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, the makers of the world’s most intuitive and flexible multi-camera production systems, has announced that they have joined the SRT Alliance. SRT is a free open source video transport protocol and technology stack that enables the delivery of high-quality and secure low latency video across the public internet. Founded by Haivision April 2017, the SRT Alliance already has more than 350 members.
The Simplylive Vibox platform is natively remote production capable, and intrinsically migratable to the cloud. The ViBox I/O hardware can be located with the cameras at the event venue, while the switcher or replay operator UIs can be located in an entirely different location provided they are connected to the same network.
The mission of the SRT Alliance is to overcome the challenges of low-latency live streaming by supporting the collaborative development of SRT (Secure Reliable Transport) Open Source, the fastest growing open source streaming project. SRT is a free open source video transport protocol and technology stack originally developed and pioneered by Haivision that enables the delivery of high-quality and secure, low-latency video across the public internet.
“SRT’s ability to reliably to deliver the best quality video at all times on any network, including the public internet, is an outstanding addition to our overall remote production strategy”, says Pierre Mestrez, VP Pre-Sales of Simplylive SRL. “In addition, SRT’s inherent capabilities are further enabling the rapid development of our game-changing ViBox Cloud production platform. Simplylive is proud to be part of the SRT Alliance, and looks forward to contributing to its mission.”
“As one of the leading innovators of remote live production, we’re delighted that Simplylive has joined the SRT Alliance. With the adoption of the SRT protocol, Simplylive can provide their customers with outstanding, low latency and secure streaming workflows to further enhance their remote production capabilities, and help them transition to cloud-based production,” said Jesus (Suso) Carrillo, Director SRT Alliance,Haivision.
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 the SRT Open Source Project & SRT Alliance
SRT is an open source video transport protocol and technology stack, developed and pioneered by Haivision, that optimizes streaming performance across unpredictable networks with secure streams and easy firewall traversal, bringing the best quality live video over the worst networks. The SRT Open Source Project, supported by the SRT Alliance, is a collaborative community of industry leaders and developers striving to achieve lower latency Internet video transport by continuously improving open-source SRT. For more information about the project and how to join the SRT Alliance, visit srtalliance.org
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.
SimplyLive will showcase the latest advances and new products at IBC 2019.
As remote productions continue to be one of the key focus of this industry in perpetual transformation, SimplyLive introduces the UI Gateway for management and bandwidth optimization of remote connectivity. The UI Gateway allows the various SimplyLive UI applications to be available remotely without requiring high bandwidth connections. The gateway is designed to work on point to point connections and can even work on internet connections of 5 to 50 Mbps per user.
This new gateway adds the last critical piece to the SimplyLive flexible architecture design to manage the various production scenarios from local, remote, cloud or true at-home situations.
ESPN Deploys Ultra-Efficient ViBox Workflow for Record Slate of Little League Baseball, Softball Games
Seven Gearhouse trucks with Simplylive ViBox systems produced 150+ games from 10 sites
Although the Little League World Series has been a staple of ESPN’s summer programming slate for decades, the network is taking its efforts to a new level this year. For the first time, ABC, ESPN’s networks, and ESPN+ are carrying every single Little League Baseball and Softball U.S. regional and World Series game — a record 345 games in all. ESPN has continued its push into the automated-production realm in order to produce this throng of regional Little League games over the past month, deploying production trucks outfitted with SimplyLive ViBox semi-automated-production systems to 10 different competition sites.
ESPN is using Simplylive ViBox semi-automated production systems to cover nearly 200 Little League Baseball and Softball games this summer.
“These are games that were never covered before because it was challenging from a budgetary standpoint to find a model that made sense,” says Chris Calcinari, SVP, remote production operations, ESPN and ABC Sports. “We’ve now been able to create an efficient model that allows us to do these games for TV or streaming without sacrificing significant production quality. We’re excited to be able to serve Little League fans with content they never would have seen before.”
Seven Trucks, 10 Locations, Nearly 200 Games
ESPN deployed seven Gearhouse Broadcast production trucks equipped with ViBox systems to 10 locations to cover the Little League Baseball and Softball Regionals, as well as the championship events from all divisions (Intermediate, Junior, and Senior) for the first time — totaling about 180 games (primarily streamed on ESPN+) in less than a month. The trucks deployed were more compact units Gearhouse added to its fleet when it acquired Proshow Broadcast last year: its 40-ft. Prodigy and Maestro trucks, O-class REMI units Opus and Ovation, and two Sprinter-class units.
