MLB Network Expands Gear Complement in Latest 4K Trials

MLB Network has been among the leaders in the television industry in the adoption of 4K (Ultra HD) as a production tool in sports broadcasts, and the engineering team at MLBN got what it hoped for during another pair of trials at Yankee Stadium on May 30 and 31.

VIDEO: Watch a collection of 4K shots that have made air on MLB Network's coverage of the World Baseball Classic in March and Red Sox @ Yankees in May.

VIDEO: Watch a collection of 4K shots from MLB Network’s coverage of the World Baseball Classic in March and Red Sox @ Yankees in May. (MLB Network/MLB.com)

Viewers of the MLB Network Showcase game between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees were treated to a pair of 4K replays in which acrobatic plays by Dustin Pedroia and Stephen Drew led to close calls on outs at second base — just the type of plays that make 4K’s dramatically increased resolution so valuable.

“You’ve got to have the right play to use [4K],” says Mark Haden, VP, IT and engineering, MLB Network. “It’s got to contribute to telling a story.”

Healthy Competition
The MLB Network engineering team brought in some new 4K gear for these trials at Yankee Stadium. After working exclusively with the Canon EOS C500 4K camera and the Evertz Dreamcatcher replay system at the World Baseball Classic in March, the network supplemented those tools with a Sony F55 4K camera and an EVS-designed replay device that is still in development.

As various technology companies look to stake their claims in the future of 4K, Haden notes, healthy competition among those vendors is helping push Ultra HD forward.

“Testing is the wrong word, but we’re still trying to get a cohesive system together, so we’re trying different bits and pieces from various manufacturers to move us forward in getting a complete solution on the road,” he says. “There are still some small obstacles. It’s not out-of-the-box equipment, but it is viable and usable; it made air during the World Baseball Classic and now one game in the regular season. We’ve basically cobbled together a bunch of critical vendors to this process to see how the interoperability was and look at different quality and [product] ease of use.”

The engineering team used Miranda’s Rattler 3G systems to get the 3G signals down to Game Creek Glory, the production truck that works many MLB Network Showcase games.

Interestingly, the AJA Ki Pro Quad solid-state recorder, which was there primarily for debayering on the Canon, was also tried out as a scaler, which allows the user to do replays out of that same box as well.

Locked-In Camera Positions
MLB Network used two 4K cameras during the Red Sox-Yankees broadcast, deploying the Sony F55 at high home and the Canon EOS C500 at high third. The engineering team chose to lock those cameras into place, with the F55 locked on second base and the C500 shooting across the field from third baseline to first base.

Haden said the team tried various lens combinations but ended up going with a photographic zoom lens, though one with no servo zoom or focus, which wasn’t critical to the way the camera was being used.

“Baseball has an advantage in that most of our 4K zoom-able content is happening at or near bases,” says Haden. “4K also works really well on a locked-off shot so you don’t get the motion blur. The sport of baseball lends itself to 4K because I don’t have to follow baseballs all over the field; I can park on bases.

“Not having a servo zoom and focus is not the end of the world for us,” he continues. “Eventually, we do want to have that capability whether we put the camera on a robotic head or we have an operator. That way, you can stay ahead of the play so we can go from base to base to base, but, in this case, what made air was a lock-off at second base from high home.”

Since the Canon CS500 has a small form factor, the production crew didn’t have to steal a full camera position for it at high third. Instead, it was able to squeeze the camera in among the traditional cameras already in place.

Don’t Force It
Despite having the extra gear on-site, Haden says it’s important to not force 4K elements into the broadcasts. In fact, no 4K shots were used during the May 30 telecast of the Mets-Yankees game because the story did not dictate it.

“We have seasoned vets that do our MLB Network Showcase games from a production standpoint,” he says, “so they get it.”

He points out that 4K camera positions have become a more collaborative effort. MLB Network Showcase Coordinating Producer Chris Pfeiffer, director John Moore, and segment producer Ben Friedfeld are engaged in conversations with the engineering team on where they would like 4K cameras to be. In this case, after placing a camera at high first on May 30, they decided to shift it across the field to high third, giving a shot of first base from the opposite angle.

“They are really engaged in the process, which is very encouraging to us,” says Haden.

The Road Ahead
It saves MLB Network on money and manpower to continue these types of 4K tests close to home in Secaucus, NJ. In addition, the network plans to run more 4K trials during the pennant chase in September and during the two Division Series games MLB Network will air come the postseason.

As for improvements between now and then: “Eventually, we do want to get to high speed because then you will get less blur on the baseball,” says Haden. “You don’t really see blur on a foot hitting the bag, but you do get it on the baseball. Other folks have used the high–frame-rate cameras, and that’s eventually where we want to go. So, out-of-the-box servo lenses that will work with the 35mm Cine lenses and be able to run like a standard camera [is where we’d like to be].”

He sees tremendous promise for 4K in sports production. In fact, he predicts that, in a few years, every camera on a show is going be 4K and that every replay server is going to be able to zoom into those 4K images. Between now and then, major strides need be made in frame rates and HEVC codecs.

“Right now, 4K is a pretty neat production tool, but you’ve got to have the play,” he says, adding, “Eventually, you will get to full-blown distribution.”

Included in the engineering team working on MLB Network’s 4K implementation are Director of Engineering Brad Cheney, Engineering Manager Steve Rittenberg, Technical Supervisor Chris Schiro, and Engineering Manager Jordan Smith.