-production business healthy? Where do you see the industry in headed in the next 12-18 months?
Carlyle: We do see a very healthy market, especially since we’re vertically integrated [due to being co-owned by Canadian media giants Rogers and Bell Media]. I see an increase in demand for content. Whether it’s small-format or large-format production, everybody wants content, so we’re going to see growth next year. I think a lot of our momentum is because we added Vista [4K mobile unit]. I see people starting to play with 4K in the market, and I think entertainment will play a big role in that — just as it did when HD started.
Farrell: I think remote production is healthy, but the dynamics are changing. The push towards at-home and cloud-based production is changing the way programming is being produced.
Garvin: Yes, I think the industry is healthy. I expect the market to be fairly stable with possible expansion resulting from esports.
Greene: Yes — better than healthy, actually. We’re on track to deliver our best year ever in 2017. Why? New business, growing existing business, and adding services to help our clients and partners. We are budgeting for modest growth in 2018 and have some aggressive goals with specific strategy for ’19 and beyond.
Lewis: We see growth and change right now. Remaining agile and adaptable and paying close attention to trends and client needs is paramount. Each new truck build must reflect the constant change in the market; there’s no more “cookie-cutter” builds for us.
Rubenstein: From where we stand as a company, yes. As the networks and our other partners search for more innovative and cost-effective ways to receive quality produced content, we have proven to be an even more viable solution. Every year, the demand for our services has grown. We’ve ensured that hundreds of events get produced, and crews across the country stay involved. The growth of the industry will continue, and our capacity is growing to include a brand-new 32-ft. expando, eight-camera, 4K-ready truck and a 1080p modular flypack.
Snyder: The remote-production business is healthy and growing by event count annually. More assets are being deployed consistently to produce content for an ever widening viewing audience.
Sullivan: The business is in flux. We are experiencing pressures to cut costs, but, at the same time, that is colliding with requests to do 1080p HDR, 4K, and 4K HDR. All of these formats cost money.
As REMI and at-home productions become more popular, what is the effect on your business?
Carlyle: We are embracing. We built a studio at our home base, so we can offer both sides: the onsite [facility] and the control room back home, where we do 35-40 [events per year]. We’ve also adapted our older trucks so they can be a regular mobile one day and a REMI truck the next day. We also two dedicated REMI trucks.
Garvin: The impact is modest so far. But, as it grows, we will be developing innovative solutions to make [at-home productions] better and easier.
Farrell: These new ways of doing production are shifting work away from certain types of traditional facilities, [particularly] the regular “regional” [trucks]. And repurposing current facilities does not really work from an ROI standpoint: there are too many assets on a truck that are not used in at-home productions. As those demands increase, I think you will see more purpose-built trucks.
Greene: We see opportunity. We are in the client-services business and take much pride in delivering options to our clients’ needs. REMI and at-home productions are great options for selected remotes, and we’re happy to play in that space if it solves the needs of our clients.
Levine: We are adapting to the change and looking for other opportunities to use our mobile units in the REMI model to support our clients as long as the schedule works. We are also building REMI-specific studios for customers.
Lewis: We’re seeing steady expansion as this is now our primary market sector, and we’ve been an active player since the beginning. More than any other sector, college Olympic sports are driving innovation in new production workflows, such as REMI– and TriCaster-trailer–type productions.
Rubenstein: It has had a positive effect on Ross MP. As we continue to evolve, we have remained a valued option [for at-home productions].
Snyder: The production techniques of REMI and at-home productions challenge our industry to be more efficient and focus our energy where clients want them focused. We all have to adapt.
Taubman: We’re beginning to [work] in that market, and our biggest challenge right now is, every entity who’s doing REMI is doing it differently. So it’s hard for us to launch a standardized platform. Fox, ESPN, Pac-12, and Big Ten are all different. We would like to see a conversation where we can figure out a standard platform for REMI that we can deploy and add to our trucks and service our clients that way. Until we get a standardized way of doing REMI, it’s going to be tough to react to all of our client’s needs.
