Super Bowl LV Is Live Production Industry’s Biggest Triumph

When CBS Sports broadcasts images of the players taking the field on February 7th for Super Bowl LV to millions of viewers around the world, it will be the culmination of the most challenging season for live football sports production in the U.S.

Working through a myriad of COVID-19 protocols as they have all season—where crews on board production trucks are subjected to testing, daily screening, plexiglass dividers, protective masks and follow CDC guidelines—CBS is bringing the NFL’s biggest game, from Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., into viewers living rooms with new innovations, remote workflows and an expanded production truck compound that’s 20 percent larger than in the past. For the industry, and NEP U.S. Broadcast Services in particular, which is handling the main game telecast and a lot more, it is nothing short of miraculous.

For CBS Sports—which now has broadcast 20 Super Bowls, including the very first one in 1967—the key is to move forward and bring the game to home-bound viewers who could use the distraction.

“This game is coming at a really important time in our country.” said Sean McManus, Chairman of CBS Sports. “America needs this Super Bowl. It’s going to be uplifting and unifying for everyone.”

NEP’s extensive fleet of mobile production units and engineering teams will handle the main telecast as well as the half time show—and a variety of other events for CBS and other clients like NFL Films. It has deployed up to 20 “A” and “B” units to Tampa along with an array of ancillary support services provided by sister business units Aerial Video Systems, Bexel, Broadcast Sports International and Fletcher. A total of 120 HD, 4K and 8K standard and Super Slo-Mo cameras, most supplied by Sony, will capture the action from literally every angle. Some of the cameras will be controlled robotically from high up in the stadium concourse levels.

Glen Levine, president of NEP US Broadcast Services, said that Aerial Video Systems will provide the RF cameras for the game and half time show; Fletcher has set up five Robocams on the top of the stadium; Broadcast Sports International will be providing eight Endzone PylonCams; and for game coverage, NEP/Bexel has built a flypack for routing and distribution of signals throughout the compound.

CBS is pulling out all of the stops to cover the big game from literally every angle.

CBS is pulling out all of the stops to cover the big game from literally every angle.

While the trucks feature the latest in technology—including EVS HD/4K replay servers, Grass Valley production switchers, and Calrec Audio mixers—of particular interest is NEP’s SuperB unit, which will serve as a distribution hub to send signals to international broadcasters, the NFL Network and the head end for all of the fiber distribution for the game on site.

Innovation Continues

“No compromises, that’s been our goal throughout this entire pandemic,” said Mike Francis, VP, Remote Engineering, CBS Sports. “’How can we safely do at least much and more than we typically wound under normal conditions?’ With no fans in the stands we’ve been able to experiment a lot this year and you’ll see the payoff during the Super Bowl telecast.”

Indeed, the Super Bowl telecast itself has long been a showcase for new technology and this year, despite the pandemic, is no exception. A JibTek Trolley Cam System will run along one sideline 12 feet above the eighth row of seats and follows players as they run down the field (at up to 50 miles per hour). The Trolley Cam will speed along a cable from one end of the stadium to the other, ziplining along a wire and positioned to provide the viewing angle of a fan in the stands. The rig will provide a look at the players from a vantage point not used in the history of the Super Bowl. 

A JibTek Trolley Cam System will run along one sideline 12 feet above the eighth row of seats and follows players as they run down the field (at up to 50 miles per hour).

A JibTek Trolley Cam System will run along one sideline 12 feet above the eighth row of seats and follows players as they run down the field (at up to 50 miles per hour).

Among 10 Sony HDC-4800 4K high frame rate (120 fps) cameras, the crew will employ four around each end zone to capture every angle of a scoring play. The crew on board one of the main production trucks (called “Supershooter-CBS A, B, or C”) will take those 4K images and extract a 1080p image (without losing resolution) for inclusion in the HD broadcast. There will also be two new Sony 8300 8K cameras pointing down each side line, which allows the operator to zoom to 800 percent of the original frame to capture out-of-bounds plays. HD images will be extracted from this larger frame for inclusion into the main broadcast. This extraction will happen onsite in one of the NEP production trucks.

Complementing this are two Sony Venice digital cinematography cameras that are being used for the first time in a sports production, capturing up close shots of players while taking advantage of the camera’s shallow depth of filed capabilities. One will be mounted on a Steadicam system and the other one a Movi Steadicam, which has more range of motion. In addition, several DSLR-style camera will also be used on Steadicam-type rigs to get up close.

“It gives a cinema look and the guys are having a lot of fun with it,” said Francis.

