TranSPORT: File-Based Workflows, IP Promise a ‘Virtual Compound’

Imagine this season’s Super Bowl in New Jersey produced, directed, and switched from Fox Sports’ home production center in Los Angeles. It could happen someday.

Emory Strilkauskas, ESPN

Emory Strilkauskas, ESPN

At-home workflows — aka the “virtual compound” — may very well be the future of live remote sports-video production. National and even regional sports networks have begun using file-based workflows to connect their broadcast centers and the remote compound, amounting to significantly less personnel travel and big-time financial savings.

On Tuesday, more than 140 video-production professionals filled the Doubletree Suites in Times Square for TranSPORT, SVG’s annual look at backhaul, contribution, transmission, and more.

Chief among the opening conversation for the cost reductions that new transmission technologies offer. NBC Sports Group took a huge step forward in remote workflows with last year’s London Olympics coverage, keeping a healthy cadre of technical personnel and even commentary talent in New York City producing selected events.

“As for everybody, it’s all about the savings,” said Chris Connolly, director of transmission engineering and maintenance, NBC Sports. “There’s a lot of communication and effort that goes into it, and that is probably the hardest challenge. Getting the cameras back and forth, that’s the easy part. The tough part is making sure everybody can talk to everybody so they can know what’s going on.”

The upcoming Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, will see more of the same. NBC will produce numerous events from its new Stamford, CT, production facility, which was mostly designed by engineers who have worked on the Olympics before and understand the workflow.

CBS Sports followed suit in September, producing from its home facility the on-site pregame, halftime, and postgame show surrounding the network’s mega-hyped season-opening SEC Game of the Week between Alabama and Texas A&M. The effort presented various challenges but was ultimately a success.

Rick Ackermans, Turner Entertainment Networks (left), and Dave Chilson, CBS-TV

Rick Ackermans, Turner Entertainment Networks (left), and Dave Chilson, CBS-TV

“As we got into it, of course, we needed more transmission facilities,” said Dave Chilson, associate director of broadcast distribution services, CBS-TV. “Now, instead of just the signal line or a backup, you need five, six, or seven lines. You worry about connectivity and control of the systems. Where’s the audio? Is it kept in sync? How do you send tally back and communications back? So it gets a little more complicated the first time around.”

He added that a similar workflow will be used during CBS’s coverage of the SEC Football Championship Game in December.

Internet connectivity is also becoming more prominent as a backup transmission source.

“We’ve done a lot of architecture and stuff because we weren’t sure how the IP would work out,” said Emory Strilkauskas,  principal engineer, transport technologies and special projects, ESPN. “This is EPL services, private point-to-point, so it’s a gradual step. The reason we’re going down that path is, it’s more cost-effective at this point and it’s reliable enough, so it gives us the ability to do as much as we need to do to serve our fans.”

File-based workflows have matured dramatically since the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. That should lead to much more advanced and seamless execution for the 2014 edition in Brazil.

“South Africa was similar in many ways in that we deployed MPEG-4 to try to save on bandwidth,” said Strilkauskas. “We were dealing with a location that had less infrastructure than other countries. It’s somewhat the same with Brazil. There’s not as much infrastructure as compared to North America or Europe so similar challenges there.

Chris Connolly, NBC Sports (left), and Keith Goldberg, Fox Networks Group

Chris Connolly, NBC Sports (left), and Keith Goldberg, Fox Networks Group

“But we’re doubling the bandwidth of what we did in Africa,” he continued. “I guess the major difference is, we dabbled around in file-based workflows [in Africa]; now it will be a 60-40 [60% linear, 40% file-based] activities between the locations, and a large part of that is really the infrastructure we built in Bristol that supports the transcoding. Once it’s delivered, you still have to make it available for all the different production elements, so that’s mature as well.  Also, it’s in our time zone.“

For Turner Sports, it makes sense to use more cost-effective methods like IP to bring back signals from smaller collegiate events produced for NCAA.com.

“One of the things we are looking at is ways to use transport media — either Internet or other — to bring back multiple feeds,” said Rick Ackermans, director of engineering, Turner Entertainment Networks. “I have been a big proponent of some of the work being done within the Video Services Forum in trying to standardize JPEG. With some of the 1.5-gig circuits that are available, once we have interoperable JPEG, you can bring back six, seven, eight, nine, 10 cameras with ultra-low latency. At that point, you can get into a situation of truly calling and switching games from a central location. Latency from MPEG can be very problematic for sports, and that’s why I have high hopes for some of the JPEG standardization. Being able to bring feeds back with only a frame or two of latency can be a real game-changer.”

As for using the public Internet, that’s a different animal. The panelists agreed that, although they are not looking at it for primary contribution, it does have its place in the chain.

“It’s probably going to be more predominant in the future,” said Keith Goldberg, VP, broadcast operations, for Fox Networks Group. “It’s just not at that point yet where we’re thinking about transitioning anything.”

Chilson added that public Internet is an intriguing option for transporting signals for second screen and other digital productions.

“Each of us has interactive divisions that are chomping at the bit to get access to all of the content that’s at these sports venues, bring them back, and do other things with them,” he said. “At the present time at CBS, we’re still in that mindset that each line back, whether it’s a single camera fixed or moving, deserves that same treatment as if it as the main game feed. We’re trying to break away from that culture and develop a packet of, say, seven or 10 channels that are streamed back to some sort of interactive position and let them feed the CDN and treat it with the care its budget warrants.”