Bringing the A-Game: Outdoor broadcasts

Whether it’s NRL, AFL or a cooking contest, everyone loves to watch ‘the big match’. Colin Delaney goes on location to meet the unsung heroes of the outdoor broadcast team.

It’s the grand final and all events of the past winter have led to the next two hours. A nation’s eyes are tuned into the green pitch. True fans wear their team’s colours while the rest of the country have decided on which side they hate the least.

Football finals are upon us, and unless you’re lucky enough to hold tickets to the stadium, you’ll be watching the big game on the telly. You’ll hope your footy team to triumph but you’ll expect the outdoor broadcast team to deliver.

A month earlier in late August, as players arrive off the bus and file into their locker rooms before Monday Night Football, the outdoor broadcast team from Fox Sports watch on. Fox have been here for hours warming up, and before them, the Global Television team had arrived even earlier so their clients, 
Fox, could easily take over the large outdoor broadcast trucks.

The vans are about $8-12m each and “as big a truck as we can legally get on the road,” says Keith Andrews, CEO of Global Television. The trucks boast 62m2 of internal space, once expanded. Inside it’s like a spaceship with the latest high definition and tapeless technology to go to air.

Tonight there are a modest ten cameras focused on the pitch and two fly-on-the-wall cameras mounted in the dressing room. As the players limber up and remain calm in their quarters, so too do the guys in the van – jovial as they make their final checks of run sheets and levels before kickoff. It’s the calm before the storm. Once the game begins, everyone will be focused.

Beyond 3D
Last year saw the much-hyped 3D come to outdoor broadcasts and live sports but it disappeared as quickly as it came. From Global’s perspective, Sales Director Andy Armstrong says, “3D was good to show we could pick it up and run with it,” but the audience isn’t there yet.

“Last year it was the free-to-air networks that did the 3D broadcasts which was largely underwritten by advertising partners like Harvey Norman with the support of 3D manufacturers,” says Andrews. “Pay TV has the 3D channel providing a lot of US content but to provide Australian content it needs more advertising or eyeballs and while it will come, it’s not there today. It’s a chicken and the egg prospect. People aren’t going to buy a lot of 3D sets if there is not a lot of 3D content. Fox Sports are heavily promoting their high definition product for NRL and AFL and you largely can’t buy anything but an HDTV these days. And someone who does buy that product and is a Fox Sports subscriber will buy the HD package. It’s another leap then to say ‘I’ll go and get a 3D set to watch what is one 3D channel’.”

“The real growth comes from more cameras; more point of view cameras capturing off the ball, off field stuff; cameras trained on the coaches’ box. More cameras add complexity. Productions are getting bigger and clients want more action replays, super slow-mo cameras – there is a lot of innovation – that is where we’re seeing the future growth. It may not be obvious to you on your TV set but there are more and more cameras and technology.”

“The big innovations we’ve seen have been around workflow improvements, and going tapeless is a major part of that. There has been more benefit for our clients in that area than what is being talked up in the market.” The improvements are primarily courtesy of the Belgian-made EVS capture devise.

It’s a digital solution for recording the event. In the ‘record replay’ booth of the OB van, “The primary role of the EVS operator is to capture live content from selected cameras,” says Armstrong. “Replays will then be played out with various views of the event that took place, as this content is captured on hard drive, replays are generally instantaneous.”

In the main production room of the van, a screen shows Fox’s live, pre-game show. Footage the EVS operators have produced into tight packages have been piped back to the Pyrmont studio and is shown to hype the game; an on-field warm up package of both squads is produced to upbeat music; a montage of the thinly dispersed yet devoted crowd fills a gap; there’s a pre-game teaser of the teams’ past big hits to the tune of Mission Impossible.

The production quality of outdoor broadcasts have become so high, and technology so streamlined that production companies are opting in, even when they aren’t going live. Recording services for programs such as My Kitchen Rules and Can of Worms – non-live broadcasts that still demand a quick turnaround are using OB vans.

The idea is, the director, with multiple cameras recording, can produce a linear show from the van that is nearly ready-made except for any post work or patch ups that might need seeing to.

“With studio productions the primary role is to capture and repurpose,” says Armstrong. “Selected cameras are recorded with individual takes titled with keywords (meta data) to allow quick recovery in edit. As ingest is no longer required this process creates an extremely fast turnaround.”

The almost-finished product is then piped to a 
post studio to be worked on within minutes of it
being recorded.

Let the games begin
Global TV can do up to 26 outdoor broadcasts in one weekend across all networks while a Fox Sports average is 11. Global can either just rent out their equipment, assist with a team, or provide the whole turnkey solution says Andrews. “You could argue we’re just a facilities hire company but the industry has evolved into much more than that now. More and more we’re doing full turnkey solutions.” That was the case for the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) visit to Australia. When Oprah Winfrey came to town, Global had already done events outside the Opera House like Australian Idol and the Aria Awards so they knew the necessary logistics of the Opera House.

Tonight there’s a mix of Global and Fox Sports technicians in the truck all led by Fox Sports director Angus Miller, who’s night starts well and truly before kickoff. Miller controls what goes out live from the stadium. Throughout the pre-game show in the Pyrmont studios, he controls the cross to on-field preamble by the commentators, and pre-recorded interviews with coaches and players.

At the sound of the whistle, Miller turns into more of a commentator, with the job of a juggler. He sits before the wall of monitors, calling between 10 different cameras, as the ball changes hands; from wide, establishing shots to inside the blood and sweat of a tackle. South Sydney score early and the EVS operators are quick to feed Miller the action replay and slow-mo shots. The try is allowed so Miller calls upon the director’s assistant to display the updated VCG (video character generator) you’d recognise as the computer-generated-steam-engine-turned-scoreboard, it’s 4-0.

Producer, Ernie Barbieri, meanwhile is in the commentary box with a bird’s eye view on the game, calling the shots from above and assisting the commentators and communicating with Miller.

While Global shoot in HD, changing technologies and media offer alternatives in broadcast quality. “We shoot most of our events in HD because our technology is set up for that,” says Andrews. “Our client decides what they want to broadcast in, how they want to archive it and what medium formats it’s produced in. If you start in hi-res you can send it out in lo-def or standard definition. That can all be compressed instantaneously. We did our live YouTube concert at the Sydney Opera House, called the YouTube Symphony. Google TV were ultimately the client and it also linked up to other concerts that were happening around the world, but it was all still content created 
for Youtube.”

“Most of the sport we shoot is in HD but broadcast in standard definition. There’s no secret in the fact the NRL, AFL and cricket are taken to air in standard definition. That’s the commercial decision they make and it still looks good on a typical TV,” says Andrews.

From inside the OB van’s studio, the entire game is adrenalin-pumping action with an edge-of-your-seat excitement as it unfolds live to air.

By its very nature, the outdoor broadcast should be seamless to the audience, but be sure, on finals day, the players won’t be the only teams bringing their A-game.


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