With ABC Sports set to broadcast the NBA Finals in HDTV in June, there's little doubt that broadcasters are serious about HD coverage of the basketball league. But today the NBA itself is showing how serious it is about HD: Its 24-hour TV network, NBA TV, will offer HD programming seven days a week via DirecTV and EchoStar.
Programming will include NBA games recorded in HDTV this past season as well as games going back as far as 1993, when Japanese broadcaster NHK began recording games in HDTV. The goal is to offer five hours a day of HD programming to satellite subscribers.
"We're actually seeing 1-inch HD tape," says Steve Hellmuth, NBA TV senior vice president of operations and technology, of the archive footage coming in from NHK.
The seven-day-a-week commitment builds on the league's HD playoff coverage. During the past three weeks, the NBA has produced six first-round playoff games in HD. That required four HDTV production vehicles: one from Core Digital in Phoenix, another from NMT (National Mobile Television) and two from All-Mobile Video.
"That's the reason we decided to do the games in HD," he says. "We wanted to show something new and show it done correctly."
More important, it can potentially increase viewership. Hellmuth says that blazing a trail in HD will naturally attract more viewers because sports content benefits greatly from HDTV's aspect ratio and resolution. The games were broadcast on an HD channel and, in a downconverted feed, on NBA TV's television network as part of a free preview to viewers on DirecTV, EchoStar and selected cable systems. All told, 25 million cable households were able to view the NBA channel, which helped the league fulfill its mission of making every game available to viewers.
One unique aspect of the productions was the decision to letterbox the games on the standard-definition channel rather than protect for 4:3 or shoot a separate 4:3 production.
"We think letterbox is a better viewing experience," says Hellmuth. "People watch The Sopranos
and a number of other programs in letterbox, and we think it works just fine. The reaction has been entirely positive."
The single production, he says, allowed the advantages of HDTV to be more readily visible to the viewer. "You don't really do extreme close-ups. You do wider shots that allow the viewer's eye to rove across the screen and look at what they want to look at." In shooting for NTSC telecasts, he points out, so little information can be included that it's necessary for the director to bring the viewers focus into a single spot constantly.
"Widescreen coverage is not so much about panning," he adds, "but just having the cameras in the right place."
NBA TV used eight cameras to shoot each game: two "up" cameras for typical game action, two handhelds, two low "slash" cameras located along the baseline and two robocams. The cameras were a mix of Sony and Thomson Grass Valley cameras.
"We haven't seen any big differences from one camera to the next," he says. "The pictures have been fine."
Surround sound was also part of the experience, with a 5.1 mix putting the announcers' voices slightly to the front left and right and crowd sound heard from the surrounds. The squeak of sneakers on the court would track from right to left and left to right with the action. "It's great to hear the crowd swell behind you," says Hellmuth.
Although doing the production in HD was more expensive, Hellmuth says, it wasn't significantly more expensive. "The real expense will come when we want to re-engineer the master-control facility at NAB TV's facility in Secaucus, N.J., for HDTV. Right now, we're releasing the commercials off of the truck so there are no HD-infrastructure issues. But we are planning on a full-time NBA HD channel that will require HD master control and a conversion of studio operations to HD."