There will also be 53-foot Movie Bird crane, traditionally used for motion pictures and television productions that will be located on the upper concourse to give dramatic sweeping shots of the “The Super Bowl Today” pregame set, the game action as well as serving as one of the many augmented reality encoded cameras that will be strategically placed throughout the stadium.

HD/AR Graphics

CBS Sports has debuted a new look for its graphics, using augmented reality systems from a company called Silver Spoon, which has provided virtual production and motion capture services to render the graphics in real time with an on-site Unreal Engine compositing system. They will also generate the on-filed AR graphics with several Skycam systems running across the top of the field. A company called SMP Digital Graphics has provided this technology as well as the HD graphics systems for the onscreen score bar.

Remote Production

To adhere to safety protocols, several EVS replay operators and graphics personnel will be located at CBS Headquarters in New York and will work remotely, in real time, during the game. CBS has establish a 10 GBps point-to-point fiber connection for file transfers between Tampa and New York. They actually have two paths for redundancy and replay operators can turn around highlights within minutes.

To free up space in the onsite mobile units, Francis said there will be four people creating game replays on EVS XT3 playout/replay systems from their living rooms. Working on the private network, the operators will appear as if they are in the truck. There will be no lag time.

“We have really high-quality, low latency (10 GBps) connections between Tampa and these remote sites,” he said. “We have multiple 10 GB connects. Then we have a direct point-to-point 5 GB fiber connection for all of the video we’re moving to and from the CBS Broadcast Center.”

CBS has unveiled a new graphic look, created by SMP Digital Graphics.

CBS has unveiled a new graphic look, created by SMP Digital Graphics.

There will be another 1 GB connection to encode elements to the private cloud CBS has set up for the people working from home. So, in total, they’ll have upwards of 20 GBps of connectivity available at any time during the broadcast.

RF Coordination

Establishing interference-free frequencies for its wireless RF cameras, microphones and other equipment will be a bit easier this year, due to limited people in the stands, but Francis said it’s still a challenge to get right.

“There’s still just as much broadcast going on,” said Francis. “It’s true that we’re not fighting as much cellphone traffic from fans, but there’s still a lot of coordination of frequencies that have to be established.”

Audio From Afar

The whole year has been interesting in terms of audio for TV sports production. CBS has been taking crowd noise created by NFL Films for its regular season broadcasts, but for the Super Bowl it will add the live fans in attendance as well.

“We’ll use more or less of the simulated crowd noises, depending upon the crowd in the stands on game day,” said Francis. “I’m sure it will be a mixture of both audio elements come game time.”

The other audio challenge is player interviews, which must be conducted in a socially distanced way. They will use external speakers, headsets and monitors to conduct the sideline interviews—the way it was done for the entire 2020-21 NFL season.

Lessons Learned Will Remain

Many of the technologies being used for this game might not have been tested in another normal year as they were deemed “not ready for prime time.” Now, all bets are off.

“There’s no doubt we’ve been handcuffed by the COVID restrictions, but we’ve continued to push innovation in our sports coverage on a lot of levels,” said Francis. “Things we’ve been working on extensively at the R&D level inside CBS Sports are now being used on the field. That’s what this pandemic has done, it’s speeded up implementation of new technologies to enhance the broadcasts. We’ve had to step up as an industry and we have. It’s been a challenge but a lot of fun too.”

And there’s no doubt that crews have gotten more adept at producing live sports under protocol-heavy conditions. Many of the lessons learned will certainly carry over into the future.

“As an industry, there was a great effort of collaboration among competing companies to work together to work through protocols and bring sports back to TV,” said NEP’s Levine. “There were a lot of innovations implemented this year to develop new workflows to reduce the number of people on site during a production.

“When live broadcasts first resumed (in June 2020), we struggled to get one or two games on the air in a weekend, when in a normal year we would be doing 50,” he said. “Our team continues to amaze me as to how nothing stops them. Every curveball that was thrown at us, they handled it with grace. Nobody complained, we just did the job we needed to do to get the events on the air and keep our clients happy. We’re not out of this yet, but the lessons we’ve learned will serve us well into the future.”

Of Note:

  • The 2021 Super Bowl won’t be available to stream in 4K or HDR this year, like it was last year on Fox Sports. To date, CBS has not offered an NFL game in 4K/HDR. CBS’ linear TV Super Bowl Sunday coverage will kick off at 11:30 a.m. and run non-stop until about 11:30 that night.
  • The NFL is allowing 22,000 fans to attend Raymond James Stadium, including 7,500 vaccinated health care workers to thank and honor them for their service during the pandemic.

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