When the Fox network seemingly invested its future as a network in its rights package for National Football League games seven years ago, it was part of an effort to be taken seriously. And football fans waited to see just how Fox would change the way television covered football.
Seven years later sports coverage of the NFL on television has changed for what many believe is the better, and Fox was a major driving force, particularly on the audio side. Fox, in turn, brought technological innovation to the coverage of baseball, hockey and nearly every other sport it has touched.
So when industry gearheads heard Fox was going to broadcast NASCAR races, all eyes readied to turn to Florida to see what innovation the network would bring to the NASCAR's top event, the Daytona 500.
Jeff Court, vice president of Fox network field operations, concedes that it was an extra challenge to start the season with the racing equivalent of the Super Bowl, but as the Fox Sports team gets ready to head into its third week of NASCAR coverage, he's happy with the way things went from a technical standpoint.
"We were thrilled," he says. "There was a lot of hardware to put in in three or four days, but it all worked flawlessly."
The death of racing legend Dale Earnhardt in the final turn of the Daytona 500 cast a long shadow over the entire sport, and there's no doubt that greater attention will be given to car racing and the telecasts in coming weeks. During the next 16 weeks Fox Sports will broadcast NASCAR Winston Cup and Busch races, as well as some other events.
Key to the technical side will be three main trucks-one for race production, one for graphics and a custom truck. A new 48-foot truck that includes a set will also be part of the equation, as well as three trucks from BST (which will handle the in-car cameras) and a Sportvision truck that will offer the still-in-development "FoxTrax" graphic feature.
The graphics unit is home to a mountain of equipment, including an SGI Onyx workstation (tied to another in Los Angeles via a T1 line) to handle Discreet Frost graphics equipment and two Chyron Infinits.
The "A" production unit was the same one Fox uses for NFL telecasts, while the "C" unit has an Avid nonlinear editing unit, a sub-audio production system and areas to handle effects mixing, RF needs and the mix of racer communications radios. It also has a fiber interface area.
"The C unit is a custom one-off that has a fiber interface in the stern area," says Court. "The size of these venues is just enormous compared to what we're used to, and fiber has become a fairly significant part of it." Fiber interconnects include a number of Telecast Fiber Cobra units connecting cameras, and Adders and Vipers for audio, video and data needs.
The 48-foot studio truck is the newest truck-family member, with Court explaining that Fox went for a self-contained unit partially because of the noise but also to have a way to avert weather problems. Located in the race infields, the truck will provide a place to interview racers and others during delays.
When it comes to innovation, the area where Fox Sports productions has excelled (in addition to the occasional glowing puck) has been in audio.
"We get the resources upfront, in both time and dollars, to experiment with audio," says Court. "We did it with hockey and football, and this year we changed our football mikes for the first time in seven years and we noticed some tremendous improvements."
NASCAR, however, is a slightly different beast. "I was down in the pits with Andy Setos [News Corp. executive vice president, news technology group] for a while and all 40 cars would come by and you could just feel the sound and power, and we were 150 feet away," recalls Court. Needless to say, having men holding parabolic dishes on the side of the track becomes a tricky proposition.
During the broadcast the audio came front and center during what Fox Sports called "Crank It Up," with commentators letting the surround-sound audio do the talking. "It was really a let-it-happen situation," says Court. "Typically you pull back effects at a race for your announcers so you can hear them. During those segments the director would go to a series of robotic cameras on the wall, which would take the cars around low. That is pretty much the look you'll get if you stand against the wall when the cars are running."
The concern going into the NASCAR races was that the sound delivered to the home viewer would be whiny and thin, but the mike selection prevented that. "We could even hear the air drills in the pits when they did tire exchanges," adds Court. "I was very pleased with the texture and general quality and the way it was mixed." Mixing of the sound effects took place in the C unit ("where it rained audio boards") on a 48-input Calrec audio board.
Fox hinted at another innovation that will make its official premiere during a to-be-determined race in the future: FoxTrax. From Sportvision (the company responsible for the glowing puck and the virtual "First and Ten" marker), FoxTrax places the name of a driver in a box at the top of the screen that has a pointer (it looks similar to a cartoon dialogue box) pointing to the driver's car. The goal is to give the viewer, who may not know a given driver's car by number, a better sense of who is where.
"It worked, and it was stable," says Court. "And from a purely technical perspective it's an amazing technology that we think is going to add some things to our broadcast."