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Conversions to play critical role during Super Bowl LIV coverage

Phil Kurz reports on Fox Sports' technical upgrades

American Football fans are no strangers to conversions. There’s the third down kind, the point after touchdown (PAT) type and even the two-point version.

But at Super Bowl LIV in Miami on Sunday at least three types of technical conversions will play a big part in the game, specifically for Fox Sports’ production and distribution. 

For starters, as it has done regularly since taking on 4K, Fox Sports will produce its coverage in 1080p 60 frames per second (fps) HD and up-convert to 4K UHD 2160p 60fps for 4K viewers, and it will down-convert to 720p for its broadcast audience.

Other important technical conversions include converting High Dynamic Range (HDR) acquired using the Hybrid Log Gamma (HLG) standard to HDR10 for distribution and integrating SMPTE ST2110 with baseband sources converted to IP for production and then converting back to baseband for distribution.

Michael Davies, SVP, field and technical operations for Fox Sports, says it’s a sign of the times as television production and distribution are in an accelerated state of flux. While Davies and his crews live with and understand firsthand the impact of these changes on production, viewers generally are insulated from the specifics.

So, Davies is not surprised to hear 4K viewers wonder why Fox Sports does not originate coverage of a marquee event like the Super Bowl in 4K.

“We are always on our heels when we have to explain this,” says Davies. “It’s a natural thing, of course, [to wonder] ‘Why don’t you just do it in 4K?’ Well, there are a couple of reasons.”

One is motion blur. There’s more of it when shooting sports in 4K at 60fps than when the same scene is shot at 1080p, he says. “So, in fact, if we were to do it in 4K, we would actually be delivering an inferior product not only, frankly, to the few people who will be watching in 4K UHD but also to the 100 million people [watching in high definition].”

Shooting at 1080p also makes scaling for 4K viewers and the 720p audience better. “We decided we are going to make everything 1080p. It scales up great to 4K, and it scales down fantastically to 720p,” he says. “So, we are going to concentrate on HDR and the colours.”

Here too, signal conversion will be critical. On the production side of the broadcast equation – in  cameras and other gear – HLG appears to be the more dominant standard, says Davies. Developed by Japan’s national broadcaster NHK and the BBC, the HLG HDR standard is also compatible with standard dynamic range displays.

However, on the distribution side of the equation, Fox has chosen to convert to HDR10 because the broadcaster believes it is the more widely used HDR standard in television sets, he says. Davies is pleased with the quality of HDR conversion and says HDR will deliver what one Sony engineer in Japan described as “the beautiful colours.”

Fox Sports took advantage of the opportunity it had this season producing Thursday Night Football to gain experience with HDR, adds Davies. 

Super Bowl LIV is also being played during a time in television when sports production technology and signal transport are transitioning from baseband video to IP packets conforming to the SMPTE ST2110 standard.

“Our production of the Super Bowl will use a combination of baseband and 2110,” says Davies. “The [main production] truck has a core 2110 router, and we have another truck that is 2110. We are going to be slinging signals around using IP, yet at the end of the day, this is the Super Bowl, so it’s going to be encoded baseband that makes it back home.”

While Fox Sports has deployed two production units that, in the words of Davies, are SMPTE ST2110 “from glass to glass,” which makes them “very flexible and scalable,” there will be a mix of IP and baseband production technology used. “When you come down to the Super Bowl, you’ll see a whole litany of legacy and bleeding-edge technology,” he says.

“But I think that the larger the show, the more chances you are going to use each technology not only to its strengths, but to its reliability.”

Another sign of the ongoing transformation of television production technology is the rise of 8K. While still in its early days, Fox Sports will deploy three Sony HDC-8300 8K cameras in Miami – the first time this model has been used to cover an NFL game, says Fox Sports. One will be used to shoot the game in 8K “for posterity,” and the other two will capture sideline and bench activity, says Davies.

“We are going to focus on some areas that we might not have full-time coverage of, which is a little hard to do when you have 100 cameras,” he says.

Davies hopes that by focusing on the sidelines with the 8K cameras, some gems that might otherwise go unnoticed will be captured and integrated into the show. He recalls one such instance during the World Series.

