Monday, June 23, 1997

DTV: A sports revolution

Simulcasting will present a production challenge.

by Glen Dickson

When broadcasters and cable networks talk about DTV, they point to their film-based sitcoms and movies as a ready source of digital widescreen programing. But no one talks about producing live sporting events in HDTV or widescreen SDTV as being easy--and with good reason, say industry experts.

"Shooting 16:9 is not an upgrade; it's an unlearning and a relearning," says Jerry Gepner, Fox's senior vice president of field operations and engineering. "It will impact every level of the production community: producers, directors, cameramen, graphics and technicians. It's a relearning of our craft."

While going 16:9 means using new cameras in positions that differ from 4:3 sports production, simply shooting in widescreen is not the issue. The challenge is shooting in widescreen and still providing a 4:3 feed for the overwhelming majority of viewers who still will be watching NTSC sets.

"If you have 16:9 sets you might see some strange stuff," admits Gepner, who says that cost concerns are likely to prompt producers to use dual-feed cameras capable of simultaneous 16:9 and 4:3 outputs.

"You could produce 16:9 with a 4:3 `safe area' and downconvert out of the truck," says Gepner. Since Fox Sports already uses 10 digital trucks with switchable (but not dual-feed) 16:9/4:3 cameras, another possibility is to use those cameras to generate 525 widescreen footage, then line-double it back at Fox headquarters in Century City in California to produce a high-resolution--but not true high-definition--picture. But that would require another set of 4:3 cameras.

So where does the FoxBox go? "Initially, the FoxBox goes in the 4:3 safe area," Gepner says. "That's typically not that busy. You don't put it hard left--not right away you don't."

HD Vision President Randall Dark has shot the NBA All-Star Game, the Super Bowl and the Olympics in HDTV. While Dark says high-clef is an incredible way to shoot sports, he recognizes the potential problems in simulcasting: "With basketball, if you put the goal in 4:3, you put a big chunk of the stands in 16:9." Dark adds that his company is working on "innovative ways" to simulcast.

Japanese manufacturers already have developed dual-feed HDTV/NTSC cameras for next year's winter Olympics, and Turner Sports coordinating director Larry Kamm says he'll be taking a close look at them during TBS's coverage from Nagano, Japan. "I certainly intend to see what [host broadcaster] NHK is doing," says Kamm. "I want to view an event they covered in high-clef and compare it with the same footage in 4:3 NTSC."

Experts agree that widescreen DTV is well-suited to "horizontal" sports such as football and basketball, since it stretches the visible field of play. "For football, you'll see more of the cornerbacks and linebackers [from the sideline camera]," says CBS Sports executive producer Terry Ewert. "And rather than tackle-to-tackle coverage on an end-zone replay, you'll see from wide receiver to wide receiver, and everyone won't look like ants."

"Vertical" sports such as tennis may be more difficult to shoot in widescreen. "For tennis, the classic shot is from behind the baseline," says Kamm. "Now you're in 16 by 9. To keep the sideline in the shot, you'll have to shoot ultrawide."

Capturing a golfer hitting a tee shot may present the same problem. "The classic shot is from behind the tee box, straight and perpendicular into the golfer's swing," says Kamm. "That's a nicely composed picture. Now you'll have to shoot wide, with more stuff on the sides."

But baseball may be well suited to widescreen. "I immediately think of an application in baseball, where you want to show an expanse of the field with both the base runner and pitcher in the shot," says CBS's Ewert. "Normally, you'd do that with your high third-base camera. But now you can bring the camera closer to the dugout and include the pitcher and baserunner as well."

WRAL-HD, the experimental DTV station run by CBS affiliate WRAL-TV Raleigh, N.C., has already shot minor league baseball in HDTV (and plans to shoot a Duke/North Carolina State football game in high-clef this fall).

"We learned a lot," says John Greene, Capitol Broadcasting vice president and HDTV conversion project manager for WRAL-HD. Although the camera locations have to be changed, he says, you may not need as many cameras to cover baseball in HDTV. "You're getting more action in."

Green says that the HDTV cameras were more difficult to focus, "but once you do, the depth of field is much better. From first base. we were able to focus on the pitcher, catcher and ump at the same time, and identify people sitting in the stands behind those players. There are so many more lines of information. From the home plate camera, you can read all the billboards in the outfield."

WRAL-HD also used an outfield camera to look at home plate. "They focused in on home plate from there, and we were able to pick up a split in the pants of the catcher," says Greene.

from Broadcasting & Cable