Technology

Tech Special: NBCs Super Bowl Comeback

Network plays things simple for its first Super Sunday in more than a decade 1/24/2009 02:00:00 AM Eastern

Tech Special: Sony Joins Lineup at New Yankee Stadium 

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner isn't the only big comeback story for Super Bowl XLIII. True, the former NFL and Super Bowl Most Valuable Player for the St. Louis Rams is returning to the big game after spending much of the past five seasons as a backup. But the game, to be played Feb. 1 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., also marks a return to the big stage for NBC, which last broadcast the NFL championship contest in 1998.

The Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers may hold a few surprises for each other in their Super Bowl game plans. But NBC's production team won't deviate from the successful formula it has used to broadcast Sunday Night Football for the past three seasons. Though it will be using more cameras and a bigger supporting mobile production setup than for a regular-season game, NBC doesn't plan to unveil any new gimmicks for the broadcast.

“It's our Sunday Night Football production with enhancements,” says Tim DeKime, director of football operations for NBC. “Our pre-game show is quite a few hours long; we've got different sets and different things going on there. But basically, it's Sunday Night Football with additional cameras.”

The biggest change Sunday Night viewers will see is a slightly refined graphic look, says Super Bowl producer Fred Gaudelli, as NBC will have individual player stats briefly pop onscreen to replace the “score bug” in an effort to reduce on-screen clutter. Overall, NBC will focus on the drama of the matchup, which pits Arizona's high-flying offense against Pittsburgh's top-rated defense, over technical wizardry.

Besides Warner's comeback, Super Bowl XLIII will see two former Pittsburgh assistant coaches, Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt and offensive line coach Russ Grimm, face their former team. It will feature Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the youngest quarterback to ever win a Super Bowl, gunning for his second title. And the game will also present a national stage for Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald, whose dominant performance through the playoffs was largely responsible for the team's improbable Super Bowl run.

“You have some tremendous storylines,” Gaudelli says.

So NBC will focus in the early going on introducing casual fans to Fitzgerald, whom Gaudelli says “may be the best offensive player in the NFL, who people are just beginning to find out about.” It will also have an extra cart-based camera on each sideline to capture shots of opposing coaches Whisenhunt and the Steelers' Mike Tomlin.

Super-Sizing Sunday Night

While it's built on the foundation of a typical Sunday Night Football production, NBC's total operation in Tampa will still be massive. In all, there will 14 mobile units, 14 office trailers, nine support trucks, three uplinks and five twin-unit generators. The network's technical crew will number 200, and the total on-site production and engineering personnel in Tampa will be around 400.

Ken Goss, VP of technical operations for NBC Sports, notes that the Super Bowl is small compared to NBC's production of the Beijing Olympics last summer but that the planning and coordination required is similar. “It's the same focus to detail, and dealing with the scope and size of a combined group of between 50 and 60 cameras,” Goss says. “You're going around in a single truck week to week; now you're marrying three mobile units to function together as one.”

Technical staff arrived early last week to start pulling some 50 miles of fiber-optic cable, which NBC will use to transmit feeds from its hi-def cameras instead of relying on the lower-bandwidth triax cable that currently runs through Raymond James Stadium.

NBC will use some 35 cameras to cover the game, and some 55 in total including cameras for the Super Bowl pre-game show. The Sony HD cameras, which will exclusively use Canon HD lenses, will be supported by multiple high-definition mobile production trucks from Pittsburgh-based NEP Supershooters. The three-unit ND3 truck, which NBC regularly uses for Sunday Night Football, will be supplemented by NEP's two-unit ND4 truck, creating one massive mobile production center.

Specialty cameras for the Super Bowl include robotic units on the goalposts and in the hallways outside each team's locker room, dedicated goal-line cameras, overhead Cable Cams, and X-Mo ultra-high-frame-rate cameras from Inertia Unlimited that will be used to deliver incredibly detailed slow-motion replays.

The X-Mo cameras will give frame-by-frame views of both the goal line—to gauge whether a touchdown has been scored—and the sideline, to see exactly where a player stepped out of bounds. The importance of detailed slow-motion replays has been highlighted by several close calls in recent NFL games, including a controversial touchdown call in a regular-season matchup between Pittsburgh and the Baltimore Ravens.

“Any camera we add is added for this intention solely—can it provide a defining look at a critical play?” Gaudelli says. “That's how Drew [Esocoff, the Super Bowl director] and I go about putting the Super Bowl together. You just want to have the best looks at the biggest plays, and have all the questions answered.”

NEP is also supplying the mobile unit for NBC's pre-game show, SS24, as well as its Denali Silver truck to the NFL for the Super Bowl halftime show featuring Bruce Springsteen. The SS24 truck will support NBC's pre-game sets in three locations: within the 103-foot replica pirate ship inside the stadium, in the NFL Experience area next to the stadium, and in the tailgate area. NBC's Today show will also use SS24 when it broadcasts from Tampa on Sunday morning.

SS24 features one of the largest control rooms available in a mobile unit, with 138 color monitors in the wall. Key gear includes a Sony MVS-8000A switcher with internal DVE, an Abekas HD Dveous, Sony HDC-900/950 cameras, a Calrec Alpha audio board, and a large tape room with multiple Sony HDCAM decks and EVS replay units.

NBC will use Avid nonlinear editing systems to produce packages for the pre-game show, and Apple Final Cut Pro units to handle in-game editing. Graphics will be generated by Chyron HyperX systems, which NBC successfully employed during last summer's Beijing Olympics coverage.

The network is tweaking the use of its score bug, which shows both the score and the game clock, to make the overall graphic look less intrusive on the TV screen. Instead of showing individual player stats on-screen at the same time as the score bug, NBC will have the score bug morph into a different graphic, with the score and time momentarily disappearing from the screen.

“For example, we'll pop Kurt Warner's stats right from the score bug, and they'll be up for four seconds,” Gaudelli says. “It takes up less space, and there will be fewer things to look at; it's more streamlined.”

To ensure that the NEP trucks and the rest of NBC's compound enjoy adequate power throughout Super Sunday, NEP is bringing in several Greco 450 kilowatt dual-redundant generators. NBC may rely on the stadium's house power for the pirate ship set, but will back that up with a generator as well.

“NBC's total goal is if the whole house goes dark, we still want to be on the air,” says John Roche, senior technical manager for NEP Broadcasting.

NBC will backhaul feeds using a mix of Level 3 Communications' Vyvx fiber and SES Americom satellite links. Level 3's Vyvx unit has backhauled Super Bowl traffic for 20 years and will handle 27 feeds out of Tampa, including a backhaul to NFL Films in New Jersey. Level 3 will have 10 staffers on-site along with an additional mobile switching facility, and its network operations center in Tulsa, Okla., will be even more heavily staffed than usual for a weekend, with more than 50 personnel monitoring the video traffic.

“It's a big event for us,” says Level 3 senior VP Mark Taylor. “We do thousands of feeds a month, but this one's very visible.”

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