Executive Perspectives: The State of Mobile Sports Production, Part 2

Remote-production leaders on the current state and future of the industry

Even with mobile sports production booming, truck providers face a host of challenges — both for today and for tomorrow. Although more sports events than ever are being produced for television and streaming, vendors are being asked to deliver more for less as networks look to trim production costs. In addition, technology continues to evolve at a breakneck pace, forcing providers to address the needs of today while preparing for the potential arrival of 4K and IP infrastructure. SVG sat down with 15 industry leaders to discuss the current state of the business and, more important, where it’s headed in the coming years.

thumb-execsHere are the executives we spoke with:
Mary Ellen Carlyle, SVP/GM, Dome Productions
Len Chase, president, CSP Mobile
Craig Farrell, president, Alliance Productions
Philip Garvin, GM/founder, MTVG
Robby Greene, president/COO, IMS Productions
George Hoover, CTO, NEP
Mike Johnson, director, engineering, Dome Productions
Tim Lewis, president/founder, Proshow Broadcast
Bob Lyon, president/founder, Lyon Video
Kevin Moorhouse, managing director, Gearhouse Broadcast
George Orgera, president/CEO, F&F Productions
Chad Snyder, account manager/GM, Lyon Video
Pat Sullivan, president, Game Creek Video
Jason Taubman, VP, design and new technology, Game Creek Video
Mike Werteen, co-president, U.S. Mobile Units, NEP Broadcasting

[Click here for Executive Perspectives: The State of Mobile Sports Production, Part 2]

Large-scale events, such as tennis grand slams and golf majors, are dedicating more resources to live-streaming feeds. Do you see this expanding to more sports and events?
Carlyle:
We see this trend more and more. As we provide facilities to an event — large-scale or small — there always seems to be a request for additional equipment for live streaming or second screen. Dome has a full-service rate card: mobiles, uplinks, and Web trailers. This past year, we did a skiing event where we added uplink, on-screen productions, and Webcast. Rogers NHL added EVS C-Cast for GameCentre Live on all Saturday-night broadcasts.

Snyder: We have seen small events understand streaming for several years. In fall 2012, Lyon Video provided mobile facilities for Red Bull’s Stratos coverage, which was planned to only be streamed initially. At the last minute, Discovery came in and put coverage on their linear channel. At the time of the event, Stratos held the record for the most live streams of one event. Streaming has been part of our business for many years, and we have embraced the need for streaming requirements.

Moorhouse: Yes, I do, and, if anything, the second- and third-tier events will make use of this type of technology more and more as a cheaper way to get their events out to consumers. This is where IP technology will become a bigger player. It will allow us to deliver various flavors of signals to these different platforms. As a company, we just need to ensure we are up to speed with these new technologies. To this end, we have [dedicated] one of our top project engineers to investigating new technology.

How has the growth in the production of college Olympic-sports events impacted your business? Have you seen increased demand for trucks to service them?
Chase:
Yes, this market is growing, but most of it is at the lower level of equipment. So there is a need for small trucks in this market. This does help some because some of these sports are during football and basketball season; there are only so many trucks [available] on any given day. With more shows at any level, it creates a demand across the board.

Greene: What I’m seeing is the need for even more content. Our partners are developing digital channels and pushing the content to as many outlets as technology and demand require. We’re being asked to cover additional events that, maybe three to five years ago, we would not have had the opportunity [to cover]. Some of the budgets and expectations for the final product may vary against an A-level primetime show, but [they are] no less important.

Lewis: Absolutely. In fact, this is one of the staples of our business model. We will provide remote facilities for literally hundreds of broadcasts of Olympic sports in this college season.

Sullivan: A lot of the Olympic college events are being streamed. It is the most efficient and cost-effective way to do them, and demand will increase as the conference networks expand.