“One of the best 8K replays that happened this year [2019] was at the World Series. It was of the guy who had two giant Bud Light cans in his hands and instead of dropping those beers took a foul ball in the gut,” he says. “We caught that with our 8K cameras, and we otherwise would have never seen it.”

Fox Sports also will use eight 4K cameras, which will allow game action to be viewed in Super (slow) Motion and magnified without loss of HD resolution, the broadcaster says. The 4K cameras will be used at the high end zone, down the line and at the goal line. More than 20 1080p Super Motion cameras also are being deployed.

Similarly, more than 20 cameras will be used within the end zone pylons and traveling pylon that sits on the first down marker for every play on both sides of the field, says the broadcaster. Two SkyCams will be used – one above the field and the other attached to the spires of Hard Rock Stadium, which will elevate it above the stadium. A two-point FlyCam outside the stadium will bring fans from outside to the Fox Sports Game Day Fan Plaza set inside the stadium.

Augmented reality powered by the Epic Games Unreal Engine will be used along with SportsMEDIA Technology’s real-time camera tracking software to deliver high-resolution graphics integrated seamlessly onto the field. The graphics will be used together with shots from a variety of cameras, including the goal post cameras, robo-cams and SkyCams.

Like the Olympics and the World Cup, Davies says the Super Bowl has a reputation as being a seminal event that each year helps to define the direction of sports production. “The Super Bowl is always a great opportunity to capture the state of the art in television production,” he says.

“This year, that means HDR. It’s something we’ve learned a lot about this year and something we’ll be using the whole day from our Kickoff Show all the way through,” says Davies.

Pre-game coverage of Super Bowl LIV between the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers begins at 2pm EDT on Sunday 2nd February. The game starts at 6:30pm EDT. Fox Sports’ coverage is available on local Fox stations, and the Fox Sports and Fox Now apps. Coverage in 4K will be available via Altice Optimum, Comcast Xfinity, DirecTV, DISH, FuboTV and Verizon FiOS. Streaming 4K coverage is available. Registration and details are available on the Fox Sports website. Consistent with past years, authentication is not required to watch streaming Super Bowl coverage, Fox Sports says.

A Super Bowl snapshot of Fox Sports technology

Fox Sports published a list of the technology and details about its upcoming Super Bowl LIV coverage from Miami. The list includes:

FOX Sports South Beach Set

  • Nearly a month of construction time 
  • 50+ square meters of LED walls
  • 25 cameras, including:
    • A moveable two-point Flycam, bringing the viewing audience from the ocean to the set 
    • Multiple robotics and cranes
    • Wireless cameras

Gameday Fan Plaza and Field Set

    • Full set with large LED screens and FOX Sports demo field in the middle of the action outside Hard Rock Stadium
    • 10 additional cameras
    • 1,200-foot, two-point Flycam camera system with ability to fly over the plaza and into the stadium
    • Collapsing modular stage at the southeast side of the stadium

Super Bowl LIV

    • More than 20 end zone and end line pylon cameras
    • Wireless “Line-to-Gain” camera, following every first down from ground level
    • More than 24 Super Motion cameras (high speed), ranging from 180 to 1,800 frames per second
    • Three 8K cameras:
      • Two focused on team benches and sidelines, with ability to be magnified up to 12x and replayed
      • One which will, for the first time, shoot the entire Super Bowl in 8K
    • Eight high-speed 4K cameras at the end zone, down the line and high end zone positions which can be magnified up to 6x in any area of interest in the frame
    • Two SkyCams
      • High and low – the high SkyCam is capable of elevating above the stadium roof
    • Seven wireless cameras, including: 
      • Multiple Steadicams
      • Movi Gimbal Stadicam
      • Multiple Digital Cinema Cameras
    • FOX Sports’ Emmy Award-winning audio team:
      • 72 field mics
      • Two full submix boards
      • 5.1 Surround Sound
      • Wireless player mics

Other facts

    • 13 mobile units in the FOX Sports broadcast compound, totalling nearly 10,000 square feet of office space
    • 15 temporary structures, providing an additional 19,000 square feet
    • 180,000 feet of cable – more than 34 miles
    • 3 megawatts of power generators