Heading home at the 2015 NAB

As the Ides of March has passed and the month of April is here, the NAB or National Association of Broadcasters annual trade show (April 11-16, 2015) is nearly upon us. While April might mean the end of March Madness, Opening Day in Baseball and the Masters to some, for those working behind the scenes to bring those great sports properties to life in your living room, springtime brings on the NAB. What the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is to flat screens, gismos and gadgets, NAB is to Broadcasting. And, trust me, nothing from the NAB world “Stays in Vegas.”

When I say world, it’s not an exaggeration, somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 people descend on the Las Vegas Convention Center annually for an experience that is truly the “Olympics” in terms of global participation for the business of broadcasting and new technologies (www.nabshow.com). There are a number of benefits to making the journey.

Satellite TV tech was once the cutting edge of sports broadcasting  PHOTO CREDIT: ANEESE/ANEESE

First and more importantly than discovering the latest and greatest in new technology, the NAB’s most alluring aspect is the networking. Throughout the conference, you’ll find the key people – the decision makers and leaders – from all aspects of the industry. Secondly, the NAB provides you with a wealth of information to stay abreast of the trending media technologies and products. Every major vendor and manufacturer is well represented at the NAB and displaying their latest and greatest product lines. In fact, most of the products they’re showing are in the early stages of development and distribution, so you’ll surely get a glimpse into the future.

As with most sports conferences and seminars, there’s a never-ending parade of breakout sessions, keynote speeches and training sessions to fill your full day agenda. The third and final reason to attend is a bonus. If you’re actually in the position to be making any big purchases in the coming year and want to do your homework, it’s all in one place at one time with sales and marketing people from hundreds of companies ready to answer your questions. The sales people have a great service mentality so if you’re working for a major TV network or a smaller start-up, or campus digital operation, you’ll be provided with extremely buttoned-down service everywhere at NAB.

I always found that much of what’s being displayed by the major manufactures is technology that’s not quite ready for prime time, but some three or four years away from being the next “overnight” sensation. There’s not one piece of new media technology for big time content creators or consumers that didn’t go through this evolution.

One other attraction to look forward to is the fact that each year, there’s an overriding theme to the NAB show. It could be the latest in remote satellite trucks, digital production technologies, editing systems, cameras, audio gear, big screen displays, control room equipment, interactive digital displays, internet streaming protocols and the list goes on and on. If you want to play the futures, this is where to go long.

A good example? When we launched NBA TV in 1999, digital media production technology from end to end was the pressing issue. The capturing of footage (ingest), logging, retrieval or viewing of clips, editing, and distribution, was all in its infancy. In 1999, the concept of creating an accessible digital video archive with the ability to retrieve the clips remotely and then edit from the same files was simply unheard of. Our dilemma was that NBA Entertainment (NBAE) owned over 300,000 tapes and cans of film in storage, and many of the older video tapes were decaying.  They all had to be transferred and catalogued or be lost forever. Part of the big picture challenge was addressing the “small” issue of also having to ingest some 1,500 new games per year, along with footage from NBAE’s own in-house field production units. By the way, taking in a game meant the chronicling and logging of the main camera game feed a viewer sees on TV, along with the low angle isolation tapes recorded from cameras positioned under each basket.  For each NBA game played, an average 7+ hours of game footage had to be ingested and logged. In theory, catching up was a huge part of the challenge, but when I look back, we were operating in the stone ages of digital technology.

Grant Hill and Kristen Ledlow, hosts of NBA TV’s Inside Stuff   PHOTO CREDIT: BOB DONNAN-USA TODAY SPORTS

Thankfully, we were headed in the right direction as technology accelerated during our first decade broadcasting NBA TV, and by 2010, this type of digital production and workflow was the accepted practice, and the costs had come way down. Of course if you look at it today, it’s the only way to create a production facility. But back in ’99, when faced with the daunting task of “saving the visual history of the NBA,” we made the decision to be on the bleeding edge and had yet another goal in mind and that was to put the content to work for the league and its teams. We were mindful that the NBA was reaching growing audiences around the world on the league’s new digital and cable network, originally called NBA.comTV, and our infrastructure, although in its early stages, would be growing as the league’s global popularity and digital business outreach was bound to expand.

On the distribution side, as anyone over the age of 14 will remember, the original online video offerings were slow, had that annoying buffering effect as there was just not enough bandwidth to support video. The pictures were small and certainly not anywhere near HD quality. I can’t tell you how many times I heard, “video will never be mainstream and viable on the internet.” So, evolving on a parallel path to the digital production of content, was the commercial and residential technology for distribution, with devices to watch them by the average consumer.  The “overnight” sensation of watching video on the web took more than 10 years to develop but many players in the industry, especially those in traditional print (newspapers/magazines) have been left in the dust – unless they were early adapters.

