Big Ten Network Boosts Streaming Commitment
By: Carolyn Braff, Editor
Thursday, September 24, 2009 - 11:39 am

This fall, the Big Ten Network is doubling its streaming efforts. After offering 100 live events online a year ago, the network has committed to streaming at least 200 Olympic-sports events this year on BigTenNetwork.com, produced by students on each campus. The network touts the events as HD-quality, since they will be produced using HD-equipped flypacks purchased specifically for this initiative.

“Television sports production is such a competitive field,” says Director of New Media Michael Calderon. “The fact that we can offer students on Big Ten campuses the opportunity to use modern, state-of-the art equipment to gain real-world working experience is a big boost to the students’ résumés.”

Taking Off With Flypacks
That equipment, which was custom-engineered and built by BTN’s engineering team, consists of a mobile-production flypack equipped with an HD switcher, three HD cameras, HD graphics, and a full audio-effects–mixing suite. Custom-designed fiber-optic HD converter units allow for camera runs exceeding 1,500 ft.

“We integrate the unit intercom systems with our private VoIP phone network to allow for live studio integration and off-site direction,” Calderon says. “All control, administration, and monitoring of the flypack is performed remotely from our Chicago broadcast facility through a private gigabit network to all 11 Big Ten campuses, which we also use to transmit the video from campus to BTN using HD Encapsulator technology.”

From there, the feed is encoded directly to Flash in multiple bitrates for delivery to Akamai, BTN’s content-delivery network.

“We’re making use of dynamic Flash streaming technology and H.264 encoding available in the latest Adobe Flash 10+ release,” Caldron adds. “Everything about the setup in the months leading up to our launch was challenging.”

Put the Students to Work
The Big Ten Network’s remote-operations staff is conducting on-site training at all 11 member schools so that students can handle all aspects of the production, from producing and directing to camera operation and play-by-play. Freelance workers will cover the positions when students are on break, but the goal, Calderon says, is to have students take an active role in all of these productions.

“Our intent is to provide a real-world working experience that they can’t get at a non-Big Ten school,” Calderon says.

The Big Ten Network is working with the video departments within each athletic department to find the right mix of student workers to cover each of the events.

Olympic Sports in the Spotlight
More than 350 events are already set to air on the Big Ten television network this year, but the majority of them do not include Olympic sports. The 200 additional streaming events will turn the spotlight on sports that do not traditionally receive the coverage of a football or basketball team.

“It’s an underserved market in mass media, but there is certainly a market for these types of events,” Calderon says of Olympic sports. “Big Ten teams across the Olympic-sports spectrum are some of the best in the country, and our hope is that we can showcase these teams by creating quality productions in a cost-efficient manner, all while benefiting students on our campuses.”

For this year, the events streamed will focus on women’s basketball, women’s volleyball, wrestling, men’s ice hockey, baseball, and softball. For the winter season, volleyball, basketball, wrestling, and hockey are the least complicated productions to pull off, taking place indoors, so students will be able to cut their teeth on those events.

“By the time spring rolls around and our students are more experienced with our equipment, we’ll take the flypacks outdoors and have them produce baseball and softball games,” Caldron says. “Next year, look for us to add to the number of sports that we stream.”

Site surveys were conducted at every venue on every campus to ensure that each field and arena was flypack-ready, equipped with the proper network connectivity, cable runs, and lighting.

Paying the Freight
All events this year will be available at a pay-per-view cost of $2.99 per event. In the first year using the new equipment, Calderon was unsure that the network would be able to offer the number of events per school that would warrant a monthly subscription or season-long pass.

“We’re getting our feet wet and rolling out the new flypacks slowly,” Calderon says. “As the product evolves and as we increase the number of events streamed in future years, I would expect that we’ll reevaluate our pricing strategies and consider a subscription model.”

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