Pushing the boundaries of live production technology

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

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“By Rio 2014, viewers may be able to see the game through helmet-cams on Wayne Rooney’s head, or follow their favourite players with customised graphics and data. Whatever developments are on the way, the viewing experience is becoming more about the experiential and understanding what the players feel.”

Over the past twelve months, the relationship between content, technology and the consumer has fundamentally changed. Content is no longer pushed to consumers; it is pulled by them, as each individual searches for their own unique experience. Mark Grinyer, head of live production business development at Sony Professional Solutions Europe examines these trends.

We live in what is a now a permanently plugged-in, turned-on world with the consumer sitting at the heart of the entertainment experience. Never was this clearer than at the Olympics last year and at other large scale sporting events we tuned in to watch, like the UEFA Championships and Wimbledon. Each of these events were ground-breaking for the way in which the experience was delivered from the pitches, tennis courts and running tracks, to the viewers, wherever and however they chose to watch their coverage.

On the back of this, the broadcasting industry is now at a true inflection point. Over the course of the next twelve months, we’re set to see a huge change in the way live events – predominantly news reporting and sports event broadcasting – are filmed, produced and delivered to viewers.

We’re likely to see a significant increase in remote production as budgets continue to tighten and producers look for more cost-efficient ways to capture content. Perhaps as a result of this, hosted services are likely to grow in popularity and availability, while the content produced around live events will become richer and more diverse as the industry looks to satisfy demand in the ‘second screen’ era. And finally, new and emerging technologies, like 4K and 3D, will combine to hit the mainstream market, transforming the quality and immersive experience of live events and quality of exposure, preserving the content for years to come.

Flexible live broadcasting

For decades now, coverage of live sporting events has been managed by highly impressive production trucks, crammed full of the very latest technology to allow broadcasters to capture, edit and sometimes transmit content just yards from where the action is taking place. It’s the same with news reporting. As soon as a news story breaks, a truck is dispatched to the scene of the incident. However, a new trend is beginning to emerge that allows broadcasters to create additional content without extra OB trucks.

Remote broadcasting means some elements of post-production can be carried out in a remote location – whether that’s at another stadium or venue, or whether it’s back at base camp or a central HQ. Whole transmissions, or just snippets of content like pre-match interviews, can be filmed in one location, then edited, refined and transmitted from another. This content can then be used to complement the coverage produced by the main OB truck, thereby allowing broadcasters to increase the range and breadth of content, while ensuring quality, scale and efficiency.

For instance, coverage of Wimbledon can be increased to cover more courts, or a broadcaster can use remote broadcasting for niche or small-scale sports events where the content value and audience numbers are low – not just because they don’t need to send full camera equipment or a full crew, and they may also be able to avoid paying the expensive on-site licensing costs. This is increasingly attractive – especially at a time when budgets are under close scrutiny.

Another huge benefit of remote production is the impact it can have on news reporting. News outlets are under increasing pressure to report news as it breaks – not after it has done so. The traditional journalist must beat the man on the street, who will often have captured his own recording of the scene and uploaded it to Twitter or Facebook before the news channels have even arrived. Remote production means journalists can report live from the scene by simply plugging into a 3G or 4G network, without the need for a full production crew behind them, facilitating a shift towards instantaneous coverage.

The ability to remote parts of the production process provides broadcasters with more options and greater flexibility while making the overall delivery of live events more efficient.

Richer and more diverse content

The Olympics showed that consumers have an increasing appetite for great content at different times and through different media. They want to interact and participate in the experience and be engaged in new and exciting ways – especially as the trend for second screens grows when consumers don’t just want a repeat of the main broadcast; they want much more. Whether that’s the ability to select, on demand, certain moments of a game or news report, or whether they want that report augmented with data that allows them to understand more about what they are watching. They may also want to select the angle from which they are viewing the content.

Ultimately, they want enriched content and a more visceral experience. And this trend is only set to continue. By Rio 2014, viewers may be able to see the game through helmet-cams on Wayne Rooney’s head, or follow their favourite players with customised graphics and data. Whatever developments are on the way, the viewing experience is becoming more about the experiential and understanding what the players feel.

Delivering this experience poses production challenges. Often, the scale and complexity of the content requires purpose-built locations to produce and edit it. For example, much of the second-screen content produced around the Olympics was edited in remote production suites where the specialist skills and technology had been brought in. For Formula 1 or the PGA Golf Tour, content is so important that teams build mobile production villages that travel round the venues. For events like these, and indeed for sporting events of the future, broadcast trucks simply can’t handle demand.

Consequently, the next year, and indeed the road to Brazil, is likely to see a sharp rise in demand for hosted services to provide broadcasters with access to the skillsets and equipment designed to create, edit and deliver a greater variety of content.

Going mainstream

4K – or Ultra High Definition as it is also known – is probably a term you’re familiar with, but 2013 will be the year it really starts to take off. 4K, currently behind today’s top cinema experiences, will provide 32 times the resolution of HD. The quality of content recorded in 4K is simply stunning and allows both broadcasters and production communities to build a future-proof catalogue of high-end content straight away.

To us at Sony, 4K represents the future. In October 2012, Sony unveiled the latest development to this workflow, the PVM-X300. This professional 4K LCD monitor allows accurate monitoring in the field, enabling the technology to make greater inroads in the industry. At IBC2012 Sony and SES transmitted the first ever 4K live stream, completing another part of the 4K workflow jigsaw and demonstrating that 4K satellite transmission may arrive in the home sooner than predicted by the industry.

As 4K enters the mainstream market, the viewing experience will leap forward as 3D makes its mark. The technology has already become part of broadcasting transmissions around some of the more major sporting events – most notably entering the arena during the FIFA World Cup in 2010 – and promises to bring viewers closer to the action than ever before.

In fact, as with 4K, Sony has been at the heart of the 3D revolution. It’s technology covers the entire 3D workflow, comprising 3D vision mixers, cameras, monitors, the world’s first 3D OB truck and the MPE 200 processor box, offering a complete end-to-end 3D production chain. It is this status which is most crucial in discussions around producing high-quality 3D footage from a live sporting event. At the same time, its 3D processor box, the first of its kind, is designed to take much of the adjustments of lens alignment currently performed by the motorised rigs, into electronics. This can radically reduce 3D production costs since fewer convergence pullers would be needed and the complexity of monitoring and correcting live signals in the OB truck would be largely automated, with less need to hire top of the range mechanical rigs.

The combination of 3D and 4K is the next logical step for broadcasters, since both will enhance the overall consumer viewing experience and add value to the entertainment enjoyment.

Over the next year, the UK’s broadcasting industry is likely to really push the boundaries of live production, exploring what’s possible. The ability for consumers to watch live events as they want and from whatever angle they want, combined with the new resolutions, perspectives and platforms live production is delivered on, will provide a differentiated experience that is beyond the obvious, one that surpasses expectations and crucially keeps consumers coming back for more.

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