Remote production: Calrec says hybrid’s here to stay but there is no one-size fits all
By Anthony Harrison, international sales manager, Calrec.
This time last year, we wrote a forward-looking article for this very publication exploring the future of live sports broadcasting. In this, we wrote that it, “will not be on-site, or off-site, or hybrid, or edge processing. In fact, it will be determined entirely by production needs and budget, and it won’t be up to us to decide how it’s done”. And we stand by this.
It’s equally true to say this is not yet the current reality for most customers. This year we’ll take a look at what that reality is.
Nowhere does the future crystalise more for us than when it comes to envisaging and designing a new flagship console. It will come as little surprise that this is very far from an overnight exercise. Indeed, it takes many years to do. A key market that we look at when doing this is sports broadcasting because it’s a highly competitive sector. The twin necessities of being at the cutting edge of creative and technological possibilities is balanced with the challenge of achieving premium-quality live broadcasts to keep eyeballs on.
We use a lot of market feedback throughout the process and develop a lot of iterations of a product. We also identify new requirement due to changing workflows or new technology drivers. These new requirements are down to changing market conditions during a console lifecycle, which can easily be over a decade. These are things that we want and need to address. It’s also about understanding what we want to retain from previous consoles. That’s equally important.
We develop an understanding right across the market of how workflows have – and are – changing, and, of course, how they will continue to evolve. There’s always a delicate balance between innovating and providing familiarity so that existing customers are not put off in any way. With a major console launch, this is a multi-year process, from wish list to reality. There are a lot of hardware decisions that also have to be made and a number of prototypes built. It’s a real challenge to anticipate where the market will be at the time of launch and beyond. That’s why we have to be adaptable and the design has to reflect this.
So, what’s the current reality of remote production across the sports market? Remote production is such a wide term and this has become particularly clear in the past year. In terms of facilities and capital investment, there’s definitely an increasing move to remote production hubs. In the past there’s been a lot of speculation that this spells the end of the OB van. We’re not seeing that at all. There’s definitely place for OB vans now and in the future; they are still being specified and built. They may be slightly smaller and there may be more of them as the breadth of sports being covered is ever increasing, but they are still very much part of the industry.
Some of these vans will include connectivity back to a remote production hub so customers can double up processing power. We’re seeing media services and production companies handling all the processing and production remotely where live raw feeds are brought in and, because there’s a known amount of latency, remote production then works very well. The key thing is consistent latency. This is not a ‘set and forget’ situation; this has to be tested and understood during a project. Companies like Timeline and NEP are examples at the forefront.
But we’re also seeing the precise opposite where all production is onsite. Then there’s hybrid models where some production is onsite and some remote. These hybrid approaches echo across other technologies and workflows across the industry.
In lots of ways, what we’re talking about is change management. During the pandemic, particularly early on, people were doing remote production in any way they could, and we saw a lot of innovation through necessity. But I don’t think anyone would argue that workflows were ideal, or close to. Latencies could, for example, be quite large but this was accepted because there was no choice. Now that level of latency – and possible other quality issues – aren’t acceptable with remote production. As an industry, we’re working through the possibilities to achieve the broadcast quality required.
Competition for eyeballs
Even for more niche events, the quality still has to be right up there. The level of ‘good enough’ for broadcast is very high. And, as mentioned earlier, the level of competition for eyeballs is huge, especially across the sports market, so the quality of the content has to be as great as possible. We know of a multi-OB van project where these new units are all SDI; they are not IP. This may surprise many but it’s that word ‘hybrid’ again.
Linked to this is the rise in the uncoupling of DSP and control, going back to what we wrote last year. We’re seeing this particularly, though not exclusively, across esports. This sector really does push the boundaries of what’s possible. We do see this increasing. Capabilities like distributed production are particularly attractive to the sports market.
This is also reflected across the wider move to IP, which varies from customer to customer. There’s undoubtedly people questioning whether they are rushing into it; whether the value is currently there for them; and whether the timing is correct. Does it need to be end to end or can they migrate using gateway technologies to allow hybrid networking? These are all valid questions, and we guide customers through the possibilities, so they know what’s best for them. Across the sports market, there’s huge variation in the level and approach to IP. But audio over IP (AoIP) is happening and it’s happening on an increasingly large scale.
Because of the level of reliability and sheer quality required across the sports market, it informs a huge amount of what we do, and it also provides a window into our technological future. The present is hybrid, and the future will be too for some years to come.