How to create and brand a live TV experience online


Late last year, Pixel Power worked closely with the Perform Group to brand the first ever live England football match online, a landmark event. Before we discuss that in detail, there is a wider question to answer: what do we mean by “branding”? Branding is fundamentally how you differentiate your channel; how you make it stand out in the crowd and provide it with an identity. It is all of the graphical furniture that isn’t commercials or a programme itself. Channel branding is everything from logos to menus. By menus we mean “Now, next, later” information – onscreen navigation. In the modern multichannel environment it is absolutely essential that graphics are used in this way. If we look back 15 years then there was probably one kids channel, one shopping channel and so on. Now there are multiples of every genre and channels have to be able to differentiate themselves in a crowded marketplace. Broadcasters make themselves stand out through the branding. In the highly competitive sports market it is vital.
From our perspective as a graphics systems supplier the aim is to be able to provide technology that allows this huge range of graphics to be created and played out. We are the vehicle that allows the delivery of the design, rather than defining the design itself – in fact we try very hard not to define that design. We have done our job well if our technology can cope with any design thrown at it.
But it will come as little surprise that going hand-in-hand with this rise in the importance of television graphics and their usage has been the need to cut production costs and increase workflow efficiency something of direct relevance to the branding of online sports events. Pixel Power has worked hard to reduce the reliance on post production. The company’s graphics creation technology is complimentary to technologies like After Effects or PhotoShop. Users can use these to create the raw materials and then our technology is deployed to assemble those elements – animations, timelines, sequencing – to create the finished look and feel.
This has been achieved in two key ways: increasing the power of our core graphics creation software and; developing dedicated channel branding systems designed for 24/7 operation in a transmission environment (LogoVision™). These playout devices have a very simple UI designed for configuration and status monitoring; control and graphics creation is handled by devices further up the chain connected via LAN or WAN. A third innovation is the development of an automated channel branding promo system that uses a file-based workflow to grab automation and scheduling information from a playout chain and then creates channel branding according to this information in combination with a user-configurable set of rules.
We now live in truly multiplatform world. Content owners need to monetise their rights by using a range of distribution methods. This is combined with the growth in online-only events and has lead to the rise in importance of companies like the Perform Group. Perform is a world leader in monetising sport and entertainment rights in digital media and is a major driving force in the commercialisation of sport and entertainment rights on TV, on mobile and online.
Pixel Power has worked with Perform on two key projects, one a standalone event – the Ukraine vs. England football match on 10th October last year - and the second ongoing – mid-week snooker and darts events carried online for the betting marketplace. But the first question is: in general terms, what are the differences between the world of television graphics and these new distribution methods? Are there in fact major differences – limitations even – or is the broadcast experience broadly transferable?
Without a doubt there are certain differences when it comes to branding a live event online. There are two key points:
  1. You have to create graphics for the lowest common denominator reception device.
  2. Experience has taught us that the workflow has to be even simpler and as cost-effective as possible.
Ukraine vs. England
Using the example of the football match – which was watched by close to half-a-million fans both online and in certain cinemas – there was one key technical limitation. Perform used variable bit-rate playout with three rates: 500Kbit/s, 800Kbit/s and 1Mbit/s. While at the higher two bit rates normal sized graphics would probably have been fine, Perform felt that at the lowest bit rate making the graphics 10 per cent bigger was a necessity. This was easy to achieve.
Had viewing on mobile been a requirement then there would have been further considerations as the screen size is not 4 x 3 and therefore graphics have to be positioned correctly to take this into account; users have to define a safe area and adhere to that. Secondly, using complex fonts is simply not possible as at those high compression rates the complexities will just disappear.
Perform wanted this to look and feel as much like a traditional football broadcast as possible. To that end the company worked with sports production specialists Input Media, using its studios for the presentation. The whole premise for the viewer was that this had to be as close to a broadcast experience as possible – it had to have the look and feel of a Sky or BBC production. Perform didn’t want it to be quirky or fashioned for the internet. It had to look as if it were being produced for broadcast media.
With the graphics for a sports event there are a number of parts to it. If we take football as the example, then you have the pre-match strategy discussion, team lists and so on. Then in-match there probably isn’t that much going on – scores and clocks, typically, and yellow card/red card, corners etc. The in-play content is quite simple. This was the case with Perform.
There was half-an-hour build-up to the show with a studio presentation using various VT interviews including graphics. There was also fifteen minutes post-match. The first thing to define is a list of graphics that are required. Then those involved need to know what operational restrictions they have. It is the case that very careful preparation saves broadcasters a lot of money in the long run.
For this coverage, cost and simplicity were obvious factors. In a traditional workflow for a live sports event – and light entertainment is quite similar – a production would have a number of graphics devices and therefore a number of operators. They would all be under the control of the director and vision mixer. There would tend to be a CG operator, a separate stills store operator and someone running slow-mo equipment. Their outputs would all feed into the vision mixer and the vision mixer would be taking them to air.
For the Ukraine match, a far simpler workflow was used using the template functionality of Pixel Power’s Clarity (hardware and software) technology. Perform built everything at base on its Clarity then transferred it to a Clarity at Input Media’s facility, so this made life very easy. But regardless of where Perform had gone for studio facilities, it would have used Clarity because all its designers and operators are Clarity-trained. Perform took the international feed into Input Media’s facilities and played out from there.
Snooker and darts
As mentioned, Perform also hosts online coverage of mid-week darts and snooker games for the betting market. Perform runs two tables or two boards per event – there are four snooker events per year and three darts. They are all under the Match Room brand run by promoter Barry Hearn. They are called the Championship League of Snooker and the Championship League of darts and they are precursor tournaments to the Premier Leagues of both, broadcast on Sky.
For this Perform built a lightweight OB unit and purchased two LogoVision’s from Pixel Power. These are operated by a purpose-built user interface based on the company’s Toolbox technology. There is one graphics operator per table operating under the control of a director and they run normal match graphics: player profiles, match scores and so on. We worked with Perform to meet its requirements to match the look and feel of the BBC and Sky for this coverage. The application that we have created handles all the maths – for example it works out the three-dart finishes, highest break and so on. Perform needed a very simple user interface to drive the score graphics. Darts is actually a very fast sport and the technology has to allow the operator to keep up with that.
This is a prime example of taking what we have learnt in the broadcast world and deploying it for use in an online environment. The fundamental principles are the same, but the imperative to provide a simple workflow at an appropriate price point is even greater.
The first thing we had to ask ourselves was whether we deliver their design: was it technically possible? Once answered, the next key factor in this was the need to work very closely with the end user – the actual operators – when we designed the UI. While this may sound trite, it was essential. We had to supply them with examples as they moved along through the process. The second key thing that we had to do was to make it as simple as possible so that it could be operated as easily as possible by someone doing a number of tasks. The show is completed in the van and supplied for playout as a finished output.
Perform also creates a half-hour daily news show that is distributed across all media: a 26-minute broadcast show (to about 20 territories); a mobile version (15-20 minutes; numerous territories); a VOD version for the internet clipped from that show that is run on a variety of mediums, predominantly on its syndicated e-player that is embedded on a wide variety of media outlets including the Sun, the Times and the Telegraph. Clarity technology is used for the graphics across these.
There is this dichotomy at the moment – HD at one end then PC-based viewing – or mobile – at the other. It is often the same content owner operating across all platforms. As a technology supplier it is vital that we continue to work to this end. What lies at the heart of it is simplification. Broadcasters may have to simplify the graphics and we have to simplify their creation.

Tags: pixel power | branding | iss042 | character generator | cg | graphics | football | snooker | darts | vod | N/A
Contributing Author N/A

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