When ESPN looked at the launch of the Longhorn Network, one of the first challenges was figuring out how best to cover events on campus without the need for multiple satellite trucks roaming the streets. Eight months after the launch, ESPN’s decision to aggressively fiber every audio drop, camera position, standup location, and press-conference area on the University of Texas campus back to the Longhorn Network studios continues to pay dividends, both financial and operational.
According to Joseph Baker, director of remote operations, Longhorn Network, almost 700 strands of fiber are laid out across the Austin campus, each capable of delivering individual sources to the Longhorn Network control room. Baseball, softball, and tennis seasons are just beginning, with baseball covered by six cameras and tennis by eight with matches take place on multiple courts.
“During the basketball season,” he adds, “we learned new ways to be efficient with our coverage although we still put out a lot of equipment.”
At the core of Longhorn Network productions are two mobile-production units from Lyon Video as well as three “Venue Boxes” that Bexel Broadcast Services built for ESPN. Each box houses a combination of Telecast Fiber and Studio Technologies gear that can multiplex audio and video signals for transport back to the studios.
“It’s perfect for working with ENG cameras and ENG lenses,” says Baker. “We still produce event coverage using Lyon Video trucks because of the big lenses.”
Each box can send back as many as four video signals, and two feeds can also be sent back to the event site to provide net-return monitoring or the control-room output.
“The boxes can also support three talent with IFBs, two intercom channels for camera and stage-manager communications, and an Ethernet signal,” says Baker. The Ethernet has recently begun to be used to support an on-site network printer, an addition that Baker says has been great for the producers and announcers.
Chris Calcinari, VP of event operations, ESPN, says the decision to broadly deploy fiber was based on the desire to future-proof operations.
“Right now, the sporting events are done in the mobile units, but practice shows, our speaker series, and entertainment shows are done with the venue boxes,” he explains. “But over time, their use will migrate to the sporting events.”
The TV-sports industry continues to take a long look at the ability to deliver camera signals via fiber back to a studio operation so that less staff needs to be on-site. But Calcinari says that doing full-blown remotes from a location like ESPN headquarters in Bristol, CT, are not in the plans.
“You can never be truckless,” he points out, “because you still need to move the cameras around, set up the mics, and other things that need to be done locally.”
But there is an opportunity for those who work in the back of the production truck, such as graphics and replay operators, to work remotely.
“The lack of having true transmission costs for 250 events a year strips out north of a half million dollars in costs,” says Baker. “And by crewing the events with local crew, we are also saving on travel costs.”