Home games are produced in native 4K HDR
NESN has a long history of technological firsts. It was the first RSN to broadcast all of its MLB and NHL games in HD, in 2006; the first to fully automate studio production, in 2015; and, this year, the first to launch a direct-to-consumer streaming service. However, New England-based RSN’s biggest technological leap to date may be its decision to produce all Boston Red Sox home games in native 4K HDR throughout this season – facing a challenge that no RSN based in the United States has never faced.
“We are proud to be able to provide our production teams with a platform to continue promoting the innovative mindset that NESN has always had,” said NESN Executive Producer Howard Zalkowitz. “What’s amazing to me is that we were able to do this while we were still in a pandemic, which challenged our production team and our partners like never before in the past two years. For all of us, coming together on this project has been nothing short of amazing.
Native 4K HDR Challenge: NESN Facility Upgrade, Crew Training
NESN has taken the bold step of creating a native 4K-HDR production and distribution ecosystem, rather than converting its existing HD broadcast stream to 4K HDR. All Red Sox games this season at Fenway Park have been produced in 4K HDR, and NESN plans to do the same in the fall for the Bruins at TD Garden.
To achieve this, NESN has teamed up with two of its long-time partners: remote facility provider Game Creek Video and production-work service provider Program Production Inc. (PPI). Game Creek upgraded the NESN 94 mobile unit to be 4K HDR capable, and PPI provided the trained 4K HDR technicians who work every Red Sox home game in the truck.
“This is a true partnership between NESN, Game Creek and PPI,” says Zalkowitz. “We absolutely work together. It’s a perfect combination of Game Creek’s engineering expertise, the skill level of our PPI technicians, and the approach of our NESN production team. It’s an absolute collective effort to execute this every game, and one piece wouldn’t work without the other.
Game Creek upgraded its Riverhawk Truck to 4K HDR for MLB Network in 2016 and took a similar approach to bringing 94 (its name refers to Ted Williams’ 9 and Bobby Orr’s 4) up to 4K HDR levels.
“94 is a sister to Riverhawk,” notes Jason Taubman, SVP, Technology, Game Creek Video. “We basically took the design pattern and applied it to 94, and we were on our way.”
Game Creek brought Sony HDC-4300 cameras and HDC-P50 robots to capture in native 4K HDR. Additionally, it upgraded all monitoring and quality control to HDR, added Cobalt Digital up/down/cross-converters for parts of the production that would remain in HD (including playback and graphics), and extended the existing Evertz SDI router from 94 to accommodate quad -3G configuration needed for 4K.
“In ’94 there was some router real estate that wasn’t being used [in HD]says Taubman. “We were able to put this into operation to accommodate 4K operation. Obviously a lot of [our customers] opted for an IP router for 4K, but, in this case, 94 [existing router] already had the capacity we needed to do so.
In addition to the truck, in early 2021 NESN unveiled a brand new studio space fully optimized for 4K HDR production. Currently, all Red Sox pre/post game broadcasts are in 4K HDR, with other studio content remaining at 1080p60 at this time.
Inside the workflow: 4K cameras with playback and HD graphics
Currently, NESN has six live cameras operating in 4K HDR mode – and plans to have 10 later this season once the necessary equipment becomes available (given supply chain issues) – and three cameras running in 1080p60 HDR.
Four Sony HDC-4300s shoot in 4K HDR mode: (center field, top home, left field and bottom first). Additionally, two Sony HDC-P50 robots (middle and right field) are in 4K HDR mode.
“When you see Fenway in UHD HDR and compare it to today’s HD, there’s just no going back,” says Kenny Elcock, Vice President, Engineering, NESN. “There’s no ballpark like Fenway, and our goal is to bring that ballpark feeling to fans at home.”
Three Panasonic AW-UE150 PTZ cameras are also 4K HDR capable (in both dugouts and inside the green monster in left field), as is a Sony HDC-3500 wireless roving unit equipped with Wave Centra RF transmissions. But these cameras currently operate in 1080p HDR until supply chain delay allows NESN and Game Creek to convert 12g fiber to Quad 3g SDI.
Since 4K replay would create a major capacity issue in the truck, NESN opted to retain its EVS replay operation at 1080p60 (as has been the case for industry live 4K productions thus far) . With that in mind, three manned Sony 5500 cameras (center tight, bottom third, top first) showing key 6X-slo-mo replays during the broadcast will remain at 1080p HDR for the foreseeable future.
