Remote-Truck Design Looks Beyond Baseband

For remote-production–facility providers across the country, and around the globe for that matter, 2011 saw the continued shift in truck design and engineering from a video-based environment to an IT-based one. The topic of how that will impact not only the end product but also operations was the subject of a panel discussion at last week’s Content & Communications World Conference, held in New York City.

“The truck of the future is definitely about being connected,” said Jerry Steinberg, SVP of field operations for Fox Sports. “We seem to be at the end of baseband video as a way to move images and sound. And, as the signal flow becomes IP-based and trucks are connected to studios, they can move signals in a much different way.”

As much as IT is changing the infrastructure of trucks, it is also changing what can be done out of a single remote-production facility. Companies like ESPN and DIRECTV, for example, are producing content for mix channels, the Web, and other services out of one truck with a control-room environment.

Kevin Callahan, senior engineer, Game Creek Video, explained, “At U.S. Open golf, the majority of our truck was dedicated to the DIRECTV U.S. Open mix channels and the Internet streaming. And they looked like traditional shows with full productions, with a second control room operating in tape release and a third control room for a third show [in the back].”

As trucks begin to be used for more than one production, there is also the potential for encoders, which repackage the video and audio signals for delivery straight to Websites and mobile devices, to reside in production trucks.

Game Creek Video President Pat Sullivan said that, so far, remote-production service providers have avoided that approach. “Those encoders can be very temperamental,” he noted, “and our guys have enough on their plate without having to deal with that.”

Ken Stiver, VP of engineering/operations, Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, said that, for operations he has been involved with for Discovery Networks, a second production switcher or an auxiliary bus out of the main switcher sends a signal straight out to the Web or a third-party hosting service like Akamai.

“And dotcom people want to be on-site,” he added. “The question is, is it worthwhile to have them there?”

Beyond the Venue
Tom Sahara, VP of operations and technology, Turner Sports, pointed out that remote operations are no longer just about what is happening at the venue. The Holy Grail, he explained, is the day when the remote facility is one and the same with the broadcast center or studio operations.

“It’s about everything related to what is happening at the venue and, if there is a milestone or league record [about to be broken] and there is a need for some archive footage, the connectivity allows the editor to search the library at headquarters, find a clip, and transfer it back to the remote,” he said. “That is the Holy Grail.”

Reaching that goal will have a ripple effect on studio operations as well, cutting down on edit sessions, with more work done in the field. And producers will finally be able to search for content at their own convenience rather than requiring material to be loaded into an editing system.

But Stiver noted that there are still issues at the regional level: “We don’t have connectivity in every venue to send files back and forth, and getting those pipes into venues is difficult.”

Sahara said the use of larger IP pipes is also transforming some of the traditional workflows, such as creating melt tapes or drives and sending physical media back to a broadcast facility for the archive.

“Outside of the hours of the telecast, those large pipes can do file transfers and be actively managed,” he added. “So, on the truck side, we need to build that bridge that converges the broadcast side with the digital properties. We will produce the program and check a box where it is going to and what format it needs to be in, and then a software application will determine what the final product is.”

Effect on Skills
As much as IP pipes are changing the hardware and software in a truck, they are also changing the skill sets of engineers.

“There has been a complete transition from a traditional broadcast engineer when I started in this business,” said Sullivan, “to guys that are IP- and network-savvy and solve problems by using the networks and IP.”

One thing is for sure, however. No matter how closely tied the remote facilities get to the studio operations, don’t expect producers and those responsible for telling the story of an event to be comfortable working anywhere but at the site of the event.

“At the level of what we do for a network show, there is no way to do it remotely,” said Sahara. “Once you have all of the camera and audio people out there, you might as well [have the rest of the team] out there.”

Steinberg concurred: “What we do is tell stories, and producers and directors need to be able to talk to team management and be on-site to meet with teams or go to the practice facility. Sitting in L.A. while trying to cover a game in Green Bay does not help tell the story.”

That said, Sahara said there is an opportunity for smaller sports events to have camera and audio signals sent back to a broadcast-operations center, provided a limited number of cameras are used.

“Those shows are not following the storylines to the extent that network shows are,” he explained. “So there will be those opportunities to bring feeds back to a central studio for production.”

But, even at a regional level, those opportunities are limited, as they increasingly grow in technical complexity.

“I never see that day happening, even on smaller events,” says Stiver. “Even if you do a small show, you still need someone there.”