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Sky plans major sports HD roll-out

23 February 2006

Satellite broadcaster Sky has given the strongest indication yet of the line-up for its dedicated HD sport channel which launches later this year, writes Adrian Pennington.

According to Sky Sport Head of Operations Darren Long, "from August all Sky’s football including the FA Premiership, England and Welsh home internationals, some Scotland internationals, Carling Cup matches and Champions League games will be acquired in HD."

Sky’s new domestic cricket contract (wrested from Channel 4) which includes Test matches, one day internationals, county games and 20/20 will all be covered in HD starting with England’s home tests against Sri Lanka in May. Rugby’s Guinness Premiership has been shot in HD since the beginning of the season while an HD Heineken Cup final in May is under review. "HD will then filter down to darts, speedway, greyhound racing and other sports," he says.

Sport is viewed as a key driver by the broadcaster for take-up of its HD services, just as it was for the company’s operational launch in 1990. It would like to kick transmission off at the same time as announcing delivery of all or part of an HD FIFA World Cup on its platform. Such a move would boost set-top upgrades among pubs and clubs – Sky’s first marketing target.

While Long remains tight-lipped on this and on specific dates for HD switchover he confirms that the new service will take properties acquired in HD from across Sky Sports’ three channels. When key sports overlap (cricket and football, say) "there will be overflow to other channels. To some extend we’ll be governed by delivery from third parties. If we buy-in sports programming that’s acquired in SD we’ll upconvert."

Long claims that Sky have stimulated the market. "Before our announcement, HD was minimal. Only Bowtie, Visions and Telegenic had HD trucks and the prevailing specification was aimed at light-entertainment programming with dual SD/HD equipment. We’ve come along and specified trucks to be totally wired for HD."

In anticipation of renewing existing or winning fresh contracts, the UK’s major OB outfits have been pumping millions of pounds into their HD fleets. NEP Broadcast-owned Visions (which, with Telegenic delivers Sky’s Premiership coverage) now sports five HD presentation and match trucks and two additional HD VT vans; Telegenic runs three HD trucks; Arena Television is investing £10m in Europe’s largest OB vehicle with a second ready by June (both feature full length double expanding sides); CTV is fielding two new HD facilities for coverage of Sky cricket while Scanners, now part of resources group Arqiva, is building two new HD trucks on the back of soon to be announced Sky contract wins.

The live production tests, which began last April with the FA Barclaycard Premiership, has enabled material to be archived in HD for future programme analysis as well as clarifying Sky’s OB specifications. These include digital mixing consoles such as the Calrec Alpha 100 to counter what Long describes as the biggest challenge facing HD production.

"The infrastructure needed to support 5.1 is a huge challenge. We looked at a number of solutions and found the Calrec desk powerful enough to cope with passing 5.1 audio around. The fader width is narrow – important in a live environment where the more faders you can control with one hand the better."

Long is agnostic about brands of production switcher and camera and issues tenders accomodating Kalypso HD switchers, LDK 6000s and Worldcams or Sony MVS 8000 switchers and HDC-950 cameras. For him the only chinks in the HD chain are the current lack of super-slo motion and RF cameras. Long is waiting for new three-times realtime super-slomo product promised from Grass Valley and Sony by the end of the year.

Sky’s Isleworth HDTV studio, for which Sony won the equipment install last April, will handle the sports programming. It features Sony HDC-1500 studio cameras, 60 HDcam and HDcam SR VTRs with automation provided via Harris’ D-Series.

Tandberg’s MPEG-4 AVC, selected for video encoding and distribution, is capable of transmitting 1080i and 720p to Sky’s HD boxes although the broadcaster has yet to confirm it will transmit significant quantities of content at the higher resolution stating only that the system "will enable very efficient bandwidth utilisation and high picture quality".

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