By Ken Kerschbaumer, SVG Editorial Director
Health and safety needs add a complicating factor
ESPN’s production calendar has plenty of huge events, but none is larger than the US Open. Even in a good year, the production takes months of planning at a scale that can impress anyone in the industry. Add in COVID-19, and the accomplishment the team pulled off to get to this point is even more impressive.
“It’s a huge, stressful event because we’re the host broadcaster for the world,” says Dennis Cleary, director, remote production operations, ESPN. “And now we add in the pandemic, and people are concerned about their health and safety while they’re doing their job. It’s a side we haven’t really dealt with before.”
Health and safety is job one, he notes, and, with the USTA as lead partner, a key goal is to make sure all protocols follow both USTA and ESPN guidelines.
“The biggest thing for us is we have 600 people onsite,” Cleary explains. “Where do they sit and work? How much more space could we acquire for them because the international broadcasters aren’t here?”
In the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the first big challenges was to make sure that everyone could get onsite. A key technology partner for ESPN is Gravity Media, which provides the equipment and integration support for the Open.
“The Gravity Media team is from the UK, and all of the equipment comes from the UK,” says Cleary. “There were a lot of unknowns about whether we would be able to get their engineers and personnel into the country when there was a travel ban.”
The USTA faced a similar situation and worked closely with various federal, state, and local government agencies to get the necessary clearances.
“Until we knew that we could get people in,” Cleary explains, “we needed a plan B where we would bring in mobile production units to cover Ashe, Armstrong, and Court 17 because we wouldn’t have enough engineers available to build the flypack.”
Gravity Media ultimately was able to get its crew in place, but August brought another challenge: preparation for the US Open had to occur while the Western & Southern Open was being held on the same courts.
“Gravity Media has been a great vendor for us as they were also the provider for ATP Media at the Western & Southern Open,” says Cleary. “The turnaround time from Western & Southern to the US Open was one day less, and we also have maximized the facilities that were being used at the Western & Southern, like the NCP VIII truck, which was used for our ITV coverage.”
ESPN worked closely with the USTA team to draw out the spacing needs to the inch so that every operator could work in a socially distanced way. International rightsholders are not at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center, and many personnel who would usually be onsite are working remotely. Those two factors allowed the ESPN and USTA teams to work more safely.
“Wherever there was a seat for an operator in the EVS area or the control room, we would draw a 6-ft. bubble around that position,” says Cleary. “And we did the same thing with those who were in the office space.”
One dramatic change is the expanded space needed for the ACES production team. Last year, for example, nine two-person ACES production teams produced all of the outer-court action from an expanded production area on the second floor of the ESPN administration building. Each two-person team comprised a director/operator of a Simply Live ViBox system and a camera operator controlling four cameras, two of which are automated via the Fletcher Trace player-tracking system. Those nine teams were co-located with two audio rooms crammed with audio operators handling audio needs for coverage of multiple courts.
“This year, we have 10 ACES courts and have socially distanced everyone. Last year, we fit everyone working the ACES courts inside one large room; this year, we need to spread them all out over the entire second floor of the administration building. Each ACES court has a dedicated, socially distanced workspace with the robo operators and directors sitting 6 ft. apart. The video operators are in their own room, all socially distant, and the two audio operators are in their own dedicated rooms mixing the 10 courts.”
One great thing about ESPN having its own building for domestic- and world-feed production is that the control rooms are larger than the space typically afforded in a production truck.
“Most of those control rooms had only three people in them: the technical director, someone in the director/producer combo role, and a graphics person,” says Cleary. “So we basically spread the SMT graphics people into other areas. Everybody has a home.”
The long days at the Open also mean multiple shifts of production personnel, adding another layer of complexity to sanitizing workstations as well as having relief staff available.
“You unplug your headset and wipe down your equipment, and then the relief or next shift comes in,” says Cleary. “They plug their headset in and know that it is sanitary and clean.”
The biggest production change is that there are only three TV courts: Arthur Ashe, Armstrong Stadium, and Court 17. All the others are produced using the Simply Live ViBox because of the requirement to limit the production team to as few people as possible.
“We’ve also added eight more robotic cameras and a jib camera to Armstrong and changed some of the angles by moving cameras from being on the court to being in the stands,” adds Cleary. “This is a one-year opportunity to try something different that we can’t [do] when there are fans in the stands.”
