The Biggest Game in Town
Annually, as the Super Bowl approaches, stores across the States stack their shelves with the latest HDTV sets. Advertising sales teams cancel all holidays and prepare for a feeding frenzy. Networks bid in earnest to win exclusive game broadcasting rights. And new media innovators roll out their latest online and mobile apps to capture internet audiences and maximise press attention.
Why such an intense surge of activity? Simple: 117 million wealthy worldwide viewers. While many Europeans are still scratching their heads trying to understand what the fuss is all about and why there seems to be more advertising breaks than line breaks, the Superbowl rolls on, bigger than ever.
This year's match in Indianapolis was media heaven. Viewers were treated to an HD sporting spectacular, with operators using TV technology ubiquitous, in and around the stadium. Twenty-nine OB trucks packed with video switchers, routers and signal conversion modules were stationed to manage the operation. Pitchside, NBC's HD camera systems and slow-mo systems relayed every second and every angle, all connected by miles and miles of fibre optic cabling.
Failure was unthinkable; outages, no matter how brief, unacceptable. Commercials revenue was enormous, demanding that the broadcaster deliver the audience the advertisers expect. And at an average $3.5 million per slot, expectations were sky high. Into this high finance hot bed crept new low-cost, IT-based TV equipment.
Broadcast Meets IT
Given the vast investment in broadcast equipment and transmission infrastructure, it is tempting to believe that broadcasters still depend slavishly on reassuringly expensive equipment throughout their workflow. Yet anyone following the incursion into television centres by equipment from the likes of Apple's Final Cut Pro and Blackmagic Design over the last five years will know that this is no longer always the case.
However, the one part of the television establishment that has been untouched by commodity-level technology is the all-important video contribution - the transport of video feeds from the field to the broadcaster. An increasing number of intriguing low-cost options are now on the market as a technology competitive to costly satellite systems and cumbersome microwave units.
Introduced only a year ago, Teradek's miniature Cube devices sits on top of cameras and encodes feeds to H.264 for distribution to a decoder using standard wired or wireless IT networks. Cube has become a favoured remote production monitoring tool and is also used for low-cost live streaming of events over the Internet, either direct from a camera or via a production switcher. The newly introduced Case goes one step further. Built around multiple Cube units, it provides a powerful on-set video assist solution for drama and feature film monitoring, proxy file recording and director's commentary. All this has become available to broadcasters from a Cube unit whose base price is under £1,000.
Cameras off the Leash
At Super Bowl 2012, a new kind of commodity-priced equipment fed screens nationwide, demonstrating how low-cost IT technology has entered the broadcast toolkit. Teradek's new Bond cellular solution was at the heart of the action for the first time. It was used to televise the event by multiple TV networks across the USA and by a dozen media outlets including the New York Post. Transmitting simultaneously over Verizon, AT&T and Sprint networks, Bond transmitted comprehensive live pre- and post-game supplementary coverage, fixed to a variety of ENG and DSLR camera systems.
Bond attaches to a Teradek Cube and is camera-mounted. It uses multiple 3G or 4G mobile dongles from any mobile phone network supplier to transmit encoded content to a receiving station that recompiles the data into a single video stream. Importantly, at events such as Super Bowl where tens of thousands of spectators are hitting the mobile networks hard with their smartphones, Bond can work concurrently with diverse mobile carriers. This versatility means that even from within a stadium, Bond works flawlessly and maintains high enough bit rates for good quality, uninterrupted HD viewing.
“Without Bond, we simply would not have been able to go live at the game,” said Rome Neal, Senior Video Producer for the New York Post. “Live sports events present many unique broadcast challenges, and the Bond’s compact size and ease of use make it an ideal solution to get our live content directly to our viewers online, even for an event of this magnitude.”
As mobile solutions have been proven to perform to this level in the cauldron of the Super Bowl, broadcasters are now preparing to use such backhauling technology at even larger events such as the London Olympics or the Diamond Jubilee. With low upfront costs and relatively modest data fees, bonded solutions are affordable alternatives to satellite technology and are already a generation ahead of the early backpack cellular systems that hit the market only two years ago.
A New Ball Game
Cellular solutions are used either as a replacement for traditional systems or as a means of cost-effectively extending their range. For example, they can simply transmit from camera to a broadcast centre for live TV transmission using MPEG-TS. Alternatively, they work in tandem with satellite vehicles for on-site production, prior to transmission to the main hub.
The RTMP protocol enables Bond to stream live to the internet from behind a firewall while adaptive internet streaming technology (AIST) constantly adjusts the bitrate of a media stream to suit the bandwidth available. This buffers data on the fly based on varying network conditions ensuring quality of service for online viewers.
The advantages of these technologies are not simply cost-saving. The Super Bowl at the Lucas Oil Stadium saw news crews roaming throughout the arena, inside and out. Microwave link simply was not viable for hard-to-reach areas; Bond's compact size allowed production teams move all around the stadium with ease. For one news company whose sat truck wasn't working correctly, Bond was used for the entirety of the coverage they provided. For them, working over cellular networks gave them a level of flexibility that established forms of transmission lacks.
Furthermore, cellular solutions allowed broadcasters to bypass issues that plague live production. At Super Bowl, the on-pitch entertainment alone required the planning and management of 110 RF frequencies, all competing for space with coach intercoms, the NBC stage, NFL Films, NFL Network, Westwood One Radio among many others. Sending data over separate networks bypasses this issue entirely and avoids the risk of interference with wireless mics, in-ear monitors and intercom systems that underpin the whole day.
The Pace of Change
The reliance on telecoms infrastructures that were developed for anything other than the transmission of compressed HD signals will terrify many a broadcaster. While the technology has has been used for hours on end by regional TV operators, ultimate quality still resides with satellite news operations and regular broadcast infrastructures. However, flexibility, versatility and speed (not to mention the considerable cost-savings) side clearly with 3G and 4G bonded engineering and in only a few months since launch, it has already established as a valuable asset in a broadcaster's inventory.
Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis was a first for streaming: the whole match was simulcast live by NBC. So is this the start of free live sports broadcasting? Don't bet on it. Super Bowl was selected to be streamed live for the simple reason that NBC knew that no-one would choose online viewing over a true HDTV experience: its $3.5 million TV revenue per advert was never at risk. NBC's theory is that most will view the streamed match as a second screen, for a different angle, not as the main focus of attention. Is this the way we will watch the FA Cup final in future years - BBC HD on the big screen with iPlayer giving a new perspective alongside...? Watch this space.
4G Approaches our Shores
Video over fixed and wireless ethernet networks is an established part of the modern world. However, the UK has lagged behind the USA when it comes to mobile phone networks. Now, 4G networks are rolling out over Europe to bring true mobile multimedia connectivity to smartphones. With extensive trials underway in South West England, the national upgrade will begin this year, first in Southwark from May, before national rollout commences around Christmas time. Promising a theoretical maximum of 120Mbs, cellular video delivery will truly come alive. For TV news organisations and video journalists, 4G could mean that cellular systems, such as Bond, become mainstream delivery tools.