Crawford Preps for Sept. 15 NFL Kickoff

By Ken Kerschbaumer

Crawford Communications in Atlanta has been in overdrive for the past three months, ramping up for the Sept. 15 launch of a 1,200-sq.-ft. master-control facility there to be used by the NFL Network.

Glenn Adamo, NFL VP, media operations and broadcasting, says the decision to move operations to Crawford was influenced greatly by Crawford’s international reputation and long history of helping networks like Fox and others deliver content throughout the Americas. “Crawford’s quality of service makes this a good move for us,” he says.

The HD/SD master-control plant is based on plans drawn up by NFL Network director of engineering Jeff Howard and the Crawford engineering team in near record time, since the go-ahead for construction came only three months ago. The control room can handle up to nine incoming game feeds, record more than 5,000 hours of NFL HD content on Harris Nexio servers, and dynamically serve the needs of both HD and SD viewers. The rest of the facility is also based on Harris Broadcast technology, including Harris Icon master control, Harris multiviewers, and Harris routing switchers. Motorola multiplexing and encoding gear is on hand; Reality Check built the graphic look using Vizrt.

“Harris was one of the few automation-system providers that could do everything,” says Don Rodd, Crawford Communications VP of engineering and technical operations. “And because Harris already integrated the technologies, we don’t have to incorporate five different technical approaches from different vendors.”

The facility is connected to NFL Films in Mt. Laurel, NJ, via OC12 links and to NFL Network studios in Culver City, CA, via Level 3 services. It also has complete redundancy and off-site disaster recovery. Content originating in Culver City is pumped across the U.S. to NFL Films, which will still serve as the hub. But master control and integration of network promos, a new HD ticker, and commercials will all take place in Atlanta, with the end product sent out via satellite in both HD and SD to more than 43 million viewers.

Rodd cites the system’s ability to dynamically bring together graphics for four distinct flavors of HD and SD content as a major technical accomplishment. “Depending on where the live video is on the screen, the system will automatically do the appropriate squeezes and layouts, and it can handle two sets of graphics off the same data stream,” he says. “It will also key and trigger the Reality Check and Vizrt graphics, as well as the SD and HD upper-third ticker. It’s very dynamic.”

Reality Check stepped up, providing a new graphical look in near record time, says Adamo. “It’s sharp-looking stuff that our creative people really like, and they were an absolute dream to work with.”

Although the NFL Network is moving master-control operations to Atlanta, the NFL Sunday Ticket will continue to be handled by Ascent Media in Stamford, CT. Outsourcing of network technical facilities is likely to continue as sports networks look to minimize the need for multimillion-dollar capital expenditures and subsequent upgrades.

Says Adamo, “The eventual plan as we grow and gain critical mass is to potentially move master control to NFL Films, but, with a facility as proficient as Crawford Communications involved, where they do this kind of work for a living, the question we face is, why move it?”