A four-point camera system is also new in Armstrong and two-point system that has flown from Armstrong across the plaza has been repositioned to fly from the practice courts across the plaza. This helps the team capture a revamped plaza that now features entertainment areas for the players, given that fans are not present.
“We wanted to show that flavor,” says Cleary.
As for audio, two sweetening booths — one for Ashe, one for Armstrong — are taking audio files from IBM and adding crowd effects and coupling them with natural sounds.
With the tournament heading into its final weekend, everything has been going smoothly, both technically and from a health and safety perspective.
“Health and safety are definitely the X factor,” says Cleary. “At any time. something could change, and we have to be ready to deal with it. We’ve almost faced down every challenge and know what to do when you lose power or a machine goes down. But, when something happens on the health and safety side, it’s always a new situation and has be dealt with as an individual case.”
Simplylive has announced it will not be attending IBC this September.
"This was a very difficult decision for us as we always look forward to this very important industry event. However, in light of the current uncertainty surrounding Covid-19, we felt that we must prioritize the health and well-being of our team, partners, and customers" said Luc Doneux, Managing Director of Simplylive.
"Instead, we have invested in our studio capabilities at our offices in the US and Belgium, allowing us to do live remote demonstrations of our complete ViBox production and replay solutions for customers anywhere around the world. We are confident that the demo experience we can now deliver online is in many ways superior to what we can offer at a trade show."
To schedule an online demo visit www.simplylive.tv.
The Simplylive Vibox platform is the world’s most intuitive and flexible multi-camera production system. With it’s easy to use touch-screen user interface, small footprint, and scalable workflow configurations, every Vibox system is natively remote production capable. By design, the ViBox I/O hardware, the cameras and the switcher or replay operator UIs can be located in entirely different locations provided they are connected to the same network.
With offices in US, EU and Asia, Simplylive was founded by live production veterans who have made systems that have helped produce televised events like the World Cup, Super Bowl and the Olympics. Simplylive’s ViBox platform takes a different approach from traditional hardware and software products. Instead, system designers focus on the way live programs are actually produced, the next generation of users needed to make those programs, and an approach based on system simplicity, flexibility, reliability and oncoming migration to a VoIP and Cloud future. The result is a platform used by ESPN, IMG and Canal+.
Simplylive is pleased to announce a new alliance partnership with Kairos, the revolutionary new IT/IP Platform from Panasonic.
KAIROS utilizes variety of IT ecosystems based on COTS technology and easily expands functions and links external devices by adding application software.
The Panasonic Kairos platform will include the full integration of the powerful Simplylive ViBox solution for the highest level of production value in local, remote, and at-home scenarios.
This partnership highlights the true power that is possible with software powered architecture for end-to-end live broadcast productions.
ESPN’s St Pete Clearwater Elite Invitational returned to Clearwater, Florida in February 2020, providing more than 40 games of softball across ESPN’s networks.
Each participating team played between four and six games over the course of four days, with the USA Softball Women’s National Team also competing in three exhibition games throughout the weekend.
Gravity Media provided three Simply Live ViBox all-in-one production solutions, as well as engineering to integrate with the OB provider, to provide coverage of three of the pitches at the event.
The setup included a single-user production with three cameras and one director/producer; a dual-user setup with five cameras, director/producer and dedicated replay operator; and one large three-user setup with 10 cameras, director/producer and two dedicated replay operators.
The whole ESPN team produced 40 games in four days from four fields split between two compounds a mile apart. On Friday 14th, we were live on ESPNU for over eight straight hours, which created a post-season-coverage type of atmosphere.
The streaming numbers for the tournament were impressive, and the Sunday night ESPN2 game delivered in dramatic fashion both on and off the field, with a solid rating for a softball game in February.
SimplyLive is coming to a reseller near you.
Do you produce live multi-camera sports productions? Are you looking to...
➢ Produce more content with less dollars?
➢ Work with systems that are extremely flexible and easy to use?
➢ Expand your business without breaking the bank?
➢ Purchase production tools that won’t be obsolete in a year
If so, you'll want to come see the SimplyLive ViBox, the world’s most intuitive and easy-to-use live sports production system.
