Sky Insights Day: Adventures in IP Production – maximising value through innovation
Sky Sports has been slowly rolling out IP production, including remote productions, since 2012. Earlier this month it did its first fully IP UHD outside broadcast, and next month it will be host broadcaster for the ATP World Tour Finals using a remote production. IP is becoming pervasive, although not yet dominant, with almost every Sky Sports OB now having some benefit of IP.
At the recent Sky Insights Day in Osterley, presented in association with SVG Europe, Sky revealed what it has learned from its adventures in IP.
Remote production “is not a cost-saving panacea for your company. It is part of a toolbox that you are going to be able to introduce,” said James Clement, Sky Sports UK, Head of Operations. “We’re not going to have a situation where robots are covering our Super Sunday, and a tiny crew back at Sky are cutting 17 games simultaneously, all pumped out to our viewer with no discernible change on what we were doing before,” he added.
There are many factors to be considered before you can leave the production crew at home. “It is not as viable as you might think, or finance might hope, but when it is, it really does work.”
Broadcast IP checklist
The key areas Clement believes broadcasters need to look at are:
Connectivity — which needs to be consistent. It couldn’t roll out remote production to its European rugby coverage, because each stadium has different connectivity available, much of which would not be sufficient.
Capacity — it may have lots of galleries and highly trained people at Sky, but they are not just sitting waiting to do remote productions on a Saturday afternoon. There would need to be greater capacity, probably custom built to handle remote productions more easily. Its traditional galleries can be used for remote production, “but if we were to build from scratch for a purely remote operation, we would do it differently.”
Communication — there need to be a lot of meetings with production, as even a simple move, such as
VoIP talkback, will have implications for someone. “There’ll be some workflow that you will trip over unless you speak to them.” Some of the discussions will have to go back to basics. “You’ll need a ton of patience just to get some of these things over the line, and even then it may not be viable, and you may scrap the whole idea having spent weeks working with them,” which could have been spent making programmes.
Capabilities — “The industry has got a huge problem with IP network broadcast skills,” said Clement. “We’re all looking for those same people. We’re all going to be fighting over those same few people.” Sky Sports does 1,000 OBs a year, and couldn’t roll out enough remote productions to make a positive impact on its budgets “without a new set of skills throughout the business.”
“Live IP workflows don’t really fit neatly into how our operational engineering and support teams have traditionally worked,” added Mike Ruddell, Sky Sports UK, Head of Technology. “Where their roles are delineated and how they interface with what would be the traditional IT design and support teams. To make this work, people’s roles will need to change.”
“It’s going to require an industry to move this entire project on,” said Clement. This isn’t something Sky Sports can do on its own. It requires working with the venues, telcos, OB providers, Sky Studios and freelancers. There are elements of remote production it can implement, but anything more may be difficult.
Opening the Gateway
“IP is about far, far more than just remote production,” said Ruddell. With so many high-profile events it has to deliver every day, “we’re never going to take the risk of jumping headlong into new technology and risk not achieving that.” What IP can do is allow it to hit its targets cost efficiently. It can also improve the experience for its production teams, and the viewers.
“The production teams shouldn’t notice any difference [operationally] at all,” he added.
Over the last six months, there has been a huge increase in the amount of IP-based equipment available, and in the number of projects using it, such as VRT’s Sandbox. “It was quite encouraging to see how that went from a fairly basic proof of concept to some fairly major live projects pretty rapidly. I think that shows the benefit of the collaborative approach undertaken there between the broadcasters, the facilities providers and the equipment manufacturers.”
Arena Television has also “taken a really brave step of deploying the first fully IP OB trucks: OBX on the BT contract, and OBY for our own rugby union coverage.” OBY did its first broadcast at Richmond earlier this month, and “that all worked pretty well,” said Ruddell.
Sky has developed its own bespoke connectivity platform, the OB Data Gateway, which takes any data (video, audio, network controls, comms) from its internal networks, using any telco that has a POP at Sky, to any OB venue where the appropriate connectivity is in place.
It was first cobbled together in 2012 for use on the Sky Sports News’ Olympics coverage, and “is now carrying quite a high volume of really high value content for us. It carries a lot of our F1, and most recently our UHD Premier League coverage.” It also allows it share live or file-based content with Sky Deutschland and Sky Italia, where they have the rights.
It started simply as IP transport going/coming from baseband video, but with more IP-based equipment available, signals can now be kept in the IP domain throughout the chain.
