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As more broadcasters look to take advantage of IP infrastructures and fiber optic connectivity to streamline operations, the Pac-12 Networks offer a notable case study in how those networks and technologies can cut costs and improve the quality of live sports production.
Why This Matters
In the run-up to its launch of seven regional sports networks last year, the Pac-12 (made up of a dozen major West Coast universities) faced the daunting task of finding a cost-effective way to produce more than 750 live events this year and an expected 850 in 2014. “There were football and basketball venues that had been used for TV for many years,” says Leon Schweir, Pac- 12 Networks senior VP of production. “But we knew we would also be televising 18 to 22 new sports from venues that had never or rarely been used for TV.”
Solving that problem by simply deploying more mobile trucks and expanding satellite time would have been hugely expensive and not necessarily even practical. “On some weekends, we have 10 soccer games and 10 women’s volleyball games,” Schweir says. “Where are you going to find announcers and crews who are really good at covering those sports?”
To meet the challenge, they set up a fiber network relying heavily on Cisco technologies. It connects all the colleges with Pac-12’s operations hub in San Francisco (which includes studios and a control room) and the In Demand and Comcast Media Center facilities in Denver (which holds master control, disaster recovery, satellite services and other operations for the seven sports nets).
The fiber network allowed them to send live camera feeds back to San Francisco, where producers and announcers have covered about 40 games remotely during Pac-12 Networks’ first year.
Fiber’s Next Big Play
Schweir says they are only beginning to tap into the potential of the network. Starting this month, they are exponentially increasing their remote productions to about 250 games per year.
They are also becoming more flexible in the way they use the network; some games are done remotely, while others can be produced either on-site or involving crews and announcing teams from both the stadium and the San Francisco studios. “It gives us the capability of doing events in a variety of modes,” Schweir says.
Over time, he believes, this should not only save money but also improve the quality of the production. By centralizing more production in one place, Pac-12 can make better use of specialized talent, such as announcers who are experts in specific sports or crew members who have particular skills. “If you have someone who is very good at taking the various angles of play and adding 360 graphic arrows to show what is going on, why send them to a site where they can do only one game?” he says. “Why not have them stay in San Francisco where they can access the content remotely and do two or three games [per] day?”
As part of those efforts to use the fiber network to improve the quality of their coverage, Pac-12 this month began using what it is calling its “EVS clip system” in football coverage. This allows editors and producers in San Francisco to look directly into “the EVS [replay] system, see whatever files have been saved on-site [at the stadium] and automatically pull them back to San Francisco,” Schweir says. Producers can then incorporate the files into studio shows, or the crew can add graphics and send the material back to the truck to be inserted into the broadcast feed.
Pac-12 is also expanding its use of stripped-down, smaller mobile trucks that are designed to send live camera feeds back to San Francisco. These multicam trucks provide a better quality production than a flypack, while greatly reducing crew size and costs.
Looking ahead, the Pac-12 is working on ways to use the IP network to offer data feeds. Students at various venues could log in play-by-play coverage of events that are not being televised to create data feeds for on-screen crawls or digital platforms.
How quickly other regional sports network operations will adopt some of these techniques is open to question, given the fact that not every sports net has access to the fiber optic networks connecting the Pac-12’s major universities. But Major League Baseball and some other leagues are already using fiber networks to remotely handle camera feeds from stadiums. “I think it is a model that others might want to take a look at down the road,” Schweir says.