Starting in February, 2020, SimplyLive with be demonstrating the ViBox systems at a reseller near you. Current dates are listed below, and check back because more dates are being confirmed.
Check in with resellers to confirm times and to reserve a spot.
Touchscreen multi-camera systems that make live production simple for College and High School sports.
Simplylive, the makers of the world’s most intuitive and ultra-efficient multi-camera production systems has announced the release of four product bundles specifically designed for Colleges and High Schools needing to produce live sports programming. All four “Varsity” bundles are based on the revolutionary Simplylive ViBox platform. ViBox redefines multi-camera sports production with its easy-to-use, touch screen interface and flexible workflow options, allowing schools to easily produce a show using just one system interface—or grow their productions to have multiple users doing multiple tasks—all on the same platform.
The Varsity Sports Bundles
All bundles include a compact hardware unit optimized for 4- or 6-camera setups, and support baseband, IP and hybrid workflow. A simple setup requires adding just cameras and touchscreen monitors to get started.
Benefits to Schools
“I recognized before joining Simplylive that ViBox and RefBox would be perfect for High Schools and Colleges needing to produce high quality sports programming,” said Chuck Silber, Chief Revenue Officer, Simplylive. “With its intuitive touch-screen interface, small hardware footprint and system flexibility, plus the added features included in these bundles, this will be the easiest way for schools to produce truly professional-quality content at a price they can afford.”
Varsity Bundles are available immediately and can be demo’d at a value-added video equipment reseller near your location.
3zero2, a member of Euro Media Group, invested in 26 Simplylive Vibox system for their remote production operation center in Milan.
3zero2 has performed remote productions on over 1.700 events per year for the past 3 years. This summer 3zero2 had to upgrade their production and streaming facility to accommodate 1080i 50 production. The configuration is very efficient: camera streams are sent remotely to Milan using 4G and IP contribution technology H264/H265/JPEG2000 and 3zero2 operators receive the camera with audio from the field and mix the video, the sound with commentary, perform replays, highlights, streaming and archive. This is a very effective solution to stream volleyball, basketball and Serie C football content to distribution platforms.
“As we had to upgrade our current technology to produce in 1080i, we decide to move to the Simplylive Vibox solution as it offers a more flexible and powerful solution, both technically and operationally”, says Luciano Consigli, CTO, 3zero2.
“3zero2 already had committed to 2 Simplylive Vibox8 AIO 2 users in 2018. This allowed us to show the benefits of our technology in action. We are very proud to continue our partnership and to have been chosen for their big upgrade this year”, mentioned Luc Doneux, Simplylive’s Managing Director.
In September 2018, Euro Media Group closed a long-term partnership with Simplylive, in order to develop solutions for the broadcasting industry and to meet the actual & future market’s needs.
By Joe Lemire - SportsTechie
Technology takes center court at the U.S. Open whenever Novak Djokovic or Serena Williams stands in sold-out Arthur Ashe Stadium, watching the replay of a line call. But in truth, innovation is everywhere, even on the sparsely attended perimeter courts.
A trio of tripods abut the nets on nine outer courts at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, holding up a pair of robotic cameras that flank a laser surveyor on the sideline opposite the chair umpire. Two other remote cameras are mounted beyond the baselines.
Those five pieces of equipment—the four cameras and a LiDAR (light detection and ranging) image-recognition system—are the only visible traces of ESPN’s broadcast coverage on these courts at the U.S. Open, which begins today in Flushing, Queens. That’s a stark contrast to the 58 combined network and Intel True View cameras inside Ashe for the early rounds, with more to be added as the tournament marches toward the championship matches.
But the gear on those outer courts, along with the tech that’s being used in the modular broadcast center across the USTA campus, makes it possible for as few as two people to produce a match for television using Simplylive’s ViBox production technology, Fletcher’s Tr-ACE system for camera player tracking, and SMT’s automated graphics in the control room. In all, ESPN will tap more than 600 workers to broadcast some 1,300 hours of tennis coverage spanning the entirety of the U.S. Open, including last week’s qualifying play and the two weeks of the main draw.
