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.”
This week’s WTA Top Seed Open in Lexington, KY, represents the first WTA- or ATP-sanctioned event on U.S. soil since the pandemic shut down the sports world in mid March, and Tennis Channel is on hand to bring the action live to the masses. While the tournament marks the return for high-profile stateside tennis, it’s nothing new for Tennis Channel, which has kept busy over the past five months, producing five tournaments in the U.S. and carrying hundreds of hours of live coverage from the around the world.
“We took great pride in being one of the very first networks to come back with live sports,” says Bob Whyley, SVP/executive producer, Tennis Channel. “We never put the ‘gone fishing’ sign up. We have done five remotes since [the pandemic began], and we’re happy with that accomplishment. If we weren’t producing live tennis on our own, we took in live world feeds from Europe. And, if we weren’t doing that, then we had a live studio show where we incorporated some of our talent in studio and other talent via Skype.”
Safety Means Efficiency: ViBox, SMT Automated Production Tools Deployed
Tennis Channel, on behalf of WTA Media, is producing the world feed for the WTA event in Lexington this week, as well as delivering its own customized telecast to U.S. viewers. In an effort to ensure the health and safety of its team, the network has a smaller onsite crew and footprint than usual, deploying 22 people (which would typically be 50-60) and Gravity Media’s Polaris midsize mobile unit rather than a 53-footer.
“We have to be thoughtful and sensitive to the amount of people that we have onsite,” Whyley points out. “We can’t do business as usual with the big mobile units and big crews, but that doesn’t mean we can’t produce a great show.”
Polaris is built around a 16-channel SimplyLive ViBox all-in-one production system, which is handling the center-court coverage at Top Seed Tennis Club. Tennis Channel has deployed six cameras for center-court coverage, including a jib, a build-up slo-mo system, two hard cameras (courtesy of Ross Production Services), a handheld, and a beauty shot. Longtime CBS Sports Coordinating Producer Bob Mansbach is overseeing the production.
“The SimplyLive ViBox takes a little bit of getting used to because it’s relatively new technology,” says Whyley, “but it has worked out great so far. Our operators in there have been doing a great job, and it’s accomplishing exactly what we need to accomplish, which is a nice, clean world feed.”
To deliver live-streaming coverage from Courts 2 and 3 in Lexington, Tennis Channel is deploying SMT’s automated robotic-camera-tracking system to produce live feeds using just one or two operators per court. Each court has a three-camera setup: one lock-off wide shot and two robotic cameras controlled by SMT software that allows a single operator to produce the entire show. SMT is also providing data and scoring for the main control room inside Polaris (since SMT can integrate into the ViBox directly via NDI).
“I know SMT is more widely known for doing graphics and stats,” says Whyley, “but this camera-tracking system has been pretty impressive for our streaming courts. We knew we needed to have a limited [crew onsite] because of safety, and this has played a big role in allowing us to do that.”
Back in L.A.: Producing the Domestic Broadcast From Home
Another major reason Tennis Channel was able to limit the number of bodies onsite is that it’s leveraging its Los Angeles production facility to create its own domestic telecast. The world feed is being backhauled to L.A., where Tennis Channel’s production team (abiding by all safety and social-distancing guidelines) is using a dedicated control room to supplement the feed with graphics, studio inserts, match commentary, and other storytelling elements.
“[Our studio] has been dark only two weeks since the week of March 9,” says Whyley. “We are very comfortable there, and we have a good process in place by now. And [parent company] Sinclair has been very supportive and helpful to make sure we have all the right procedures to keep people as safe as possible. We don’t have too many folks in one location, and it has been very successful to date.”
