Iditarod Production Team Weathers Elements, Connectivity Challenges for Live Coverage of ‘The Last Great Race on Earth’
Streams will be produced from nearly every checkpoint for 1,000 miles
Whiteout blizzards. Sub-zero temperatures. Gale-force winds. And — most devastating for a live-streaming production — little to no connectivity to the outside world. It’s all routine for the production team delivering live coverage of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska this month. The small team travels via bush planes to cover more than 50 mushers traversing the 1,000-mile trail from Anchorage to Nome, live-streaming coverage from just about all 24 checkpoints along the way on Iditarod.com.
“It’s always a challenge, because you have all these elements working against you,” says OTEK TV partner Art Aldrich, who is in his 12th year overseeing the Iditarod video production. “Out there, temperatures can reach -50 F, and that’s before wind chill. At those temperatures, lenses and cameras can sometimes freeze, and a thin cable will literally snap with the slightest bit of tension. At the same time, everything had to be as lightweight, small, and flexible as possible. Logistically, that can be very challenging.”
All About Live: Iditarod Increases Live Coverage Every Year
The race, which kicked off with the ceremonial start in Anchorage on Saturday and the official restart in Willow on Sunday, is expected to last up to two weeks (eight to nine days for the winner and up to 14 days for the last team to complete).
For more than a decade, the not-for-profit Iditarod Trail Committee (ITC) has enlisted Aldrich, Executive Producer/on-air commentator Greg Heister, and a small production team to deliver live coverage, daily highlights, and a two-hour documentary chronicling each year’s race. Four years ago, the ITC began expanding its live coverage beyond just the start of the race in Anchorage (produced by KTVA Anchorage) and the winner crossing the finish line, originally the only live stream available to fans.
“In the past, fans were only able to see the winner finish the race, but they also wanted to see all the other mushers finish as well — sometimes a week after the champion,” says Aldrich. “Four years ago was the first time we had 24/7 coverage of the rest of the field finishing the race. That was a big hit, and it opened the race committee’s eyes to the power of live [coverage] and the interest that the fans had in it.”
Since then, the production team has live-streamed the race from various checkpoints throughout the trail, in addition to the start and finish.
“It started off with a couple of GoPros running into an AJA converter and streaming it out of a little makeshift control room at City Hall [in Nome],” says Aldrich. “That was very popular, and it was a game-changer for us. Every year since, we have tried to step it up while still staying on budget, which is always a challenge but also very exciting.”
Live, Documentary Crews Collaborate on Two Content Wells
This year, live coverage from throughout the Iditarod trail is being handled by two live-production teams equipped with mini flypacks (rental equipment is provided by Bexel).
The first follows the leader with a Panasonic P2 AJ-PX270 camera, leapfrogging just ahead of the first-place competitor to always capture a live shot of the musher coming into a checkpoint. The second team, equipped with a GoPro, will cover the rest of the field and jump around the middle of the pack throughout the race. In addition to providing coverage of mushers pulling into each checkpoint, Heister and race analyst Bruce Lee will deliver live hits throughout the race from nearly all 24 checkpoints.
In addition, five ENG crews are equipped with Panasonic P2 AJ-PX5000 cameras to capture hundreds of hours of footage for the documentary. These teams will also produce 10-20 daily highlights packages for Iditarod.com.
“The live and documentary teams are always cooperating. They don’t always travel together, but they definitely work together closely,” says Aldrich. “One of the more challenging factors is, [our teams] move in bush planes so they are [dependent on] visual flight ratings: you can fly only during daylight and when the weather is good. So you can actually be stuck unable able to move as the race may be going by you.”
Lack of Connectivity: Streaming From the Ends of the Earth
The most significant challenge for the live-streaming crews is overcoming the extreme lack of cellular and broadband connectivity available in the Alaskan interior.
“There’s not a lot of infrastructure in terms of cellular or broadband throughout interior Alaska, where most of the race is run. It’s rural like you can’t imagine,” says Aldrich. “There is hardly any connectivity. A cellphone is usually limited to a couple hundred kbps of throughput, and we typically aren’t able to use satellite dishes because they are owned by the villages. So whatever we need in terms of [transmission], we have to basically bring ourselves.”
This year, the Iditarod production teams are deploying Teradek VidiU Go HEVC/H.265 encoders for live streaming from remote locations along the trail.
“The promise [of H.265] is half the bandwidth requirements but the same quality [as H.264], so we’re hoping that we’ll get more opportunities to push live video this year,” says Aldrich. “Whenever possible, we will have two live feeds going at the same time because the fans love being able to go back and forth.”
The live stream is produced using Telestream Wirecast software then transmitted from the Teradek VidiU Go through a Teradek Sputnik server to be transcoded from H.265 to H.264 and then streamed out to Iditarod.com via Wowza Streaming Engine.
“Comms are also definitely tricky,” adds Aldrich. “We have sat phones and mobile phones that work in Alaska, but they don’t work in every location. If there is a broadband connection or a satellite data uplink, we can use Skype, but that is not always the case. We can’t really do IFB and things like that because the delay is so tremendous. We basically use whatever we can and do the best with what we have.”
Hundreds of Highlights From Anchorage to Nome
In terms of highlights, the six documentary camera crews are shooting hours of footage daily, onto microP2 cards, which are funneled to one of two ingest stations — in Anchorage and Nome — depending on their location on the trail. The two teams will then produce between 10 and 20 highlights packages per day for posting on Iditarod.com.
Aldrich and his home-base team arrived in Anchorage on Feb. 25 and will remain there until the mushers get close to the finish, at which point they will shift their operation to Nome.
“What’s great about Iditarod and [the ITC] is how they have allowed us to experiment,” Aldrich points out. “Whenever I’ve had a new idea or [proposed] some new technology to provide coverage, they are always on board. Everything they do is for the fans and to try to give fans new and better experiences. It’s pretty unusual to have that level of freedom as a producer. We’ve always been able to innovate with the coverage — while doing it without much of a budget — and give the fans something better than the year before.”