All that airtime makes the Open the network’s biggest event of the year, yet its headquarters are housed in a pair of modular buildings whose construction only began in July. “This is the largest thing we do, and it’s a flypack operation,” says Dennis Cleary, ESPN’s director of remote production operations. “This facility was empty four weeks ago.”
Sitting in the shadow of Arthur Ashe Stadium, each modular is constructed of 22 trailer units—11 on the first floor, 11 on the second—giving the sports network about 10,500 square feet per building. ESPN contracts with Gearhouse Broadcast to rent all its equipment. But as nondescript as the gray-sided buildings are, the insides resemble what VP of production Jamie Reynolds calls “a super-charged Best Buy.”
In 2015, ESPN became the exclusive domestic rights holder of the U.S. Open and is now in the fifth year of an 11-year pact that runs through 2025. But this will be only the second Open in which ESPN is covering all 16 courts with cameras, with every point airing somewhere. Linear networks ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPNEWS will carry about 130 hours of coverage, with the rest either streaming on ESPN3 or via the subscription service ESPN+.
That’s possible because of the automation of key functions in the control room. Simplylive’s touchscreen monitor enables one director to cut cameras, execute replays and insert graphics. The director can access four angles on those outer courts (which the network dubbed ACES, short for Automated Court Enhancement System), as well as all of the so-called beauty cameras taking B-roll around New York City and the national tennis center grounds. “It allows us to select cameras and effectively take what is a massive, conventional control room and synthesize it and converge it down to a desktop control area,” Reynolds says.
The two sideline cameras on the “ACES courts” are guided by laser tracking; an operator in the control room can select the player—or players in doubles matches—that ESPN wants to follow and the Fletcher system can discern the clothing and/or appearance of those players and keep them in the frame. This system, which is used on the outer courts at all four Grand Slam tennis tournaments, has already passed it greatest test: doubles at Wimbledon, which featured four players all wearing white.
“Budgets and numbers are getting smaller, yet the amount of content and events that are trying to be covered are growing,” says Gregory Macchia, Simplylive’s VP sales and operations for the Americas. “The traditional way of covering events with a lot of hardware, a lot of people, mobile trucks, having people on site—that can’t be sustained.”
Relying so much on technology has its drawbacks. Reynolds says that crafting a series of shots to capture personality and “give an event that lightning-strike moment of excitement” can be more challenging without the human influence of a camera operator. But what the coverage might lose in its nuances is made up for in its scope. ESPN serves as the U.S. Open’s host broadcaster, meaning its feeds are disseminated to international networks. Tennis generates significant handle in foreign betting markets, and that could translate to the burgeoning U.S. market too.
“I think the fact that we’re doing all the courts speaks to the volume and the interest that [is] out there and available. So you probably can read between the lines of what that message means,” Reynolds says, noting the reported 10-year, $1 billion deal between IMG and the ATP World Tourfor betting streaming and data rights. Regarding the specifics of ESPN’s U.S. Open coverage, Reynolds adds, “On the editorial side of the house, we cover the event. But we’ll recognize the fact that there’s a line out there, and we’ll keep our fans aware of what it is.”
ESPN has full confidence in the new technology, having tested it in the background of the 2017 tournament prior to going live with it last year. “Because we set up for a couple of weeks and we’re there for 14 straight days, like an Olympics, we have time to test and not burden the core production that’s going on,” says Chris Strong, a senior remote operations specialist who notes that ESPN is conducting other tests for possible implementation next year.
Given the betting markets and content demands across multiple channels, the ACES coverage is likely to become a fixture of broadcasts, just as ESPN’s temporary broadcast center may become a fixed structure after this year’s tournament. “Inevitably, the USTA’s goal is—now that they’ve added a second floor—to keep this permanent,” Cleary says of the modular headquarters. “But the only thing that really stays in here is maybe some of the office furniture that we own and purchased from IKEA.”
SimplyLive will be at the SVG Summit on December 16th and 17th at the NY Hilton, NYC, NY. We will be demonstrating all of the application layers that are part of the ViBox Platform including the All-In-One solution, SloMo, RefBox and the BMR recorder/streamer. For larger productions, A two operator workflow can also be viewed including the All-In-One application layer and SloMo.
Also available for demo will be our new ViBox Varsity Bundles including:
To find out more about SVG Summit, visit https://www.sportsvideo.org/events/