A Vibox system was temporarily installed in each truck in a two-person, two-screen operator configuration: director/TD on one screen and producer/replay on the other.
“The [Gearhouse] trucks are smaller than your average truck, and, with the automated touchscreen systems, an operator can do multiple functions at the same time,” Calcinari explains. “Not only are we minimizing the footprint, but we’re also combining some of the roles, like having a director also cut cameras on the ViBox touchscreen [instead of a TD at a switcher]. That’s going to be a big focus for us: how do we get really efficient inside the truck using the touchscreen to minimize the number of bodies onsite.”
ESPN deployed five to seven cameras at each site — a combination of manned cameras, locked-off POVs, and Fletcher robos — depending on the setup of each ballpark.
“These are primarily traditional camera positions that we use for Little League coverage anyway,” notes Dennis Cleary, director, remote production operations, ESPN. “We are just making it fit into the ViBox model. Where we’re at now is on the educational and training side for the operators: the biggest thing we’ve got to work on is increasing that pool of folks that can use the ViBox system. We have a great training setup with Simplylive at all of these venues to make sure it’s a success.”
Seven Gearhouse Broadcast trucks deployed for ESPN’s Little League productions feature ViBox systems.
In addition to the ViBox operators, the limited crew inside each mobile unit included a graphics operator using an AJT graphics system that feeds the ViBox via NDI (with some assistance from a graphics AD), a camera shader (provided by Gearhouse), and an A1 for audio. ESPN utilized the existing audio infrastructure in the Gearhouse trucks, including Calrec and Yamaha digital consoles and the usual complement of accessories and intercom systems. Audio to and from the ViBox was interfaced to the console for playback and recording functions. A team of 14 Gearhouse engineers leapfrogged around the country to cover the various tournaments.
“It has been a very successful project from our end and a really good learning opportunity to take a platform like this and work with the client to do an extensive proof of concept,” says Tim Lewis, VP, technology and design, Gearhouse Broadcast USA.
ESPN Plots an Automated-Production Roadmap
The Little League productions mark the latest chapter in ESPN’s automated-production efforts with Simplylive, following ESPN’s outer-court coverage of the 2018 US Open tennis tournament (which contributed to ESPN’s Sports Emmy win for Outstanding Technical Team Remote).
The Simplylive ViBox system requires two operators: director/TD and producer/replay.
“We were very comfortable with [the ViBox] at the US Open, but that was nine courts being produced with a flypack set up in one room,” says Cleary. “By spreading this out from an operational standpoint for [Little League], [the effort] becomes more complex, but we know that the system is completely capable,”
ESPN also utilized ViBox systems for its productions of GEICO High School Basketball Showcase games in December and continues to use the system at its South Street Seaport studio in New York City.
“This is certainly our largest rollout of the ViBox to multiple locations,” says Calcinari. “Obviously, we used it extensively at the US Open and elsewhere, but to do it across 10 sites in seven different mobile units over a short period of time for almost 200 games, I would say there’s nothing that has been done on this scale from a live-event standpoint [in the U.S.]”
Gregory Macchia, VP, sales and operations, Americas, Simplylive, adds, “We’ve done a lot of events at this point, but this was probably the biggest test for us. We knew we were going on-air with hundreds of games from multiple [locations] no matter what. I think this shows how [ViBox] is not just a concept anymore; it’s a real product that can do real productions, and we can do it with less people and a smaller footprint. These are almost 200 productions that would not have been [done] in past, and that is our focus: doing more productions and getting more content out there that wouldn’t be available otherwise.”
The REMI Factor: Testing Control From Bristol
ESPN also conducted tests to integrate ViBox workflow into its REMI (remote integration) at-home–production model, further reducing travel costs for smaller productions like Little League. In this test, the ViBox operator was located at the network’s Bristol, CT, headquarters and controlled the ViBox onsite in the truck via a custom GUI.
