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.”
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.”
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 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.
The most powerful and intuitive solution for slow motion in the live sports industry just got better. The Simplylive ViBox SloMo now combines the touchscreen UI interface with the custom designed replay remote for the most versatile and cost-effective replay solution. For those that have been working with replay systems for years, the remote will act and feel much like other systems. It is quite elegant to operate. The combination of the remote and the touch screen operation make this system the easiest, fastest and most powerful slomo product for live sports production.
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.