During Power Loss, Super Bowl’s Wireless Sound Stays On

Half the power may have gone out in the stadium, but the Super Bowl show never lost a key ingredient for its sound, one that has traditionally been one of the hardest to perfect: wireless audio.

Broadcast Sports Inc. (BSI) handled the RF signals for the show, supplying three handheld RF cameras with full wireless control for pregame coverage outside and inside the stadium. The coverage areas included all of the plaza-level NFL Experience, crowd shots up and down Poydras Street in front of the stadium, and the AFC- and NFC-bus arrival areas. The company supplied two handheld RF cameras and one RF Steadicam rig with full wireless paint control for game coverage. Although these units had the ability to cover all the same areas as the pregame cameras, they were used solely for coverage on the field.

BSI supplied the wireless control of paint functions on a Fletcher-supplied robo camera on the roof of the nearby Hyatt hotel, as well as the entire control-distribution infrastructure that allowed Fletcher to control the functions of its camera from both the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and Jackson Square.

According to BSI Technology Development Manager Clay Underwood, this control infrastructure required the use of different forms of data transmission: fiber optics, wired LAN, wireless LAN, and UHF. The controls from the Jackson Square area were forwarded to the Superdome over a CBS-supplied virtual local-area network (VLAN) put in place for many IP-encapsulated elements that needed to get back and forth between the two locations. BSI also supplied an additional two-hop 100-Mbps wireless VLAN, using the top of the Capital One building as a central point for reception and retransmission between the venues.

Coverage inside and outside the stadium was achieved via nine diversity RF-over-fiber sites, which provided overlapping coverage from the outside of the building, through the hallways, to the entrance of the locker rooms, and out onto the field. These receiver sites, which delivered operational RF spectrum from various locations over fiber-optic cable, paired with BSI’s intelligent diversity receive and decoding infrastructure to allow automatic seamless coverage within the footprint of the receive sites.

This infrastructure supported both RF camera and RF microphone coverage for proprietary MIC1500 wireless microphones operating in AFTRCC-controlled and FCC-licensed spectrum to avoid the inherent issues associated with off-the-shelf UHF-based systems. BSI also supplied four handheld MIC1500 with integrated producer-talkback capability and six MIC1500 transmitters for use with parabolic microphone systems supplied by CP Communications.

It was a complex setup. “For robust communications to camera operators, BSI crew, and data control of the camera systems, we deployed two complete systems of multiple UHF repeaters to service both the inside and outside of the stadium,” Underwood explains. “Our system had individual frequencies for each element and only required the operators and crew to change between two channels depending on their location. All the repeaters were tied together at our mobile unit so they appeared to production as one input and one output (four-wire interface) per channel for delivery to the appropriate comms interface for a given element. This was necessary to overcome the inherent problems of transmission through metal and concrete structures in an enclosed stadium.”

Frequency Coordination
Meanwhile, frequency coordination and RF management for hundreds of channels of wireless microphones were handled by Professional Wireless Systems, including officials’ microphones and pregame and halftime entertainment shows. This was PWS’s 17th consecutive Super Bowl show; the company partnered with ATK Audiotek for live sound and ATK Versacom for communications.

PWS Project Manager Jason Eskew and his team began their work almost five months before the game. “I did a site survey at the Superdome in October and submitted our frequencies in November for approval,” says Eskew. “When doing so, I had to be sure to pick equipment that covers multiple manufacturers’ frequency ranges. Each performer has his or her equipment of choice, along with endorsement deals that require us to use a specific wireless system, so we needed to be able to easily adapt to this, along with any changes the scheduled performers might make on-site.”

PWS used Shure Axient Wireless UHF-Rs and PSM-1000 series in-ear monitors. In addition, the team deployed Sennheiser 3732 receivers with 5200 transmitters, as well as other Sennheiser gear. ATK Versacom provided a mixture of wireless intercoms, including HME PRO850 and BTR800s from Telex, for the event.

On the field, PWS used its Domed Helical Antenna, which features a circular polarization configuration pioneered by the company’s original helical but with the unit sealed within a new compact domed design.

PWS’s crew of Eskew, John Garrido, and Brooks Schroeder were on-site to manage the high volume of RF-signal usage and to ensure that frequencies maintained solid signals. They were also available to troubleshoot potential issues.

The Lights Go Out
Then came the power outage. However, the loss of power to half the stadium shortly after the start of the game’s second half did not significantly affect wireless operations. “Thanks to our uninterruptible power supply,” Eskow explains, “we were able to maintain power for the referee mics, which was still important at that time even though play was halted, until the rest of the power was restored within the Superdome.”

It was more complex for BSI’s larger areas of responsibility. “The power outage was a challenge for everyone,” says Underwood. “The impact to BSI was not immediately apparent as our RF cameras and microphones continued to operate as the transmitting devices are all battery-powered and the receive sites employ a battery backup system. Because all of the TV compound, including BSI’s mobile unit, was on generators, there was no sign except for the darkened images from a less fully illuminated field of play.

“However,” he continues, “our inside-the-stadium communication systems were on house power, and [they] failed on the loss of power. This meant that, although the cameras and microphones were still working, the communications to the operators and our crew was disabled.

“Thankfully, the outside-the-stadium equipment seemed to be on an unaffected power source and were just strong enough to reach the operators and crew with the director PL. The harder part was getting in touch with personnel to switch their radios to the outside channel. Through the use of cellphones and word of mouth, we were able to get everyone switched over. We were able to communicate with production that the MIC1500 talent microphones were still operational but they would not have any IFB facilities until the power was re-established.

“During the power failure,” he adds, “we deployed our inside personnel to the places where house-powered equipment was located (thankfully, relatively centralized), and, once the power was back, we were up and running at 100% within a minute. I think the loss of communications to the talent was the most daunting part of keeping something going on-air.”

The power outage made for a memorable Super Bowl (as did the actual game, lest we forget). But the experience made Underwood realize how tenuous the complexity of connectivity has become.

“It made me think back to the day when all cameras were connected directly to the mobile unit by triax, which not only carried all signals but the power to the camera as well,” he says. “I guess it is time to think about integrating some sort of power-failure backup in this new world of fiber-optic connectivity.”