The HD Odyssey: Choosing a Switcher

By Carolyn Braff

When a college athletic department’s video operations transition from standard-definition to high-definition, the chosen switcher determines the capabilities of the entire control room. Lying at the heart of the system, the switcher dictates the size, character, and destination of all content produced in the room, so plenty of decisions must be made before the switcher is purchased.

To assist in this process, SVG-U has polled representatives from several major switcher manufacturers to find out what questions every video coordinator should ask before jumping into the world of 16:9 production — leaving room for a smooth transition to full HD — and we’ve compiled some of their product suggestions as well. Check back next week for product information from Sony, Thomson Grass Valley, Ross, and NewTek.

What size production do you want to shoot?

Perhaps the first question any video coordinator must answer when it comes to switcher choices is what will be the size of the production: how many cameras will it utilize? how many sources must it reach?

“The size of the switcher is directly related to the kind of production they want to put on,” explains Rick Paulson, product manager for production switchers for Thomson Grass Valley. “If you’re doing postproduction or live to tape, you would need not such a large switcher as you would if you were doing a football game, which must have enough inputs to accommodate many more cameras and tape sources.”

Chris Marchitelli, marketing manager for live production systems at Sony, concurs: “They must find out the number of inputs that they need and what types of sources those inputs would be coming in as. Do they need to be standard-def or HD? Do they need to up- or down-convert any of those sources? The format of those ins and outs really dictates the size of switcher frame that they want to buy.”

Scoreboard productions generally require more outputs than a streaming production, since different pieces of content must be assigned to different parts of the scoreboard or different screens in the arena.

“These days, there’s lots of opportunity to take these scoreboards and do some pretty neat things with them in terms of dividing them up into segments, as opposed to having one large display,” says Steve Romain, key accounts program manager for Ross Video. “You need to have the ability, through the scoreboard controller, to divide that into different segments and allow them to do unique and dynamic effects.”

Still, bigger is not always better — especially when it comes to educating student workers.

“From a learning standpoint, the functionality and the concepts that you need to learn are there in a small switcher,” Paulson points out. “Going to multiple mix effects in a switcher multiplies the parameters — more compositing capability, more inputs, more outputs — but as far as features and functionality, those things are all available in a small switcher.”

Do you want a single-function switcher, or should it be multi-purpose?

Some athletic departments have the luxury of purchasing one switcher for scoreboard operations in the football stadium, another for the basketball arena, and a third for streaming content, but many need one device to do all of those things.

“You need to ask if you want a unit that brings together the multiple functionalities found in a control room into a single unit,” says Philip Nelson, SVP of strategic development at NewTek. “Is the switcher going into an installation that is permanently wired in, or do you need to take it to different venues inside the university? If you buy a switcher that’s not portable, that’s an entire content angle that is forfeited.”

Different switchers come with different built-in functions, but every device has its own capabilities. External character generators can be replaced by internal image stores, and you can eliminate the need for a second switcher by ensuring that the one you buy offers built-in streaming.

What is the life cycle of this gear?

In the outfitting process, a decision must be made on how long the department expects to keep the gear and whether a path must be cleared for a full HD upgrade.

“Some schools want gear to use for three seasons and know they have to replace it,” Nelson says. “Other schools say, I need this to last 15 years. Do you want something that’s upgradeable or something that’s what it is today and that’s it?”

Romain asks, “Do they want to have their upgrade done for the next 10-15 years, or are they going to work with existing formats that are available in the mainstream today? They need to choose the format they’re going to build this control room in, and probably that decision’s going to be based on their chosen scoreboard and how they’re going to get their signals out to their luxury suites.”

How large is your crew, and who makes up your crew?

Before purchasing a high-tech, complex switcher or set of switchers, it is essential to ensure that someone on staff will be able to learn how to use it.

“There was a day when you had the 20-person crew running a college Webcast or a broadcast for the JumboTron, but we’re seeing those crews reduced,” Nelson says. “With certain types of switchers, you need a large team of people to run your show. We’re seeing a trend moving away from that to systems that are integrated with multiple functionalities in a single system, which allow them to have a smaller footprint and a smaller crew, often made up of sports information directors or other non-television experts.”

Says Romain, “We’re making it very simple to do a very involved production and do it in a more efficient manner with less people in the control room. Since those extra people don’t have to be in the control room, they can be dispersed to do other things in the production, making it a bigger and badder production.”

Another piece of the crew puzzle to take into account is maintenance and training. The engineering expense to maintain the equipment and train the operators can increase exponentially, depending on the size and type of switcher chosen.