Behind Fox's Super Bowl Game Plan

Production team will utilize high-definition gear by the truckload
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As Fox's production team prepares for its broadcast of Super Bowl XLII on Feb. 3 from Glendale, Ariz., the biggest improvement it is expecting compared to its coverage of the NFC Championship game is the weather.

“It should be about 106 degrees warmer,” jokes Jerry Steinberg, senior VP of operations for Fox Sports, referring to the subzero temperatures that Fox faced at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis., on Jan. 20, when the New York Giants defeated the Green Bay Packers for the NFC title.

Otherwise, Fox is following much the same playbook it used for the NFC title game, including the same high-definition mobile production unit, Game Creek Video's FX HD, which it has relied on for “A-Game” coverage throughout the 2007 NFL season.

Fox will use more cameras for the Super Bowl—perhaps 30 compared to the 24 used in Green Bay—deploy roughly 80 microphones and add Game Creek's Patriot mobile unit to support the pre-game show. (Pat Sullivan, president of Hudson, N.H.-based Game Creek, was the football team's general manager from 1982-1990, but the name is unrelated.)

The network will use some new ultra-high-frame-rate cameras for replays. But basically it will keep the same graphics package it normally employs on Sundays and isn't planning any “trick” point-of-view cameras to offer new angles.

“We'll add a few more cameras and some more replay sources, and we'll add a truck for the red-carpet show,” says Steinberg, who has managed Fox's live sports operations since 1994, and plays down the awesome display of television gear the Super Bowl now routinely employs. “For the most part,” he says, “it's just longer days and more rehearsing.”

The Super Bowl venue, the University of Phoenix stadium in Glendale, is a familiar venue to Fox as the home of the NFL's Arizona Cardinals and the site of college football's Fiesta Bowl BCS game. The stadium, which opened in August 2006, is an easy site to work at from a mobile production standpoint, says Steinberg, as it is already cabled with the fiber-optic paths suitable for high-definition production.

HEATED BLANKETS FOR CAMERAS

In Green Bay, it was a far different story. Fox kept the cable it had to run off the ground to prevent it from freezing to the frozen tundra. The frigid conditions at Lambeau also prompted Fox to keep its cameras on through the weekend after the initial Friday setup. That prevented them from freezing. Fox took the extra step of wrapping the cameras in heated blankets.

Game Creek's Sullivan says his technicians came up with the idea of heated blankets for FX HD's Sony cameras, which have a minimum operating temperature of minus-4 degrees Fahrenheit. They had a right to be concerned: On Saturday morning, the temperature in Green Bay was -9.

“For a good chunk of the pre-production, it was well below zero,” says Sullivan, who, from his days with the Patriots, is no stranger to cold weather. “Luckily, it warmed up to a balmy negative 1 [degree] for the game.”

FX HD, the technical foundation of Fox's production, was designed and built to Fox's specifications by Game Creek and launched in August 2006 to support Fox's NFL and NASCAR coverage. Indeed, after the Super Bowl concludes in Arizona, FX HD—along with many of the same personnel—will head immediately to Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., for Fox's coverage of the Budweiser Shootout race on Feb. 9.

“Because this package is a 40-week deal for racing and football, the producers and technicians live in this for 40 weeks a year,” says Steinberg. “So we had tremendous input in the design in terms of ergonomics and where we want what.”

FX HD, which has also been used by Fox to produce last year's Major League Baseball All-Star Game and by ABC/ESPN for its coverage of the NBA finals, is not one truck. Instead, it consists of five discrete 53-foot mobile trailers (three “Expando” trucks that can widen out on the sides and two conventional trucks) that are interconnected with fiber-optic cables.

FAST AND EASY

“There is full fiber connectivity between the trucks, so the setup time is really fairly quick,” says Sullivan. “All the video, audio, monitoring, intercom and data [links] are carried truck to truck by eight strands of fiber, as opposed to doing it with coax, which would mean hooking up to 400 separate BNC connections between the trucks. That's the new technology we've brought to the party. That allows our guys, when we arrive in Phoenix on Friday to park the truck, to take 15 minutes to connect the trucks as opposed to three or four hours.”

The centerpiece of FX HD is the A-unit, a 53-foot Expando that handles engineering, video, replay and audio functions. Key gear includes a 512 x 1024 Pesa video router; 30 Fortel UDC-550 Up/Cross Converter/Framesync devices; Sony HDC-3300 super-slow-motion and HDC-1500 cameras with Canon lenses; EVS replay servers; Panasonic DVC Pro HD and D-5 HD tape decks; a Calrec Bluefin Alpha audio console with 96 faders; and a host of Dolby digital audio encoding and decoding gear.

The B-unit, another expanding truck, performs production, graphics and tape release functions. It includes a Thomson Grass Valley 90-input, 4 M/E (mix/effects) Kalypso switcher; a Chyron HD-Hyper X graphics system; a Grass Valley 40-input, 3 M/E Kayak HD switcher; and three massive monitoring walls.

The C-unit is a conventional truck that handles editing, maintenance and storage functions, and includes two Apple Final Cut Pro edit rooms. The FX HD D-unit is a straight truck for fiber transmission and audio functions and is outfitted with Otari fiber distribution equipment, a Calrec Sigma Audio Console with 64 faders and a Yamaha ML-7 audio console with 48 faders. The final piece of FX HD, the E-unit, is a 53-foot double Expando unit that serves as a mobile studio (it was dubbed the “Hollywood Hotel” for NASCAR coverage).

Game Creek's Patriot mobile unit, which is handling Fox's red-carpet pre-game show with host Ryan Seacrest, consists of a 53-foot HD Expando production unit and a 53-foot support unit. Key equipment includes a Grass Valley Kalypso switcher and GVeous digital video effects system; a mix of Fortel and Evertz frame synchronizers and upconversion gear; a Pesa 128 x 128 broadband router; an NVision 512 x 512 audio router; Sony HDC-1500 cameras with Canon lenses and Vinten tripods; EVS replay servers; Chyron Duet graphics systems; a Calrec Alpha audio board; and an RTS Adam intercom system.

MORE WIRELESS CAMERAS

While CBS kept wireless camera links to a minimum for its Super Bowl production last year because of interference concerns, Fox will use a bevy of wireless HD cameras for both the game coverage and the pre-game show. That's indicative of the progress made in recent years in adapting RF (radio frequency) transmission technology to the high bandwidth of HD signals.

Though maintaining successful RF links can sometimes be “80% technology and 20% voodoo,” according to Steinberg, he's now comfortable using the technology with portable HD cameras.

“That's another production tool we've gotten back that we didn't have in the beginning of the transition from SD to HD,” says Steinberg. “Now it's pretty standard.”

Wireless links are just one of the many pieces of HD production technology that have become commonplace as Fox wraps up its fourth season of producing the NFL in 720-line progressive high-definition.

“Because we do everything in HD, it's just TV,” says Steinberg. “It's no longer a science project—it's just doing TV with better sound and more pixels.”

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