Esports is a hot new property. Are you seeing more demand for esports-production facilities, or do you expect to in the future? If not, in what sector are you seeing the most growth?
Carlyle: I think esports is definitely going to grow. Where it’s going to end up is still to be determined. Is it going to end up on broadcast? I don’t know. [For example], Heroes of the Dorm used to be on ESPN and [left] to go to Facebook, [which] could offer a larger audience. Aside from that, we’re seeing growth in terms of overall events on the air. We don’t see large growth in the big markets — there are no more NFL or CFL games — but there are plenty of smaller [shows] both streaming and on linear broadcast. We’re also definitely seeing a resurgence in entertainment shows.
Farrell: Esports is one of those segments that no one was thinking about five years ago, but the audience is so huge it is hard not to give it a hard look now. I think college continues to be the growth leader with schools and sports that were never broadcast before seeing coverage of some type.
Garvin: Very possibly, there could be [growth in esports], but it is still modest compared with traditional and major-league sports.
Greene: I’m excited by the opportunities in esports, and we are eager to get involved in this space. In addition, I think, any time there’s change in our industry, growth is a product for those that accept it and effectively manage their organizations to be nimble. For IMSP, it isn’t in one specific area we’re experiencing growth but small percentages from all sectors.
Levine: Absolutely, we see growth in esports as well as in streaming.
Lewis: College continues to increase for us, as well as streaming. Corporate clients are making much more use of streaming technologies, and their demand for higher production values is an excellent opportunity for small and midsize production trucks.
Rubenstein: We have been able to play a role in esports already, providing facilities and crew for several tournaments, with more on the horizon. We’ve invested in converting our facilities to 1080p-capable and acquired all the needed cameras and equipment. We are also still seeing a lot of growth in college-sports properties.
Snyder: We are seeing new growth in non-traditional sports and events, like esports, while mainstream sports shows are still growing in size and scope. Esports has been an important part of Lyon Video’s business for many years; we have been lucky to work with several organizations that have been producing content. Lyon Video has developed an understanding of the unique needs of their production process so we support their production team’s creative vision.
Sullivan: College-conference networks are definitely bumping up demand on the low end, and that’s been happening for some time now.
What impact do you believe industry consolidation over the past few years has had on the business? Will this trend continue?
Farrell: More consolidation is inevitable. It is making stronger companies that can service a wider range of business, but the downside could be a loss of customer service.
Greene: I believe, the larger companies get, the more challenging it can be to offer the type of client service our partners expect and frankly deserve. Consolidation isn’t new to our space. I believe you have to determine what you’re really good at and what you’re better at than anyone else and then continue to super-serve those that trust you with their business. Will consolidation continue? Of course.
Levine: NEP’s growth has given us the ability to offer a wide range of services to customers in the U.S. and around the globe. Our collective talent and team efforts are beneficial to our clients.
Lewis: I think it’s inevitable that we will see consolidation continue. With the much greater variety of production models and workflows that we now see in sports, I expect that many future consolidations will be driven by the desire to acquire expertise and technical diversity, rather than just increasing a truck-fleet count or adding contracts to the portfolio.
Rubenstein: I think it’s always a plus when like-minded companies work together. Consolidation is good.
Snyder: Industry consolidation is pushing the remote-production world to become just that: a worldwide enterprise ignoring geographical boundaries. Organizations who ignore the globalization of remote production will cease to be relevant. This is being led by rights and rightsholders’ national coverage of international events. To be competitive in this marketplace, consolidation may need to accelerate.
Sullivan: In my view, consolidation will never stop; it’s going to happen. There is always a reason to look at consolidating within the industry or an affiliated field. The big question always is, is the reason to consolidate compelling enough to do it?
What technical challenges are the most vexing for your engineering team today?
