Fox will broadcast the Major League Baseball All-Star Game from San Francisco this week using the same type of high-definition production truck it typically uses for major sports coverage. But the network, in conjunction with MLB, is taking a bold new approach to producing a pre-game Webcast.
The live Webcast of batting practice before the All-Star contest, which will run at 5 p.m. ET Tuesday on both Foxsports.com and MLB.com, will be produced with NewTek's TriCaster, a device designed to provide much of the functionality of a live truck in a portable package. If successful, the production techniques used for the All-Star Webcast might serve as Fox's model for creating more online sports coverage in the future.
“This has been a new thing for us,” says Clark Pierce, VP of emerging technology for Fox Sports. “We've been looking for ways to bring more video content to Foxsports.com.”
The TriCaster, which has already been used successfully by Fox News Channel, ESPN, MTV and CSTV to produce live Web streams, can accept both camera feeds and graphics as inputs, store and play back video clips, mix audio, switch between the various inputs, and provide a compressed output suitable for Internet distribution. Models range from the base TriCaster, at $4,995, to the new TriCaster Studio that Fox will use, which has more features and costs $9,995.
Pierce began searching for a live- streaming solution about a month ago, when Fox and Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM) executives met to discuss an online co-production surrounding the All-Star Game that would include both Fox Sports and MLB talent. A colleague at Fox News Channel turned him on to the TriCaster, and he contacted NewTek to get hold of a demonstration unit.
“Once I hooked some cameras up to it and saw what it could do, I knew it was the answer,” says Pierce.
The TriCaster will encode the video (using VC-1 advanced compression) before it is sent to content-delivery network Akamai, which will handle live-streaming distribution through Foxsports.com. The video is being compressed at a rate of about 570 kilobits per second (Kbps) for 25-frame-per-second video, which Pierce says “looks pretty good” on a small computer screen.
While San Antonio-based NewTek bills the TriCaster as a “truck in a box,” Fox will actually put the box in a truck—its main HD production truck, that is—for the All-Star Webcast. The network will also take video inputs from a Grass Valley Kayak production switcher instead of using the TriCaster's built-in switching capabilities. That's partly because Fox wanted to do a higher level of audio mixing than the TriCaster is capable of, says Pierce, and partly because there was trepidation from senior management about entrusting so many aspects of a high-profile production to a device that can fit in a backpack.
“We'll get the feed from the Kayak, then lay in the graphics from the TriCaster and roll pieces from the TriCaster,” says Pierce. “I wanted to do the whole thing in the TriCaster, but the guys north of me were understandably nervous.”
All-Star teams representing the National and American Leagues each get 45 minutes of pre-game batting practice, which Fox and MLB will cover with a total of six cameras. Three are high-definition hard cameras mounted at standard game positions; the other three are mini cameras that will focus on hosts Chris Rose of Fox Sports and Harold Reynolds of MLB.com and on on-field reporters stationed around the batting cage. Dave Bernstein, a seasoned technical director, will operate the TriCaster.
“It's going to be a show; it's not going to just be point-of-view cameras and a live stream,” says Pierce, who can foresee the TriCaster's being used to augment coverage of other sports, such as college football's Bowl Championship Series (BCS) games, with a streaming component that features different camera angles. Fox did the first live stream of a BCS game during last year's Cotton Bowl.
One programmer that has already used the TriCaster on an ongoing basis is MTV, which used it last season to create a weekly live 15-minute “after-show” for popular reality soap The Hills. The after-show traveled to a different part of the country each week and staged informal discussions about the latest episode at fans' houses. The living-room chats were streamed live over the Web.
MTV used a TriCaster Pro to grab feeds from three cameras and five lavalier microphones—a very cost-effective alternative to hiring a mobile uplink truck or using a satellite flypack, says MTV VP of Production Planning Jeff Jacobs. The device could be set up on a small table and plugged into an existing broadband pipe (300 Kbps upstream or higher), such as a cable modem.
“The TriCaster encodes in the box; that's the whole secret,” says Jacobs. “When you're on the run, in someone's house, you can literally plug into a T1 line or a cable modem and stream live.”
NewTek is betting that the TriCaster's price point and convenience will be a good match for broadcasters looking to upgrade their online offerings.
“With the TriCaster being so easy to use, portable and relatively inexpensive, it allows them to do more live content for the Web, and it allows them to do exclusive content,” says Philip Nelson, senior VP of strategic business development for NewTek. “And you don't have to worry about finding a place to put a truck and level it.”