Are you planning for the potential rise of 4K? If so, how? Can the current 3G infrastructure meet near-term 4K needs? What about the long-term path for 4K?
Taubman:
Yes, we are planning for 4K. A few years ago, we began installing a 3G infrastructure for 60p, which may pay benefits for 4K. We are trying to understand how to best do a 4K show with quadlink 3G, and we are prepared to do that now with a bunch of our trucks with [Grass Valley] K-Frame switchers, [EVS] XT3 replay, and Sony HDC-4300 cameras. So we are starting to get all the pieces in place. We built PeacockOne for NBC with quadlink from all of the camera sources — a first for us. So that is a sign of things to come. We are looking very carefully at IP and what is coming next. If 4K is going to move forward, is it going to have to do so on a single link? It appears that the path toward single-link will be IP.

Garvin: We are in the process of building our second 4K mobile unit, 39 FLEX, which will expand on the technology in 38 FLEX and be capable of a somewhat larger 4K production. The 3G [quadlink] infrastructure is limited by the size of an SDI router you can reasonably [install]. Long term, we would like to see the industry agree on a compression standard for 4K using an IP router.

Hoover: Currently, less than 3% of U.S. TVs have 4K capability. All our trucks built since 2011 are 4K-capable. The biggest limitation in 4K is creative restrictions imposed by the number of M/Es in switchers. Wireless, specialty cameras, and file size [are also limited]. The long-term path will depend on viewer demand.

Johnson: We have been working with 4K cameras and server technology to build on our knowledge. Over the next year, our owners [Rogers] are looking at producing over 150 4K sporting events, and I believe this number will grow by the following year. The payload of 4K is imposing, and the delivery via quadlink in a 3G infrastructure is serviceable. Over the longer term, many developing solutions based on higher data links and infrastructure will enable a better transition to origination and distribution in 4K.

Snyder: 4K coverage with historic 3G infrastructure using current technology is not financially prudent without recalibrating expectations of scale. Put simply, camera counts need to [be reduced] to bring replay-server channels into a reasonable quantity. Until [production switchers] can deal with compressed 4K signals natively, networks are not going to give up the looks for more pixels. With the current mantra being lower cost, 4K may or may not be around when technology catches up.

Moorhouse: I think the current 3G infrastructure meets the current 4K needs, but the future of 4K does lie in some sort of IP solution. We cannot keep using quad 3G, [which] is simply too resource-hungry. 4K is coming, but, at GHB, we are not going to spend a lot of money until we get past the first generation of 4K kit. We don’t want to be early adopters and get our fingers burnt when our investments become outdated too quickly.

How quickly are you moving away from baseband infrastructure in favor of IP-based workflows? If you were launching a truck today, would you build it around an IP router or SDI router?
Taubman:
The motivation for [installing an IP router] in Encore was never about IP for the sake of IP; it was about capacity. IP turned out to be the way we could achieve the massive infrastructure that Fox needed. We have been talking to clients about the next move in terms of our “normal-size” trucks. Today, if we can do it with SDI, I think the answer is probably, yes, we would do SDI over IP. But I’m not sure how long I will be staying with that answer. The thing that is scary right now is, there are several versions of IP that need to be settled in terms of standards and formats.

Hoover: The next two trucks we are building in the U.S. will have IP routing in addition to IP file-based workflows. In Europe, we are pioneering cloud-based live-production workflows. It is really a case of what is best for the client’s application. It is too early in the evolution of IP to say one size fits all, not until edge-device IP connectivity is standardized and readily available on cameras, servers, graphics, monitors, and test equipment.

Johnson: We have been on an IP infrastructure for our video services over managed fiber network for more than two years and look forward to applying some of this technology in building the next mobile unit around an IP router. The capabilities and features [of] an IP infrastructure make this choice the preferred path, but some parts of the solution will benefit from a little more time to evolve.

Moorhouse: If we built a new truck now, we would consider an IP backbone. The problem is that this is such a fast-changing technology that I would be worried that we would not get four to five years out of [it] before it was surpassed by newer technology. The life cycle of the kit we buy has greatly reduced, and I think, with IP-based kit, this will be even more evident. We need to get certain payback on our investments in technology to stay in business, and I think this is going to be a challenge in the near to medium term.

Werteen: We evaluate every maturing technology on multiple levels. We checked all the appropriate boxes for IP workflow on the new unit we built for CBS in summer 2015, and it has been working as we hoped. The mobile unit we built six months earlier for ESPN (EN2) has a baseband router primarily because the technology was not robust enough at the time of design.