Carlyle: I think IP is going to be our next technical challenge; we are finding that it’s a different skill set. You’ve got to make time to dig into IP, and, if your engineers are good, they will figure it out. HDR is definitely an area that we have to keep on top of. I think we dedicated a lot of time last year and this year and are getting more and more familiar with it.
Greene: I think the technical challenges in our space are more about how we design and populate our trucks and ensure our ability to anticipate our clients’ future needs. We’re lucky to have a deep bench of incredibly smart engineers and operations people that stay on top of technology trends and changes.
Levine: Our challenge will always be keeping up with the constant technology changes and the timing of investments. We have successfully moved into the IP world but are now waiting for manufacturers to catch up.
Sullivan: Our technical team is trying to meet the conflicting needs of doing REMI-style events while also planning for the yet to be determined UHD formats. That’s a challenging balance.
Taubman: The IP transition continues to be top of mind for us. We’re on the cusp of SMPTE 2110 products and native edge devices. I think our trickiest topic right now is trying to make the correct purchasing decisions that keep our eye firmly on the future. We’re trying to make an investment today that’s going to take us 10 years down the road, and we’ve got to be really careful as we do that.
Turk: As the IT and broadcast worlds have combined, we must train all our engineers on complicated, robust networks. You can’t just put everything on one network anymore. NEP has invested significant time and resources to educate engineering staff; we designed a training course with the goal of teaching our broadcast engineers the architecture and rules you have to work by. We also stress the weaknesses and advantage of a layered network so the engineers onsite are prepared for all situations.
Wehner: Our biggest challenge is always fitting as much technology and flexibility into a mobile unit within the weight and space limitations. I think we do a very good job with this, but it’s a constant challenge as the technology changes and grows.
Outside of technological challenges, what are your biggest concerns?
Carlyle: As always, I think it’s succession planning — whether it’s crews, management staff, or engineering. We have to prepare the next generation. So I would say my biggest concern right now is people. The other thing we focus on is policies and procedures, especially the safety element. We’ve spent quite a bit of time training our staff about proper and safe practices and procedures.
Farrell: Controlling costs is our biggest challenge. The clients want events done for less, but our costs are increasing. The margins are getting more and more narrow.
Garvin: Travel and crew costs are always a concern.
Levine: We must always stay on top of managing cost. This is on everyone’s to-do list. Working as partners with our clients allows us to look for cost-efficient solutions [and] helps keep the business sustainable.
Lewis: Being lumped in with the commercial-trucking industry with little regard for the uniqueness of our business and our mission profiles definitely presents significant challenges as new regulations are imposed.
Rubenstein: I am always concerned that the cost of doing business will continue to increase as networks look for cost advantages. It’s a balance we have managed well, and we will continue to strive to do so.
Snyder: Government-legislation inconsistency is challenging for our business. A large part of what our clients’ management and Lyon Video’s management do is “project” what will happen years in advance. To coin a phrase from football, if we do not know where the yardsticks are going to be placed, how do we know how far we need to drive the ball? With legislation in upheaval, projections take more time and are less accurate. This leads the content community to be more conservative and not take chances on new content or produce content that has a more marginal potential return.
Sullivan: A big part of it comes down to stability and leadership of our [federal] government. That means both the Executive Branch and Congress. Events in Washington have an impact on everything that we do.
Are you planning for the potential rise of 4K and/or HDR? What is your long-term roadmap for both?
Garvin: We have one 4K mobile unit and are building all new trucks to be 4K-ready. The 3G infrastructure is okay for now but won’t be adequate for 4K starting in mid 2018 and will require 12G or IP infrastructure. We are also seeing growing interest in HDR and have three trucks with HDR[-capable equipment]. All of our trucks will be HDR going forward. We think there will be a lot of interest in 1080p HDR, but we could even do 1080i HDR if needed. And we also plan to do HDR 4K with our 4K trucks.
