Live From NBA All-Star 2023: WBD Sports To Go Live With Drones and Two-Way Player/Talent Comms; NEP’s TFC Platform Is Game-Changer

Total Facility Control connects trucks in the compound in a new way

It’s NBA All-Star Game Weekend at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City, and, for WBD Sports, the event will be a showcase for new technologies and new applications. All-Star Saturday Night and the All-Star Game on Sunday will feature the use of drones, two-way audio communications between players and WBD Sports talent during the game, a new way of connecting trucks in the compound via NEP’s Total Facility Control, and a new wrinkle in each team’s roster draft that makes the run-up to the game a bit more frenetic.

At the NBA All-Star Weekend compound inside the Salt Palace Convention Center: (from left) WBD Sports’ Lee Estroff, Chris Brown, and Dan Nabors Jr.

“Every year, we try to bring things forward a little bit and add some new challenges,” says Chris Brown, VP, production operations and technology, WBD Sports. “One this year is that the draft of each team will be done about 20 minutes before the game rather than on the Thursday night before. And one thing that is important for storytelling are the scoring systems: all of those are going to be populated in around 20 minutes so they can be ready before the game starts.”

The show continues to grow. Among the 80+ cameras deployed will be a C360 camera in each basket stanchion, a drone, a Flycam, shallow–depth-of-field cameras (and a new wide-angle Fujinon lens on a Sony HDC-4800 for a cinematic look). Upwards of 60 microphones will be used. Handling it all will be 14 NEP production trucks parked in the compound, which is located inside Salt Palace Convention Center, right across the street from Vivint Arena, home to All-Star Saturday Night and Sunday’s All-Star Game.

A wide shot of the NBA All-Star Game Weekend compound

New at NBA All-Star this year is CNN’s Air Group, which is providing drones and the RF equipment to handle transmission of live drone coverage. The coverage will complement a point-to-point Flycam running alongside the court.

“We have some exciting drone executions with CNN,” says Brown. “We’ve also been working very diligently with the Salt Palace, the NBA, NBA security, and all the different groups to try to secure some flight time. Right now, we’re approved to fly over the court for a couple of the Saturday-night exercises — the skills challenge and maybe the three-point contest — staying behind the players and out of the line of sight. It will be so loud inside the arena that no one will hear the drone. We’re making sure that we’re doing everything by the rules and by the book so that, ultimately, everybody has a good experience.”

Brown says WBD Sports has also been working with CP Communications, the NBA, and the NBA Players Association on a two-way communication platform that was in use on Sunday night. That will be in addition to the traditional player and coaching mics that have become a big part of the All-Star offering over the years.

“People from the desk will be able to ask the player questions
and have a conversation,” explains Brown. “The hope is that a
player could be bringing the ball up center court and talking
with the announcer.”

In addition, the TBS/TNT multicast has been improved. Last year, All-Star Game viewers were given a choice of two viewing options: on TNT, they could watch a regular game announce crew; on TBS, the folks on the NBA on TNT studio show commented on the action. This year, Brown says, the TBS effort will be a bit more intentional and have a separate announcer location.

“We’ve also divided up the studio-show elements, so those guys no longer have [regular] studio-show obligations. It will be a more rewarding experience for people that want to flip back and forth between TNT and TBS.”

NEP’s TFC control has greatly reduced the cabling in truck patch bays.

Embracing Total Facility Control

One of the biggest technical changes may not be as sexy as a drone or player microphones, but, to the WBD Sports team, it’s arguably an all-star in its own right: NEP Group’s Total Facility Control (TFC) proprietary web-based control platform brings disparate systems for audio- and video-signal configuration and monitoring under one application.

“That’s probably the most significant technology shift this year,” notes Brown. “We have one shared-resources truck, one set of cameras, and EVS machines that are shared for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night. And what that would usually mean is a ton of cable from each of those trucks to the shared-resources truck and a ton of cables in the back of the compound. Now we have about half a dozen fibers, and the actual inputs and outputs on the trucks are almost empty. It took some time to program the TFC, but, as NEP gets more miles under their belt, shows in the future will come together even more quickly.”

That is a game-changer for the NBA All-Star compound, according to Dan Nabors Jr., director engineering, WBD Sports. Stacks of Cisco IP switches at the back of the compound provide 100-Gbps throughput and can deliver audio and video signals to any of the NEP production units in the compound: EN1 (which will be used to produce the All-Star Game on Sunday), Supershooter 5 and ST5 (All-Star Saturday Night), and Supershooter 6 (studio show). Other NEP facilities onsite are not IP and will not be connected to TFC: ND1, providing transmission and shared-resources support, and NCP11, handling the entertainment elements.

“It’s a whole new world for video distribution — and audio distribution, for that matter,” Nabors explains. “We can incrementally build the IT infrastructure in each of our trucks to be as large as needed to pass enough bandwidth for the signals we need. It’s changing how we do television. Our video team here has not run a single piece of coax between the units. Everything is done on the 2110 TFC super spine [at the back of the compound], and we can incrementally build the IT infrastructure for each truck to be as large as we need in order to pass the signals we need to send.”

He adds that engineers in each truck simply need to pull up their computer and tell TFC which audio and video feeds they want. “That takes it all out of the video operators’ hands. Instead of the engineers and video team spending days worrying about what signals are going to a truck, they can spend their time building cameras and firing paint.”

A walk through the compound and a look at the patch bays in each truck make it clear how different things are when it comes to cabling.

“If you look at Supershooter 5 or 6,” says Nabors, “there are five or six cables hanging in front; they look like they aren’t set up yet. I think TFC is going to revolutionize the industry because multiple engineers can all be in there at the same time requesting feeds. It speeds up the process.”

The engineering and operations team has stepped up for this weekend’s festivities, Brown says. “It’s a young team, but they’ve done amazingly well at an event for which close to 500 people come together.”

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