Monday Night Football is well known for its on-screen innovations, and since 2012 it has also been a test bed for IP innovations behind the scenes. It was Sky’s first introduction of voice over IP comms, and also for self-encoded and delivered video circuits (using low-latency ISO feeds to the gallery and edit suites at Sky), as well as the three HD images of the stadium that are stitched together to provide the vista in the studio. These types of innovation would not have been economically viable using traditional methods.
Sky Sports Soccer Saturday, which allows it get value out of live games it doesn’t have the rights to show, typically sends about 30 reporters to grounds around the country. Where there isn’t also an OB present, it now uses the venue’s IP connections or cellular links, so “we can now deploy fully capable video reporters far more widely and at much, much lower cost.” These systems have also greatly “increased our general newsgathering operation capabilities.”
Formula 1 has also “been an ideal test bed to allow us to test these little pieces of the overall picture one at a time,” he said.
Many of the elements needed for remote production are now possible. Low latency, high-quality video in both directions, and audio are now in place. Remote mixing is almost there. Communications, racking cameras, remote edit, graphics and file transfer, tallies and control, are all there.
“IP is here. It is in use on real, live high-value content day in, day out, and it’s delivering us real benefits,” said Ruddell. “It will be introduced further in the chain when the time is right. Of course, there are challenges ahead. We won’t always get it completely right,” but when the OB Data Gateway started out for sports in 2012, that was a complete remote production from the Sky gallery, which meant the crews at the OB and at Sky didn’t have to work “horrendously long shifts.”
IP on Tour
“The beauty of using IP as a transport method is its natural return path. This opens up a huge amount of scope for extending studio services back to a remote site,” such as tallies, said Jonathan Craggs, Sky Production Services UK, Senior Technical Supervisor.
Sky’s first real experiment on a live sports event was the 2015 US Open Tennis. The presenters were based in New York, but the main production team was in London. Unfortunately, due to limited connectivity, it wasn’t possible to have a direct link to each source feed and there was the problem of synching the audio on different feeds. The IP paths were getting back a lot quicker than the unilateral world feed. “This made our first day’s coverage of the outside courts complicated. We had to re-sync everything — making the commentators seem psychic for the first few seconds,” he said.
Twice, when it wanted to simulcast a second game on another channel while continuing its main coverage, having access to the gallery in London made this possible, and the system proved its worth over two weeks of 12-hours live coverage per day. “I doubt the viewers would have noticed the difference,” he added.
Early this year it covered the 2016 World Championships of Ping Pong as the host broadcaster, which we covered in greater detail in a previous article –[https://www.svgeurope.org/blog/headlines/adventures-in-ip-production-sky-sports-maximising-value-through-innovation/]
Andrew Finn, who directed and mixed the Ping Pong in the gallery at Sky, said he didn’t feel any different than he would if he was sitting in an OB truck at the venue. “Although I was further away, I didn’t feel any less connected to the OB. I was still able to communicate with the camera crew, the sound supervisor. Everything I needed I had, so the only difference in my mind was getting over the fact I was slightly further away. There really wasn’t a big difference to me, but whether people feel the same way about other sports and bigger shows, I don’t know, but for me it felt very normal.”
Next month, Sky Sports will be covering the ATP World Tour Finals tennis at the O2 in London, taking full advantage of the improvements in IP technology since New York last year.
As the contract with its previous OB supplier for the O2 tennis has come to an end, it meant Sky could look at a different way of covering it this year. It had previously done MAM browsing and VoIP elements from the O2, but will now do it as a full remote production, doing the world feed. It will have touch screens with the operators, producers and directors back at base, and will be similar to the US Open tennis, but without the restrictions on number of lines. “We don’t have that restriction when we are in the UK, so we bring a lot more in,” explained Clement.
“With the [US Open] tennis, we knew if it all failed we had the feeds coming in. Then we went to the Ping Pong, where we had to generate the world feed and prove that all the bits that had been in play previously, we could pull together,” said Steve Smith, director of production, Sky Sports UK.
“Currently our galleries and studios are set up as presentation areas rather than large-scale OB areas, so any changes we may look to do in the future around large-scale productions would mean that we’d have to change the facilities and change the way that we operate. So, I think it’s stepping stones along the way. It’s building the confidence with the production teams, so we know what’s achievable and then we can think about the right events, and the right level of risk to take.” It is then a matter of asking “what’s possible; how can we push ourselves next,” he explained.
“It’s all about the right tools for the job and the right level of risk,” added Ruddell. What Sky did for the Ping Pong may only be suitable today for lower-profile events, “but we’ve had bits of IP on all of our top-end Premier League and F1 productions, and the UHD Premier League is all self-managed IP. We’re just not at the point where we’re going to risk putting the entire production over IP, or remote,” he said.