Last night's Super Bowl XXXVI DTV telecast by Fox Sports may be a harbinger of major sporting events to come for the network. The approach it used to simulcast both a 4:3 standard-definition and a 16:9 480 DTV broadcast can be used for nearly any other event produced with a digital production truck.
"We're looking at it for national games and major events," says Vice President of Field Operations Jeff Court. "Those are decisions the corporation will make, but we definitely feel we have two crews that will have experience across the board. Next year, any digital truck is perfectly capable of delivering this very high-quality feed. As we get more experience, it becomes a little more straightforward."
Fox Sports had about 175 people in New Orleans for the Super Bowl, which was produced in three NEP Supershooter trucks. Twenty-two Philips and Sony cameras with Canon lenses captured the action, passing it along to 18 tape-based replay machines and a variety of digital disk recorders, including Grass Valley Group Profiles and Fast Forward Omega drives in two-, four- and six-channel configurations.
Work on the technique began in the playoffs to make production personnel comfortable with the process of acquiring in 16:9 aspect ratio and protecting for 4:3. According to Court, the network generated a native 16:9 feed, which was sent to Los Angeles, where aspect-ratio converters were used to derive the 4:3 picture. The DTV signal was then sent out to 27 Fox O&Os and affiliated stations for broadcast to more than 50% of the country.
The benefits to the network of the DTV approach were two-fold. First, it cost about half what two separate productions would have cost. Second, production values and techniques didn't have to be changed to fit HDTV equipment that is still not as flexible as standard-definition DTV gear.
"It's analogous to a simulcast so that, ultimately, we'd be able to do our major events in both formats," says Court. "It will ultimately end up in the home as 480p at 60 frames per second and also end up as very-good-quality 4:3 standard definition that everyone can enjoy."
A variety of aspect-ratio converters handled the Fox feed as well as the international feed, which was done in 4:3. Converters from Videotek, Grass Valley, Snell & Wilcox, and Axiom were used.
Fox Sports also used MPEG encoding to keep the signal in a digital format throughout the production. Court says that, even when digital trucks were used in the past, there would be an area for digital-to-analog conversion so that the feed could be sent via the analog portion of fiber lines.
"There were several digital-to-analog translations, which we've eliminated," he says. "And we've gotten comments from people that there's a lot of resolution because, by staying digital, we minimize the amount of interference artifacts generated."
The challenge that has been worked on over the past few weeks is how to incorporate legacy material and mix it together with material created on new equipment.