Johnson: The good news is that we’ve been spending lots of time in this space and have been happily servicing 4K. I think we’ve pretty much mastered it, and it’s mapped itself out. Now it’s about people becoming comfortable and actually using that format. Almost every manufacturer has support for it, and now it’s about finding the right opportunities. It’s great to see more and more people doing [HD and 4K] shadow cuts; I think that is where the future has to be.
Taubman: We modified River Hawk [in 2015] for MLB Network Showcase in 4K. And we took what we learned and baked it into every one of our trucks built subsequently, all [four of which] are native 4K. We also have clients asking to add HDR on top of 4K and others wanting to do 1080p60 HDR, [and] any truck that has legitimate 4K capability also has 60p HDR capability. In addition, all of our trucks built since 2010 with 3G and 60p capability are also HDR[-capable]; you just need to add HDR cameras, recording devices, and up/down/crossconversion.
Turk: We have always listened to our clients and provided the appropriate facility for their needs. We have experience in 4K, 4K HDR, and 1080p HDR. Our fleet has the flexibility to provide any of these formats. Our goal is to provide a flexible solution that easily transitions to these new formats as our clients transition their networks.
The SMPTE ST 2110 standards suite for IP video has arrived. What does it mean for you and your team?
Johnson: The arrival of SMPTE 2110 is [exciting]. Lots of people have been operating in IP and have been able to produce in that. 2110 simply means that now we’re arriving at a common standard that more manufacturers can effectively interchange based on.
Snyder: The formalization of the SMPTE standard means that the equipment manufacturers can make equipment that conforms to this standard without fear of [its] being [made obsolete]. We expect next-generation equipment will arrive soon and be more mainstream and thus less expensive while being able to be interconnected IP without a PhD working at the local level. The transition will require this additional format, as well as current and legacy formats for all … to take in, monitor, and route out.
Taubman: We designed Yogi, [our IP-based mobile unit launched in March], with SMPTE 2110 in mind. We’re taking that a further step with 79 [launching in Q1 2018] by architecting it in a similar way. There are a lot of topics with IP and SMPTE 2110 at the moment, including IP opening up the door for edge devices and how those edge devices are going to connect to the IP core. Today, what we can take delivery of is a 10-gig infrastructure, but I think that’s pretty rapidly going to give way to a 25-gig infrastructure.
Turk: We are excited to be able to remove external IP-to-SDI converters from our existing system. When IP is more than just a router, we will be able to see the real benefits of an IP infrastructure. This is all very new, so we are waiting to see how different manufacturers implement it. Will everything be plug-and-play? Will every system participate in NMOS?
Wehner: I don’t believe SMPTE 2110 means much for us in the immediate future. It solves several of the shortcomings of the other IP standards, so this is encouraging long term. Now that SMPTE 2110 is a standard, it’s my hope that we will start seeing it as a native option in all equipment so we can have a good end-to-end IP solution.
How quickly are you moving away from baseband infrastructure to IP? If you were launching a truck today, would you build it around an IP or an SDI router?
Farrell: The 3G infrastructure is a crutch for 4K. 12G will make 4K much easier to do in the field.
Johnson: We have had an all-IP infrastructure on our managed fiber network for several years. On the truck side, not so much. We’ve taken a look at it, and we’ve not been happy with what we could accomplish at this point in time. Others are venturing into that space, and many are doing an IP/SDI hybrid [model]. I do hope that [the standardization of] SMPTE 2110 will lead to significant implementation of end-to-end IP. End-to-end is key because it doesn’t make sense for us to have a whole bunch of gateway devices to connect SDI devices to an IP core. End-to-end IP with a very small number of gateway devices: that’s our target.
Turk: As more pieces of gear with IP inputs or outputs are available, the transition is becoming easier. We currently have IP systems that are based more on size and remote I/O. We look at each project and make the best decision for that clients’ needs. We are always thinking about new technologies and the advantages they will bring to our company and our clients.
