Overall, the marriage of HD and sports has been a successful one, with the divorce of Monday Night Football
and HD being the exception. And, moving forward, the challenge is to have enough HDTV production trucks in the market to meet demand and, more important, to figure out how to produce an HD and NTSC broadcast from the same truck.
It's also a matter of sports networks' stepping up to the plate with HD programming. Next week, Action Sports Cable Network in Portland, Ore., will do just that.
Technology pioneer Paul Allen, who co-founded Microsoft and owns the Portland Trailblazers, is planning for the July 1 launch of ASCN, a high-definition cable- TV regional sports channel.
Harry Hutt, Portland Trailblazers chief operating officer, hopes the channel will help drive set sales.
Programming on the 24-hour, 365-day sports channel will include 25 to 30 Trailblazer games, Seahawks preseason games and Portland Fire WNBA games as well as coach shows. In addition to the anchor programming of Allen's professional sports franchises, ASCN will present coverage of Oregon and southwest Washington collegiate, high school and community athletics.
"We decided to prepare the henhouse and be the chicken that drives those eggs into the marketplace," Hutt says.
To make its regional HDTV productions a possibility, ASCN has converted an old Portland television station into a studio based on an all-digital 601 infrastructure. The studio features full HDTV production capabilities, including four Sony HD cameras and an edit suite built around a Sony DVE-9100 editor. Graphics and effects will be built into a Sony MVS-800 multi-effects switcher. Grass Valley Group will provide the HDTV-server technology.
On July 19, ASCN will take delivery of a 53-foot HDTV mobile production unit that is being integrated by Sony. It will have 12 HDTV cameras, 11 HD tape machines, a 144-input digital audio-mixing console with Dolby 5.1 surround sound, and the same Sony HD switcher being deployed in the studio. The monitor wall will feature 55-inch HD monitors and three 42-inch plasma displays with an additional 40 HD monitors for audio, tape and graphics personnel.
The first live broadcast from the truck will be a WNBA Portland Fire game on July 28.
"It's going to be the finest HDTV truck in the country," Hutt brags. "It's a $10 million vehicle."
The network also plans to make its production unit available to television producers as an HDTV mobile service provider under the name Action Sports and Entertainment Mobile Television, (ASEM). It is already talking to local broadcasters about co-producing HDTV programming.
ASCN is also building a separate satellite uplink truck with an Andrew 2.4-meter dish. In addition to the large mobile production unit, ASCN is building a small four-camera digital production van with three digital tape machines, digital switchers and an HD character generator.
"It's the ability to do the small things and the local features that will make our channel successful," Hutt says.
ASCN's biggest challenge right now is distribution. It is launching on local analog cable systems, so it will have to downconvert the programming for SDTV broadcast. Hutt says the network is in discussions with the major systems—AT&T and Charter Communications—to get coverage on digital cable systems as well.
TWO FOR ONE
An example of the type of production that might help bring more HD sports to the air was the CBS production of the 2001 Sony Open golf tournament from Honolulu in January. The event was broadcast in 1080i HDTV and analog NTSC via a dual feed from a single production truck. Previously, CBS Sports had done individual productions for 16:9 HDTV broadcast and 4:3 NTSC, with separate production trucks and crew, separate cameras and separate announce teams.
For the production, CBS used an All Mobile Video HD production truck equipped with Sony HDCAM equipment, including cameras, production switchers and VTRs. The production crew handled the signal from the Sony HDC-700 HDCAM cameras for the HDTV production and downconverted the signal live for the NTSC production.
"It's not necessarily a truck that goes both ways, but it worked," says CBS Senior Vice President of Operations and Production Ken Aagard. "We had to make a lot of production compromises. We were almost creating two feeds out of one switcher. When new switchers are developed, they will be able to do the effect from 16:9 feed at the same time it does the effect for the 4:3 feed."
Getting the production down to one truck will be an important move. "If we don't get to one truck, this whole thing is going to die," Aagard says. "We need one set of announcers, one truck, one production crew, or it's not going to fly."
CBS plans to use the one-truck concept when it broadcasts NCAA football in HDTV this fall, but it still has some kinks to work out.
"Until [several weeks ago], we were struggling with how to make the one-truck concept work for college football," Aagard says. "It's some business and some technology."
Ackerley Group Vice President of Engineering Kelley Alford believes that, once producers begin working in HDTV, the creative transition is an easy one. "It's about finding that middle ground and still getting that look for high definition and still meeting the needs for NTSC," he says.
For now, the biggest impediment to HDTV sports production remains a lack of HD-compatible production trucks and the costs involved with doing two individual productions for the same event.
"Manufacturers are working fast and furious to make all equipment with dual outputs," CBS' Aagard says. "When that happens, you will find more people building high-definition studios and trucks."
He says that, while all major manufacturers have begun offering dual-output cameras, production switchers are still not available although Sony and Grass Valley are expected to offer HD/SD-compatible switchers in the fourth quarter.
As for slow-motion effects, Aagard says, "A high-definition super slo-mo does not exist. You have to pick it up off standard definition and upconvert."