Looking Ahead: Scaled-Down US Open Presence, Major Production at Roland Garros
Next week, the ATP Tour returns for the Western and Southern Open (usually held in Cincinnati) at Flushing Meadows in advance of the US Open, starting at the same venue a week later. With health and safety taking precedence at the Open this year, only host broadcaster ESPN will be permitted onsite. As a result, Tennis Channel will not have its usual lofted set at Arthur Ashe Stadium but will be taking in court feeds, providing first-ball-to-last-ball commentary, and producing its TC Live studio show from Los Angeles.However, the real Super Bowl for Tennis Channel each year is the French Open, which, for the first time, will take place after the US Open at the end of September. As the U.S. domestic rightsholder, the network will once again produce hundreds of hours of live first-ball-to-last-ball tennis from Roland Garros and have a sizable onsite presence with 70+ crew (compared with 150 in a typical year) and multiple booths and studio sets on the grounds.“Most of our focus right now is on the French Open,” notes Whyley. “I think I could speak for everyone in saying we’re really excited to be a part of it. We will fall underneath the [French Tennis Federation] protocols when it comes to safety, and we’ll be scaling back in terms of people. But we’re in a good place, and we’re ready for it. You don’t know what tomorrow brings, but, being in production, we’re used to having to be flexible. So we will be ready, no matter what.”
Simplylive, the makers of the world’s most intuitive and ultra-efficient multi-camera production systems, today announced its partnership with Matrix Video Communications Corp. as a value-added reseller and system integrator in Canada.
“I am excited that Matrix has chosen to partner with Simplylive” said Chuck Silber, Simplylive’s Chief Revenue Officer. “The MVCC team was quick to realize the potential of Simplylive’s remote-optimized live sports production solutions and are highly motivated to help us expand our reach into the Canadian market. I believe their outstanding reputation and high level of technical expertise uniquely positions them to help provide their market with the ViBox solutions that are ideal for today’s new production reality.”
Commenting on the partnership, MVCC’s President Glenn Burgess added “With our entire economy migrating to the cloud we have been looking for a production solution that incorporates remote location workflows as its core. Now with COVID highlighting the benefits and flexibility of remote operators we are excited to represent Simplylive from our multiple Canadian offices.”
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+. To find out more, visit www.simplylive.tv.
About Matrix Video Communications
Matrix Video Communications Corp. is a specialized video communications company that has built their reputation on achieving the highest degree of customer satisfaction in consultation, design, integration and installation of audio, video and multimedia solutions in the Broadcast, Post-Production, and Audio-Visual environments. As one of Canada's leading suppliers of audio & video equipment and installation services, we combined the advanced expertise of our team alongside our collaborative approach to become a leader in the marketplace.
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.
By Heather McLean, Editor - Sports Video Group Europe
Euro Media Group (EMG) has launched a fully cloud-based video review solution for video assistant referee (VAR) with Simply Live. The new combined technology means that VAR match officials can work remotely from anywhere with internet access.
Spurred on by the COVID-19 pandemic, EMG and Simplylive have worked together to develop and deploy a cloud-based solution that combines the software development and operational deployment capabilities of both companies.
With latency at 0.5 seconds over the public internet, EMG has combined Refbox technology from Simplylive with bespoke and easy to deploy communication technology to enable the referee on the pitch to communicate easily with the video official room, wherever that might be.
Matthieu Skrzypniak, chief digital officer at EMG, told SVG Europe: “We did not wait for COVID-19 to work on remote production concepts, but COVID-19 is changing mindsets. More and more of our partners are actively looking for remote solutions to limit staff travel in order to cover an event.
“Although we have been working on technical aspects of remote production tools for a while now, we think that COVID-19 is a trigger that makes it clear for most organisations that they have to seriously consider cloud workflows.”
On how this technology development might change the way VAR is used in the future, Skrzypniak noted: “Most of the time, for example on a premium football match, there is a dedicated OB truck at the stadium with two or three people in it. There are also remote VAR rooms with expensive connectivity to be connected to the stadium. The solution we worked on is based on public internet; it will make this type of solution much cheaper [to produce] and the VAR will therefore be available to tier two and tier three federations, that can’t afford [VAR as it has been made available over the last two years] today.”