Taubman: For us specifically, there’s no sense in putting anything but an IP router into an A-unit build at this point. We were driven to IP more because of the scale required than IP for IP’s sake. To hit the kind of numbers we needed in terms of scale today, you can’t do it in SDI. So, yes, we are IP all-in. And now, the further along we get, we’re starting to explore what we can do with IP, like having native edge devices.
Wehner: We continue to build our mobile units around an SDI router, [mainly] to avoid using conversion [gateways] for the equipment that is not IP-ready. Gateways increase the cost significantly and add a potential failure point so this is something we would like to avoid. An SDI router is still able to meet our needs so we will continue to install them in our mobile units for the foreseeable future. There will be a tipping point where enough equipment will support IP and we will make the change to an all-IP infrastructure.
Is there a specific technology (or technologies) that clients are demanding more these days?
Johnson: I think it continues to be specialty cameras — whether you’re talking about VR presentation, high frame rates, 4K, unique POV opportunities, drone-based [tools], SkyCams, and even double SkyCams now. Even what people are doing to extrapolate some of that camera information with the 360 systems creating the player’s-eye view. Those unique camera viewpoints are what catch people’s eye.
Taubman: For the [national-]level games, you basically have to come to the party armed with [Sony HDC]4300’s with the ability to [activate a game-by-game license] for high frame rate, 4K, and soon HDR anywhere they may want on the field. That has become the standard for all these big productions. Early in the football season, for example, [broadcasters] don’t necessarily want high frame rate at every camera position. But, as the season goes and we get into postseason and then the Super Bowl, that has to evolve into an all–high-frame-rate infrastructure. We’ve got to have that [licensing model] to enable that.
Wehner: We continue to see strong demand for super-motion [SSMO] cameras on our mobile units as part of the normal complement. Several years ago, we started providing one SSMO camera per mobile unit, then two, and now we are providing four as a normal complement on several mobile units. I expect this demand to continue because it adds significant production value to the broadcasts.
Are you seeing any other major engineering/design/technical trends in the truck business? What should the community be keeping an eye on that is currently under the radar?
Garvin: 1080p HDR combined with super-slo-mo with HDR looks very promising.
Johnson: Certainly, the opportunity that IP brings to extend the truck and make things more accessible from a distance is going to be a big part of our design. How we monitor and support these systems will be important because it’s going to become more complicated. We have to be mindful of interruptions or failures, which can happen in the IT world, and make sure that we’ve got the support to keep us active and on-air.
Snyder: Automation will be interesting to follow [because] it changes many dynamics we all believed to be the “normal” in remote production. Automation and machine learning have the potential to be disruptive, while also potentially being very helpful to reduce staff on remote productions.
Taubman: IP is here to stay for sure. HDR is coming on strong. 4K is holding on. There have been some predictions that 4K was going to give way to 60p HDR, and that’s quite possible, but the jury’s still out on that. Regardless, all the bits and pieces you need to be flexible for all those scenarios is what we’re keeping an eye on — like conversion and edge devices. We’re just trying to make sure we’re making good decisions and the stuff we buy today is going to be useful for us in eight to 10 years.
Turk: More and more clients are asking about IP audio networks (for example, Dante or AES67). This revolutionized the intercom and audio world. No more two-wire power supplies and large booth kits. Now it can be done through a small POE switch. No more serial data going all over the stadium; it’s an Ethernet port off the closest switch. As a result, most productions become a little easier and take a little less time to set up. That said, freelance audio technicians need to be trained: if they do not understand these IP systems, a small problem can quickly grow into a major one. We all must embrace these changes and continue to educate ourselves about them. If you’re not learning, you’re not keeping up.
Wehner: I am starting to see more connectivity from the mobile unit to the studio. We are designing our mobile units to easily become an extension of the studio. This allows everybody at the studio to be able to use the mobile-unit resources to better supplement their studio show or get footage to the web faster. Tallies, intercom, and the replay network will all be connected so everything is available to anybody that wants it. This connectivity has been discussed for several years; however, I’m starting to see it finally happen as faster connections between the venues and studios are becoming available.