“The technology just isn’t there for 4K replay right now because you would need a whole C drive and a lot more gear to make it work,” says Zalkowitz. “And you still have to be able to show the spin of the ball on that tight center replay and shots of those close calls on base paths – not just for our viewers, but for gameplay integrity. We decided to run them [three] cameras in 1080p HDR live, so we’ve got 6X super-slo-mo on those shots. They are all converted in our 4K stream.
All graphics, including scorebug and all insert graphics, are produced in 1080p SDR and upscaled to 4K HDR.
Currently, advertisements inserted into NESN’s linear broadcast and live broadcast of the Red Sox are also converted to 4K HDR, although RSN plans to produce 4K HDR advertising content with its sponsors and partners.
According to Zalkowitz, the switch to 4K HDR hasn’t disrupted the workflow of the Red Sox production team inside the truck, with one exception. Since the main center field camera is on the air for about a quarter of the game, NESN has made 4K HDR a must for this position. However, since the league’s PitchCast tracking system uses this camera and is currently not 4K capable, NESN has elected to dispense with live PitchCast graphics on HD or 4K HDR broadcasts (although PitchCast is still available). via reruns).
“Because the [upconverted] The PitchCast 1080p signal was degrading the 4K image, so we decided to do without it for now,” says Zalkowitz. “We understand that live PitchCast is an important part of a TV show for many viewers, and we worked with MLB on a 4K system. But due to supply chain delays on video cards and the development time required for the system, there is no implementation schedule.We will continue to replay all tight ground.
Audio continues to be an important part of NESN’s Red Sox home games. NESN was the first RSN to register bases and is teaming up with the Red Sox to register a player for each Wednesday home game.
4K HDR ecosystem: linking, streaming, distribution, storage and beyond
In terms of backhaul for 4K HDR streams, NESN has established direct 12 Gbps fiber paths from its broadcast center in Watertown, MA, to Fenway Park and TD Garden in Boston.
“We were fortunate that NESN invested deeply in [connectivity] at all of our locations,” says Elcock. “So we have 4K capability from both Fenway and the Garden. None of this would be possible without these fiber paths in place.
In Watertown, NESN relies on Imagine Communications’ Versio broadcast system and other equipment to bring 4K HDR coverage to viewers.
In 2020, NESN leveraged The Switch’s hybrid fibre/internet network to replace its existing satellite delivery platform to launch 4K HDR broadcasts. NESN is working with The Switch to provide each of its 4K HDR distributors (currently, DirecTV, Verizon Fios and FuboTV) with a 1.7 Gbps payload that includes one UHD HDR stream and multiple HD streams.
NESN is deploying Imagine Communications’ media asset management and storage solutions to archive all Red Sox home games, but plans to expand this infrastructure in 2023 to produce more in-house content in UHD.
“We have ownership support and investment in this technology initiative,” Elcock said. “As an engineer, you couldn’t ask for a better situation than this. This is one of the unique characteristics of being at NESN: we have a reputation for being innovative in technology and we want to continue to be a pioneer in the future. »
Continuing Evolution: Adjusted Sox Coverage, Added Bruins in the Fall
Midway through the season, Zalkowitz says he’s already seen a significant improvement from both the backend and on-screen perspective in NESN’s 4K HDR shows. For example, after needing an extra day for setup at the start of the season due to 4K HDR, the production team, GCV engineers and PPI technicians are able to complete a shoot of a day for the first game of a Red Sox home stand. .
He also credits Senior Coordinating Director Mike Narracci, Senior Producer/Lead Director Dan Aspanand Senior Pproducer Amy Johnsonand the entire Red Sox team for overcoming the challenges of 4K HDR and finding new ways to improve delivery during the first half of the season.
“We learn something new every day and we get better with every game,” says Zalkowitz. “Fenway is a canvas in its own right, and in trying to paint in a whole new way with 4K and HDR, we’re showing the stadium more than ever. We’ve got wider and longer shots, and we’re still seeing how HDR works in daylight versus dusk versus night I think we’ve come a long way in front of and behind the camera already.
Building on the experience of half a season of Red Sox 4K HDR home games, NESN is working with the Bruins and TD Garden to produce the NHL team’s home games in 4K HDR this fall.
“That’s the plan,” Zalkowitz said. “We still have work to do, but we are very optimistic that you will see Bruins games in 4K HDR this fall. From here, we will only continue to improve and evolve.