Hosted on Amazon Web Services, this solution offers flexibility of deployment and allows seamless, instant review of multiple cameras from anywhere in the world.
The solution includes a new generation of EMG’s stagebox that encodes and transfers the audio and video signals to the cloud infrastructure on the internet.
“The reactivity is the same as on a local user interface,” explained Luc Doneux, managing director at Simplylive. “Euro Media Group is a key partner for us and [these] type of remote solutions have never made more sense than during those uncertain times when movements are limited.”
Skrzypniak, added: “Simplylive technology is perfectly adapted to cloud implementation. This solution will significantly change our approach [to] VAR because it will allow for completely different workflows where the referee can work remotely from any place with an internet access. As such, it is perfectly suited to simplified VAR implementation, and medical review.”
Remote production trials are carried out regularly in France but for the Pro B clash between Paris Basketball and Aix Maurienne broadcast on Sunday 26 January on RMC Sport, AMP Visual TV delivered a real live remote production that went to air.
“At RMC Sport we like to implement new workflows. We had been thinking about producing a live remote production and not just a trial for quite some time, so with AMP Visual TV and our own "Letsee" team we chose a basketball game,” said Luc Pannier, director of broadcasting and production for the Altice Group, owner of RMC Sport.
This is the first time a Pro B (second division of the National Basketball Championship) regular-season match has ever been held at the AccorHotels Arena in Paris-Bercy – two days after the NBA Paris Game 2020 between Charlotte and Milwaukee.
Equipment used for coverage was identical to that of a traditional match produced with the help of the IXI Live mobile unit. Seven cameras were deployed around the basketball court with five camera operators manning the three cameras on the sidelines, plus one for wide shots and one for close-ups, with two minicams positioned behind the hoops.
“We placed a sensor at the base of the wide-angle camera that, depending on the shot, automatically enabled the minicam to follow the direction of the action. The interesting thing about our set-up is that we used traditional 300Mb fibre broadband instead of a costly dark fibre network to send seven video and audio signals as well as all the other data,” said François Valadoux, deputy CEO for technical resources at AMP Visual TV.
Simplylive ViBox for the production
On-site at the AccorHotel Arena in Bercy there was a pared-down production crew of five camera operators, some assistants and two sound engineers. At the AMP Visual TV media centre (which has moved from the 15th arrondissement of Paris to join the nerve centre of the group’s studio facilities situated at la Plaine Saint Denis, close to the future Olympics village), the crew members who usually work in the IXI Live mobile unit were calling the shots.
They included a director, LSM operator, digital imaging technician, sound engineer and, for the graphics, a dedicated broadcast designer from Tangodelta, services provider for the Professional Basketball League. Worth mentioning is the fact that the commentator and the sports analyst were also in a remote location and just the on-air announcer was present at the stadium to be on set and conduct interviews.
Match director Raphael Gaboriaeu calls the shots for Paris Basketball vs Aix Maurienne, with Simplylive ViBox. “As far as I am concerned, it makes no difference that we are not on site. Directions are given in real-time (as well as tally signals for the camera operators),” said match director Raphael Gaborieau.
“Before the match, I was told there would probably be a one-second delay between transmitting and receiving the signals back at the studio but the delay was barely a quarter of a second.
“For the remote production I used a ViBox, like I normally would in the production truck and I could even have single-handedly managed the slomo replays if needed,” said Gaborieau. “However I chose to go to the stadium to check the camera positions and for a briefing with the operators on site. Otherwise we could have simply used skype to visualise each position.”
Cost savings? Not just yet…
At present, a single one-off remote production does not cost less than normal on-site production. There will be a cut in costs when the professional league (or any federation) and the championship broadcaster agree to tweak the schedule.
In fact, the economy of scale can only be effective if production teams produce a series of two or even three matches a day or even more over a single weekend.
This will surely happen in the short to medium term for a good number of championships as financial pressure is severe in the world of sports broadcasting production.
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.