Live from Wembley: Sky Sports gets match fit for UHD debut

Sky Sports at Wembley on 6 August. Image credit: Chris Lobina

Sky Sports at Wembley on 6 August. Image credit: Chris Lobina

The International Champions Cup (ICC) friendly on Saturday August 6 at Wembley Stadium between Liverpool and Barcelona was the final chance for Sky to drill its 4K UHD kit ahead of next week’s opening live EPL game aired on its new look Sky Q platform.

The game, which saw Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool defeat Lionel Messi and Luis Suraez’ Barcelona four-nil, was the third of three ICC matches for which Sky Sports is host broadcaster. The other two, in Glasgow and Dublin featuring Celtic, were – like this game – used to tweak workflows ahead of Sky’s regular Super Sunday, Monday Night Football and regular weekday coverage.

“We’ve been testing UHD for over two years so the idea behind these last few matches is to make sure all are operations are match-fit,” says Keith Lane, director of operations for Sky UK. “Do the positions work, does the workflow feel comfortable, does it look right, is there any issue in racking, what have we missed? For example, the operator racking camera 1 coverage needs to be aware of what they are looking at since it sets the tone for every other camera. Everything is checked so that when we begin the Premiership there are no surprises.”

The set-up at Wembley will be the template for Super Sunday, with presentation converging on a Wembley studio (with pundits Thierry Henry and Jamie Carragher). At half- and full-time the presentation truck takes over. MNF coverage, by contrast, is anchored from Sky Sport’s Osterley studio.

It’s a 19 camera plan, all Sony 4300s, with a number of them used for multiple positions (team bus, tunnel and pitch side, for example). All but one are cabled, with the RF camera in use an up-converted HD signal.

“The delay on the UHD RF links are just too high at present,” explains Lane. “This is something we expect to introduce within the year as soon as latency gets down from the one-second to near the two-frame mark.”

He adds: “Slo-motions are also a challenge until Sony brings out the HDC-4800 [which can capture 4K at 480 fps, due in the next couple months]. You can, of course, do an iMovix camera for UHD replays. What we try to do today is use some of the functionality that the 4300 gives us by selecting 6x, 4x and 3x slow motion at 50p. At some point we’ll look to trial and test the 4800 at 2x 4K.”

NEP on location

Sky’s regular EPL OB partner NEP UK is here, nine months after a fire devastated its Bracknell base. It is building four 4K-capable trucks and at least seven 4K flypacks. First to roll is Pacific, which at Wembley handles match production and is teamed with Telegenic T25 as presentation truck in a temporary set up-until NEP’s second UHD facility, Aurora, drives into business next week. Its first job will be at Bournemouth next weekend for the start of Sky’s EPL coverage, while Pacific travels to Hull.

Image credit: Chris Lobina

Image credit: Chris Lobina

Mid-September is the due date for Caspian, with Sargasso following in October. They’ve been coach-built at Cosby and WTS and designed to a similar formula, costing around £10m including a quotient of 66 HDC-4300s, EVS XT3s, Calrec Artemis and Summa audio consoles, SAM Kahuna vision mixers, and IP3 routers from Imagine Communications.

Significantly, the trucks are working quad HD, a decision forced on all parties for practical reasons. NEP UK was tasked with building a new fleet to meet the Sky UHD contract in an extremely tight timeframe and, with the Premier League the ultimate high value, highly demanding client, this was not a time for experiment.

“The fire was a devastating blow for us, and NEP, but the timing also forced a decision around technology change,” says Lane. “We’ve been working with NEP and with several manufacturers around lens and camera choices. To some extent those decisions have to sit with the OB [firm] since they have to maintain and service the kit, but we did have good conversations with all their engineering teams and with their teams in America.”

The long and short of it is that an all-IP mobile fit-out was considered too much of a risk given the lack of time to research and test the equipment. It was a case of going with the tried and tested.

“There are aspects of IP which are still challenging,” says Lane. “We very much felt we’re at the beginning of a journey with UHD and that it was important to start from a strong knowledge base. Quad HD gave us that. We all understand SDI and from [NEP’s] point of view we were pushing them to build, so quad HD was the right thing to do.”

There is the chance to integrate some IP-ready equipment (vision mixers, for example) into the mobile units as and when they become available, but the core 3G router would need swapping out down the line for a more streamlined IP workflow.

Sky plans to produce 124 EPL matches this season in UHD, almost three times as many as its competitor BT. Like BT, though, it has made the strategic decision to devise a hybrid UHD/HD show, down-converting the HD from the 4K feed out of the Kahuna. Sony Trimasters monitor the output in both match and presentation trucks.

SIS LIVE network

Steve Smith, director of production at Sky Sports, and Keith Lane, director of operations for Sky UK

Steve Smith, director of production at Sky Sports, and Keith Lane, director of operations for Sky UK. Image credit: Chris Lobina

Sky has switched to using SIS LIVE for links back to MediaCityUK, Milton Keynes and Sky Sports studios. Sky still partners with BT Media & Broadcast for HD connectivity, but judiciously took the opportunity to become more independent – of BT – for the UHD portion.

While SIS does have encoding equipment (4 x J2000 Net Insight Nimbras) installed in cabinets at each EPL ground, Sky has chosen to use its own coders to get signals onto SIS’ network. According to Lane, this is part of Sky’s desire to gain more of the circuit under its control. The network itself, branded Anylive, was installed three years ago as part of SIS LIVE’s contract with the BBC and can transport video at speeds of up to 850 Mbit/s.

HD reverse vision feeds are being delivered as part of the service, and SIS LIVE is providing Sky with network control on match days by installing Net Insight’s Touch and Switch technology at Sky Sports’ studios.

SIS LIVE still sees satellite as a key component of sports contribution and has been testing UHD satellite back up running at 100Mbps.

“We know we can offer satellite as a full UHD back up for Sky (although this is not part of the current contract),” says SIS LIVE managing director David Meynell. “We believe that the criticality of these services require a mix of technologies from robust fibre to satellite and microwave.”

All the grounds of 2016-17 EPL teams have a SIS fibre connection, as do the grounds of teams recently relegated from the EPL, such as Villa Park. Promoted teams without fibre, such as Middlesborough, are installed with the facility by SIS.

The company aims to connect “well over” 200 UK venues to its network, including all Championship clubs (some, like Brighton, were fitted with fibre for last year’s Rugby World Cup). SIS is upgrading older existing networks from 100Mbps to 1GB and rolling out the network to 25 racecourses in Ireland as part of its agreement to distribute and stream live pictures and data of Irish horse-racing to online operators, betting shops and direct-to-home.

“Most of the sports venues in the UK are on our radar,” says Meynell. “We aim to be the biggest fibre provider in the UK in two years.”

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