World Cup FAQ: From Quieting the Vuvuzela to Gearing Up for Brazil in 2014

The 2010 World Cup is nearing its midpoint as the round of 16 gets ready to kick off. Much has been learned in the past two weeks, and the complex and challenging production environment continues to push broadcasters to the limit. But the World Cup, for all of the challenges in South Africa, remains the world’s greatest sporting event. Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about this year’s production and what lies ahead for 2014.

Let’s get down to the serious business. Those vuvuzela horns. What gives? Isn’t there any way to just pump in some fake crowd noise?
The vuvuzela situation is arguably the most vexing problem a production team has ever had to deal with in almost any sport. They are, no doubt, loud, obtrusive, and obnoxious, even more so if you are sitting in the row in front of one (or more) vuvuzela “musicians.” But rule one for nearly every sports-production team is to most accurately replicate the in-venue experience so that fans at home can feel as if they are in the stadium. From an audio standpoint, that typically begins with a solid mix of microphones that pick up sound effects, on-field noises, and, of course, the crowd noise. Those mics are then mixed together to create a sound bed on which the audio commentary is laid. So, for World Cup 2010, that means the vuvuzelas must remain part of the mix.

So why not ban them from the stadiums?
First, of course, they are a part of South African soccer culture. And as annoying as the horns can be to TV viewers and to fans in the stadium, they are, of course, not the first time a sports broadcast has been subject to a consistent, omnipresent wall of sound. After all, every NASCAR or Indy race features a cacophony of roaring engines that will out-dB a stadium full of vuvuzela blowers. Week in and week out, mixers at Fox Sports, Turner Sports, and ESPN deal with that issue as more than 40 race cars blast around a track. Simply put, roaring horns are seen by viewers as an intrusion while roaring engines are seen as a vital aspect of the NASCAR experience.

And again, in South Africa, the vuvuzela is a vital part of the soccer experience. So, if the goal is to replicate the South African soccer experience, that means making sure viewers at home hear the vuvuzela. In fact, for many mixers, dumping the vuvuzelas out of the mix would be as wrong as mixing an event so that stands with 5,000 people sound as if they are 50,000 strong.

Okay, fine. But is there anything the team is doing to at least soften the auditory blow?
Yup. Outside of each stadium, in the HBS House, where the production teams do their magic, the audio engineers and mixers are dipping into their special bag of tricks. The goal? To filter out the vuvuzela audio frequencies that can disrupt the mix the most.

One mixer called it “double-dipping” because the mics are filtered and then the group of mics is filtered. Which frequencies are filtered depends a lot on the stadium since each venue has its own unique audio characteristics. But, in general, there are filters at 565 Hz, 1 kHz, and 5 kHz. A second filter is used to filter out frequencies right below 500 Hz. Usually, the filtering would not be that severe, but the feedback from the World Cup broadcasters around the world has called for some filtering to make it easier for viewers to hear their announcers.

And if it’s any consolation, there are plenty of South Africans who hate the vuvuzela. The question now is, are all of the World Cup fans who are taking the vuvuzela home (it does seem to be the must-have souvenir) to their home nations going to make the vuvuzela part of football beyond South Africa? Time will tell.

You mentioned the HBS House. What exactly is that?
The “House” at each venue is actually a series of shipping containers connected side by side and out of which the broadcast production team works its magic. The houses are overseen by Host Broadcast Services (HBS), the behind-the-scenes hero of the World Cup that handles all match coverage and also has 40 ENG crews covering teams and stories across the country. HBS is in charge of hiring the crews, cabling the stadiums, making sure the production facilities at each stadium are operating properly, and also bringing the match feeds back from the venues to the International Broadcast Center, where the rightsholders from around the globe take those feeds and then turn them around to deliver to their home country. They also built a massive infrastructure within the IBC to make it easy to deliver content to the rightsholders.

Why didn’t HBS use traditional production trucks?
As in Korea and Japan in 2002, there were simply not enough production units available within the country to produce all of the matches cost-effectively. Production trailers could have been shipped in from Europe, but that would have incurred massive costs related to shipping, maintenance, and security. Some local trailers are being rented by the rightsholders (ESPN, for example, is using a truck from South Africa Broadcasting), and the 3D productions are done out of trailers shipped in from Europe, but the HBS House approach is keeping everyone happy.

