Arena Television’s £20m IP UHD HDR scanners primed for NAB launch
Arena Television is spending a mammoth £20 million ($29m) on not one but three triple expander UHD all-IP trucks timed to be on the road this year. OBX, OBY and OBZ are identical in both dimension (16.5m long x 5.7m wide) and specification, and are being launched in partnership with an equiment manufacturer from April.
The same manufacturer is also outfitting UHD IP kit in the studio of a US broadcaster, giving the vendor a European and North American double whammy of NAB2016 marketing. Because of the NDAs involved we cannot disclose the vendor’s name or details of the equipment involved although we can reveal the broad outlines.
“The end of the year will be the time of mass volume UHD delivery,” believes Arena managing director Richard Yeowart. “We will make a big promotional push for our first two trucks during the summer months. They are definitely the first all IP UHD HDR (High Dynamic Range) trucks on the market. They are primed to go beyond 4K to 8K should the industry go in that direction, or they can cope with High Frame Rates. It’s a very expensive investment but it is future-proofed.”
Yeowart has been planning a move into UHD for over a year but delayed investment until he felt he a unified UHD over IP circuit was achievable.
The move comes serendipitously just as Sky’s entire OB output is up for grabs. The tender features 4K/UHD as a key criteria. SVG Europe understands that other UK outside broadcast suppliers are also building UHD scanners. NEP Visions shares Sky’s existing English Premier League contract along with fellow incumbent Telegenic. But Sky is not the only prize on the market. BT Sport, world leader in 4K live broadcasting, can also be expected to increase its 4K output in the coming year.
From coach builder to SI
Arena OBX moved out of coach builders A Smith Great Bentley (ASGB) at the end of last year before and is currently being systems integrated at Videlio. It will be on the road in March, beta tested until April and soft launched in the summer.
OBY has been at Smiths since before Christmas and will remain there until the spring when it will move to Videlio — after which work will begin on OBZ. “Integration should speed up since we will then know the exact specifications such as pre-cut cabling,” says Yeowart. “We’ve gone for the longest truck we can get to create the biggest possible space inside.”
He explains, “It was clear to us that we needed to wind up ready to move to UHD. We’d looked closely at 3D and had one client pushing us hard to offer that. We didn’t think 3D would move mainstream and we got that right. What that meant for our business is that we were better positioned when the next major upgrade came along.
“We tend to build an HD truck every 18 months but the tipping point has now come to move into UHD. Add to that that we have capacity constraints – all our trucks are out on the road [in part catering for the gap left by NEP Visions’ fateful fire which took out several large mobiles] and investment is a necessity.”
The three new vehicles will add to Arena’s fleet of nine HD and seven VT trucks. Yeowart is considering the idea of upgrading some of these units to UHD.
Quad HD ‘sticking plaster’
“If we built last year we would have built a quad HD truck and wouldn’t have had second generation UHD cameras,” he reports. “In fact, if we’d had to build for a contract this year starting in June then quad HD would be the easiest route. The manufacturing industry has been a a bit slower than we wanted in coming to market with a large scale UHD solution. Quad HD is a sticking plaster approach but we’ve gone to manufacturers and explained what we want to achieve and the type of work we expect to be doing and they have come up with a powerful solution.”
Arena is one of the four main UK OB suppliers, an independent company with 30 years history and a business model which has repeatedly seen it invest in the latest technologies ahead of winning contracts to pin them on. “Quad HD will work but it also has to work much harder to achieve the same end,” says Yeowart. “There is four times as much wiring, the router has to be four times bigger. Plus there is a compromise between an HD and UHD production which we don’t think is acceptable for clients.”
Arena’s new trucks will simulcast HD and UHD and offer HDR and SDR paths. There will also be some quad HD routing included to cater for clients requiring that legacy.
“We are having to learn a lot about IP and UHD,” says Yeowart. “For example, there is new training on how to rack cameras and how many people are needed to monitor an HDR feed in different areas of the truck. Plus, how do you guarantee that the HD output is okay in Standard Dynamic Range? There is a a lot happening at once together with putting all the data onto an IP stream.
Waiting for HDR
Choice of HDR caused further delay in speccing the trucks. Arena has run side by side HDR tests with two vendor options at some of the 38 EPL matches it covers in HD for BT Sport (in a contract which expires this year).
“We looked at different cameras and lenses and also looked at the new high brightness screens of 4000nits emerging into retail from CES. There’s no doubt HDR allows us to show shadows and highlights and much brighter pictures with an impact that makes it appear as if you are looking through a window. However, HDR comes at a premium for the broadcaster, and for us, so the process has to be right.
“We still don’t know which way a client will transmit the HDR but the good thing is that we can select the appropriate path from the camera and just have to switch on a licence once the route is decided. In any case, we don’t need to know now but in a couple of months.”
Fortunately Arena has had the luxury of working all this out at its own speed without building to the deadline of a particular contract.
“We are comfortable with what we have seen, that it does work,” says Yeowart. “You will see a truck with end-to-end IP and no conversion. It will IP from the CCU, IP into the vision mixer, IP into the record machine and then to whatever format a broadcaster requires.
“As communications get faster IP will allow broadcasters access to the data stream back at base for remote production. It means we can employ top level IP engineers at Redhill [Arena’s HQ] for remote diagnostics. That changes the way the industry works. Once a truck has an issue on site now you have to deal with it locally, but the ability to remotely monitor on the road will be incredibly beneficial.”
While there is one dominant manufacturer which has partnered with Arena on the project, there is a second main vendor involved. Importantly, Yeowart is giving clients a couple of acquisition options by taking cameras from two vendors. “We won’t be buying a huge quantity of either. We could buy HD cameras and switch them to UHD by buying a license which would provide additional flexibility.”