Sky Italia Innovation Summit: sports production technology debate for Italy

Riccardo Botta (left) leads a panel debate among Italian OBs and SIs at Sky Italia Innovation Summit May 25

Riccardo Botta (left) leads a panel debate among Italian OBs and SIs at Sky Italia Innovation Summit May 25

The Sky Italia Innovation Summit, an event among operators in sports production, was held at the headquarters of Sky Italia in Milan in the week of the Champions League Final late May. The idea from host Sky Italia and co-producer SVG Europe was clear: a professional networking series of panels, an exchange of experiences and expertise amongst technology and production professionals in sport. The goal was to give support to the broadcast community through the dialogue of professionals in these areas, so that the experience of the group would be much greater than the simple sum of the contributions of individuals.

In the meeting, moderated by Manuela Baraschi and Riccardo Botta from Sky Italia, we heard the voices of Tiziano Mantovani and Massimo Bertolotti from Sky along with Fabrizio Preti AS Roma, Chafik Ould Mhalia Juventus FC, Carlo Struzzi Video Progetti, Stefano Mazzon Professional Show, Massimiliano Anchise 3Zero2, Andrea Buonomo Cinevideo, Andrea Marini Deltatre, Andrea Gianolli One TV and several others – representatives across broadcasters, content providers, vendors, leagues, system integrators, partners and competitors. What follows are just some of the many concepts that emerged from this Italian community meeting.

In general, we are experiencing a period of radical technological development in which the landscape changes every day. The growth is no longer linear but exponential, including that of computational power. We must ride the change to be able to produce the best sports television content and digital content.

Best practice from Sky Europe

In July 2014 Sky Europe was born, bringing together the three structures from Sky Italy Germany and UK. The first opportunity to work together was Formula 1, a project that has lasted more than a year and is an example of optimisation and sharing of skills and knowledge of three teams.

Tiziano Mantovani and Manuela Baraschi take us through the Sky Europe F1 schematic plan for 2016

Tiziano Mantovani and Manuela Baraschi take the audience through the Sky Europe F1 schematic plan for 2016

Sky takes around the F1 race circuits seven production hubs. Four are fixed and expandable and three are separate control rooms. The tech hub part consists of electronic servers, arrays and RF receivers. In practice, it is a sort of MCR composed of four hubs, while the other three are different control rooms for Sky Italy, Sky UK and Sky Germany.

Unlike last year, in 2016 a single feed is produced for all three countries and then each is customised with replays, graphics and commentary. A central core records all on-board cameras and all material on a 528 TB single server. Here is also handled all the historical video archive since 1992 to the present, so even without a connection they have all the signals and what is necessary for the transmission.

The seven flight cases are interconnected with copper and fibre; then a system with eight true diversity receivers with conversion is used to receive RF cameras and wireless microphones. A UPS battery covers emergencies up to 12 hours for the cameras and around thirty microphones on the circuit.

The various sections, replays, video mixer and audio mixer quickly are assembled in around 40/50 minutes. The flight cases are arranged, opened, wired and fibre pulled where needed in the circuit to connect with the RF. A single programme from Formula One Management enters a hybrid matrix, along with the commentator cams and the interview cameras. The hybrid matrix 288×512 collects fibre signals, SDI, Madi, Ravenna and analogue audio. Then 60 EVS channels are useful for recording and centralised on a server.

From there signals are routed also to the four editing suites with Final Cut Pro and all the material is then ingested at 100 MB in HEVC. The three control room signals travel back into the matrix and from there the signal is sent to Tata for Europe with diffusion via dual fibre.

Two signals arrive in London and two in Milan (two interconnected sites), and one in Germany as main and backup. Three are the unilateral Sky signals, plus all the onboard cameras. The programme and service signals are sent back on Tata fibre.