That background is important, here, because in the coming years, the means of reaching people at home are going to change dramatically due to this continually evolving technology. We’re already seeing trends slowly moving away from the cable model to an “over the top” methodology, with providers like Netflix, Roku, Playstation, Apple, offering all digital –  so-called “cut the cord” – TV services and the need to feed that frenzy with high quality production has never been greater.

To meet this demand for new content, the next “overnight” sensation is the “at home” production model for on-site game and event production. The concept has been around for over 15 years, but now at the stage where it’s truly viable for most broadcasters. In a few more years, this technology will change the way remote productions are done, just as digital technology forever changed the way footage is curated and distributed.

The concept is simple. Instead of having a production truck at the venue, complete with costs averaging $30,000 (without factoring in the production crew), the broadcaster uses their home studio control room to serve the same purpose. Individual camera feeds are brought back to the switcher at home base, along with the announcer’s audio and the natural sound from the venue. On site, you would have the announce-team, cameramen (which also could change based on robotics), and engineers to route the feeds back to the production studio. All the cameras are switched at home base, while audio is mixed, graphics added and the final signal transmitted from the home studio to its final destination. (cable MSO’s, satellite companies, digital outlets, etc.). In addition to saving on the remote production unit, the content creators and rights holders can save by not needing a satellite uplink truck on site, as proper broadband or fiber-optics are all that’s required to send the signal from the venue back to the home studio.

What makes this all possible is the ability to send each camera feed and audio through a digital IP (Internet Protocol) stream, so basically sending it back on-line. Technology has now evolved for dependable private IP feeds, with enough bandwidth to satisfy HD requirements. The costs of converters and the streams themselves amortized over a series of games or events can average less than one satellite feed.

Where this circles back to the earlier part of this story, is the fact that this simple concept has been developing for years, however, the problem has been, the resolution and dependability of the IP feeds have not been secure enough for broadcasters to move away from the more traditional and proven satellite feed. For the next few years, the major networks are not likely to take the leap for their highest profile events. The danger? Even with back up steams, if you lose the IP connection, your broadcast will go down. That stated, some major players are starting to dip their toes in the water, and as soon as the reliability becomes similar to satellite technology, which I’m convinced it will over the next five years, the use of IP feed tech will quickly spread to the higher profile sporting and news events.

Broadcasters worked tirelessly on the infrastructure of the Sochi Olympic Games  PHOTO CREDIT: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

In fact, the Olympic Games were a major testing ground, just last year, as many of the events from smaller venues were produced this way by NBC. Up in Canada, the CBC almost exclusively produced their broadcast using this method, and some of the new college networks such as the PAC12 and Big10 have been using this technology to produce content from their member school venues and steam it back to their home bases.  The latest high profile broadcaster to step into this digital pool was Univision producing MLS Soccer, so, it’s going to spread, and it is just a matter of time.

(Cut and paste this link to your browser to find out more about the Univision experiment): http://www.sportsbusinessdaily.com/Journal/Issues/2015/03/16/Media/Sports-Media.aspx

The reasons? As the technology continues to improve and the need to produce more events at reduced costs continues to increase, this evolution is inevitable. Let’s do some very simple math, if you save $30K on the remote truck itself and then another $5K on the satellite truck, $3 or 4K for satellite time, then throw in all the travel costs for on-site crew that’s now working from home (or might be on full-time staff) you’re talking about significant savings.

This year could be a turning point with smaller content providers and networks, on-line/mobile broadcasters and local stations getting into the game and becoming the trailblazers, so-to-say, with the major networks picking their spots to utilize the tech at a slower pace. One immediate impact for consumers will be a widespread availability of niche sports at the professional, college and high school levels, along with non-sporting events, such as concerts, speeches, political rallies and anyone with a charitable cause, trying to reach a mass audience.

At NBA TV, we used this same philosophy back in 1999 to customize the production of games. It was only satellites back then, so we brought-in a clean satellite feed, (clean meaning no graphics or commercials) and inserted our own graphics and commercials from our home control room in Secaucus, NJ. As far as I know, we were the first major sports distributor using an early “at home” model to create more cost effective programming.

There might be many inside and outside the industry that will say this concept of “at-home” broadcasting will never fully take hold, but then again, that’s what they said about digital production technology, HD, and streaming of full-length games and highlight packages via online video.

Ken Adelson is an Emmy-award winning network sports broadcasting executive, innovator, executive producer and nationally recognized keynote speaker with over 25 years of television and digital media leadership. He was SVP of Production and Operations at NBA Entertainment, with the NBA for over 18 years, and SVP/Executive Producer for the Oklahoma City Thunder. He began his career in front of the camera, as a critically acclaimed sports anchor and reporter at top-40 network affiliated television stations.

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