“In theory, we could do the replays and cut cameras from the GUI back in Bristol,” says Calcinari. “That could be another iteration of our REMI model long-term, but we’re still in the testing phase of that. We’ve done some testing with that already at the Seaport studio: our LAPC [L.A. Production Center] can control the ViBox that is sitting at the Seaport for some of our shows, like Jalen & Jacoby. We’ve definitely proven the model, and we know it works. Now we’re just trying to figure out how to deal with it in a live-event scenario vs. a studio show.”
Looking Ahead: More ESPN+ Content May Mean More ViBox Productions
Calcinari says ESPN will continue to evaluate future opportunities to use ViBox on productions — especially as thousands of live events are added to the ESPN+ OTT streaming service in the coming years.
“We will continue to find places where this tool allows us to be more efficient. We think this is a big step forward, and we know that the number of events [streaming on] ESPN+ is only going to grow in the future,” says Calcinari. “Now that we have completed the ViBox run of games, we look forward to digesting our learning and focusing on the next opportunity for this technology.”
ESPN continued to blaze the automated-production trail earlier this month when it produced eight high school basketball games over two days for ESPN+ utilizing the SimplyLive ViBox production unit and the Fletch Follow automated robotic camera system. This follows on the heels of ESPN’s automated-production efforts for the nine outer courts at the US Open in September, which allowed ESPN to cover all 16 courts for the first time.
As part of its GEICO High School Basketball Showcase, ESPN presented three days of high school hoops at the HoopHall West in Scottsdale, AZ, from December 6-8. The first day featured a linear broadcast of San Joaquin (CA) vs. Pinnacle (AZ) on ESPN2 that was produced out of a mobile unit using traditional manned cameras and a full production and technical staff. However, on December 7-8, ESPN utilized an automated-production model to produce four games each day, allowing the network to deliver games that would otherwise would not be covered.
“This initiative falls in-line with our on-going effort to innovate at the large events, as well as the smaller events where we are focused on new technologies and work-flows that allow us to operate more efficiently. The key is to also maintain quality, which both the ViBox and Fletch Follow systems provide,” says Chris Calcinari, SVP Remote Operations, ESPN and ABC Sports. “As a next step, we hope to evolve the workflow by controlling these tools from our centralized hubs, creating additional efficiencies long-term.”
Fletch Follow: Automated Cameras in Action on the Hardcourt
Fletcher, ESPN’s primary robotic-camera partner, developed an automated robotic system built around camera telemetry data. The system deployed for these games, included robotic cameras placed at the main game and tight positions, as well rigged under the backboards. The tight camera was controlled by a human robotic operator, with the ability to have all the other cameras robotically follow similar camera movements with appropriate framing. Fletcher provided on-site engineers capable of revising code to focus on robotic performance and accurate framing throughout the event.
SimplyLive ViBox: Streamlining the Production Workflow
ESPN worked with Bexel to design a small flypack built around the SimplyLive ViBox production system to support cutting of the show sources similar to a traditional switcher. Additionally, the ViBox supported record and replay functionality similar to a traditional replay system. For this initiative, the user interface for the ViBox consisted of two 27-in. touchscreen work surfaces. These control surface screens also served as the monitor wall. Alternatively, users can also use mouse control or an outboard shuttle wheel as replay control options.
In addition to having one robo operator control all cameras, workflow efficiencies included combining roles. The Director/Technical Director and Producer/Replay Operator/Assistant Director roles were combined and handled by two production staffers.
Bringing It All Together: Graphics, Audio, and Comms
For this game, graphics were limited to clock and score. Not having clock or scoreboard data pushed ESPN to think outside the box. Using the AJT Livebook with OCR (optical character recognition) capabilities, ESPN was able to use a camera to automate the clock and score throughout the event. The Livebook was integrated into the ViBox via NDI.
Commentary and effects audio was supported by a small traditional console, which was incorporated into the ViBox via a Dante network.
Communications was supported with a compact communications matrix for belt packs and panels, leveraging a Dante IP network, while telephone interfaces connected the remote to Bristol.
“Because Bexel and Fletcher are now both part of the NEP Worldwide Network, this project came together seamlessly. All of our divisions operate as one team very effectively, and have the same eye towards innovative, client-centered solutions,” says Mike Werteen, Global President, NEP Broadcast Services.
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/