The challenge of 4K and HDR

Starting from the definition of 4K or Ultra HD (and avoiding the confusion of the various names, as well as the various technical standards), the goal is to better represent reality through television, according to session presenter Massimo Bertolotti. Since the receiver is always a person and the ‘stress’ admissible by our brains is limited, it is important to ask ourselves where real improvements appear in 4K.

That is, the technique must take into account the objective and subjective reality: investing a lot on colour and definition is important as well as understanding what the actual response of the viewer could be.

Talking of innovation, the relationship between HD and 4K is quite different: actually HD was more a revolution since it brought into our homes flat and large screens; then the revolution was not only in video quality. Today 4K hardly manages to attract the same attention.

It is important to consider the relationship between the screen size and resolution: you need a big screen or a narrow viewing distance to appreciate the real differences. It is not the same effect as ten years ago with HD. And it is important not to waste the opportunity to launch a new product.

A highlight of the Sky Italia Innovation Summit, in association with SVG Europe, was a tour of facilities including the playout centre

A highlight of the Sky Italia Innovation Summit, in association with SVG Europe, was a tour of facilities including the playout centre

Sky Italy considers 4K not only the launch of a new technology but something on which it is necessary to build a new experience for the customer: the appeal must be much higher than where we are now and it must be mature, stable, continuous and commendable. “At the moment there is no precise path for a 4K Sky offer. We are working on it. Lots of benefits are there but we await a standard,” said Massimo Bertolotti, Sky Italia.

Meanwhile Sky is focusing a lot on HDR since the launch of a 4K service is also delayed by the three largest display suppliers (Sony, Samsung, LG) who disagree even on the standard name: Ultra HD, UHD or 4K.

HDR is currently still another element of debate. There are many proposals, ‘basic’ and ‘evolved’; a few are standard, but actually there is one (Blueray Association) PQ (Blueray UHD) which seems more interesting, but this also generates instability in the perception of the 4K concept at the end user. Besides, many TV sets already on the market are not HDR compatible.

The ‘colour element’ is the spring that could trigger the jump beyond HD, as outlined by Bertolotti. HDR tries to work on the brightness and the correct colorimetry and light values to give more strength to 4K content. HDR extends management of the brightness curve and colorimetry but the final effect depends very much on the TV still present in our house. Today we must also manage the quality perceived in the environment, because there are many variables (it requires special lighting conditions).

“Among the many technologies sports broadcasters carefully watch, HDR is considered a great advantage. Even if not applied to 4K there is a perceivable improvement in quality,” said Carlo Struzzi, Video Progetti.

The HDR signal allows you to perceive immediately the improved colour management. However HDR still lacks a few steps: how to handle it and how to propose it to the end user are still questions, as well as backward compatibility requiring constraints and compromises. The tests continue, but still some pieces are missing.

How do we make vision uniform regardless of the TV in the user’s living room? How do we manage the transition between two different HDR signals? We need to study the eco-compatibility between the different HDR systems. The cooperation among all involved parties in the game becomes essential to the creation of a minimum of interoperability and maybe the same line of thought.

“In the production segment, the risk of wrong investments is high; actually 4K now and 8K tomorrow are on track, but differences in quality seem too low in respect to what happened with the HD transition,” said Andrea Buonomo, Cinevideo.

Tour of facilities included Sky Italia studio presentation philosophy overview from Riccardo Botta

Tour of facilities included Sky Italia studio presentation philosophy overview from Riccardo Botta

The Italian landscape for 4K still seems a bit complex: there is no content and it is difficult to store content and also to air it through the available bandwidth. Equipment vendors point out that, despite everything, the design of new systems is now absolutely in 4K, although there are still no standards, not even in iP (though some steps have been taken).

The request for 4K only comes from abroad and the different standards are still the limiting factors; the risk is to invest today on new equipment that could be totally obsolete or inadequate in two years time.

Nonetheless some countries like the UK are investing in 4K productions in several sports disciplines. RAI is engaged with 4K for the European Championship and the same with Mediaset for the Champions League Final — but it is unknown how many people at home will be able to watch live 4K broadcasts.

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