When I am watching a World Cup match on ESPN or the BBC or Univision, are those networks producing their own feed? Do they have houses?
Yes and no. Yes, they can have a “house” or production trailer located near the venue where they can edit feature stories and pre-game, halftime, and post-game reports. But, no, they don’t produce their own feeds. As with the Olympics or World Baseball Classic, one feed is shared by multiple broadcast entities because camera positions would not support all of the interested parties.

But if, say, England is playing in a match, then HBS consults with the BBC to find out how to best produce the match to meet the BBC’s needs, right?
Nope. Even though there is little doubt that viewers of the BBC are the most important audience for a World Cup match involving their team (or ARD for a German match or ESPN for a USA match), the HBS production is completely independent.

How about replays? Every country loves to have replays that reinforce what their on-air talent are talking about.
That is one of the challenges in a World Cup broadcast. Thankfully, the directors, producers, and production teams are the best in the world, so there is little reason to doubt their ability to get the right replays on-screen. But they are producing one show for the entire world, so what you will tend to see are replays that may focus more on emotion (the super-slow-motion replays tend to focus on player reactions or shots with interesting aesthetics, such as a ball hitting a post and rain droplets exploding off the post) rather than replays that support a broadcaster’s point of view. Also, unlike sports like football, baseball, or basketball, where, arguably, more time is spent showing replays than actual game footage, soccer requires a broadcast team to constantly propel the story forward since the action almost literally never stops.

What about if a broadcaster wanted to have coverage with a bit of a slant to its nation’s team? What can it do?
One of the great things about the HBS coverage is, it offers eight feeds. The most important are the unilateral feed (without any graphics), a multilateral feed (complete with graphics), and what is called a “Team A” or “Team B” feed. Those feeds incorporate a separate camera that will focus on players, coaches, and even fans who are playing for, coaching, or rooting for Team A and Team B. So, if a broadcaster wants to really go for the home-team feel, that is the best bet. But it should be noted that, for the most part, the multilateral feed is the most popular since it is the least expensive feed.

Are there compromises to the multilateral feed?
Compromise may be too strong a word, but there are some tradeoffs, although the viewer at home won’t really notice. For example, the multilateral feed does drop in score graphics, so the score may occasionally appear in two places on the screen. On ESPN, for example, that means the scorebug in the upper left is occasionally joined by a lower-third graphic with the score — an oddity but something that quickly passes by without viewers’ really noticing.

The other interesting aspect of the multilateral feed is that HBS needs to be able to tell the story of the match with graphics that don’t really use words. When you watch the feed, you may notice that, when a player leaves the game and is replaced, the graphics use arrows to indicate who is entering and leaving the game.

What should broadcasters, and viewers, expect in 2014, when the World Cup is held in Brazil?
First and foremost, 3D could REALLY be a factor in the home, having a transformative effect on World Cup productions. Then again, it may still be a fringe product like HD was for the first six years. Our current vote is for the former, as consumer response to the 3D experience, upon really experiencing it, is “When can I get this in my home?,” not “Why would I want this in my home?.”

But 3D aside, broadcasters should probably expect more chilly weather since, once again, the World Cup will be held in the Southern Hemisphere, where June and July mean winter, not summer. But what they should also expect is more of the same, only more refined, on a bigger scale, and even richer in terms of available content. The team from HBS has made it clear that this year’s production is as much about gearing up for 2014 as about 2010, so expect the Brazil World Cup operations to most likely replicate the “HBS House” model for production at the venues, barring a massive influx of high-end HD production trucks into the Brazilian market.

But four years is also a long time, especially when it comes to technology. File-based workflows will be much more advanced. Networking and fiber infrastructure will be more prevalent (even in Brazil). Will broadcasters share server infrastructures, something that may happen at the 2012 London Games? Or might HBS maintain a massive server farm that broadcasters can rent instead of bringing in their own systems? Or will broadcasters keep more personnel in their home nation rather than on-site, pumping content directly to their in-house video servers thousands of miles away, where teams can post-produce content as if they are on-site?

To that last point, many people believed that this year’s World Cup would see a decrease in on-site personnel. But what happened? The broadcasters from around the world helped make the 2010 World Cup IBC the largest ever, at more than 30,000 square meters. The importance of soccer around the globe continues to grow, and that includes in the U.S. And, for sports coverage, despite the leaps in technology, nothing beats being there.

One thing is for sure with respect to 2014: the Brazilian soccer fans may not have the vuvuzela, but they will definitely bring the noise that only Brazilian soccer fans can.