Leanne Lewis operating an NEP/Sony UHD camera on Court 18 at this year’s Wimbledon tennis tournament.
This year’s coverage of the 2023 Wimbledon tennis tournament is the biggest and most comprehensive production ever for the event, starting with the hundreds of technical crew working on it.
It includes dozens of cameras capturing 4K UHD HDR images, a complete IP infrastructure set up on site (with remote access for rights holders, editing services and a Petabyte MAM system of clips), 90km of cable and a generative AI commentator built by IBM for online fans that is providing human-like commentary on automatically generated video highlight reels.
NEP UK, a provider of broadcast solutions in the region and part of the NEP Group, along with several of its affiliates, continues its long-term partnership for technical and operational provision of this major event. Working closely with Wimbledon Broadcast Services (WBS) as host broadcaster to support local broadcaster The BBC, as well as a number of international broadcasters including ESPN, Wow Wow and Tennis Channel.
Almost Everything’s On Site
In an age of remote productions, nearly all production resources for this year’s coverage of Wimbledon are located on site at the All England Lawn Tennis Club facilities in London. NEP works from a temporary Master Control Room (MCR) set up a few weeks before the big event. The MCR is adjacent to a huge server room (approximately 130 servers) with massive AC units to keep the equipment cool. There’s IP (Arista Networks) switches moving literally thousands of signals in and out of the facility as well as throughout the club grounds, including Centre Court, No.1 Court and its 16 outer courts. The two highest profile courts have up to 26 cameras each.
Nick Arbenz, Senior Broadcast Engineer, left, with Sam Broadfoot, Technical Project Manager, NEP UK, on site at the All-England Club production truck compound.
Sam Broadfoot, Technical Project Manager, NEP UK, explained that the vision mixers, replay stations (EVS), and all of the camera base stations reside in the MCR server room. There’s a total of 36 bays hosting a wide range of technical equipment, with surfaces such as Calrec audio consoles and Grass Valley Kahuna vision mixers deployed to operational rooms. All of this is part of a complex vision, audio and control network with a petabyte of hybrid storage.
NEP UK has sent three of its largest OB Units to handle the show courts (Centre and No. 1) as well as the main BBC program feeds. NEP Belgium has also supplied a production truck for a French broadcaster. Creative Technology, an NEP Group Live Events company is delivering radio talkback and radio microphone facilities to ensure seamless capture by hosts, rights holders and other key personnel.
Additional on site broadcast services from NEP include 36 EVS VIA machines, 58 Sony cameras, 28 specialty cameras, 150 talkback panels and over 90 km of cable.
“Anything not operating from an OB truck lives in this server room, and then from that point we distribute the signals via IP,” he said. “We're running fibers to locations with a stage box or an IP node, allowing us to deliver pictures, 5.1 sound or whatever our clients need to produce their content. Then, opposite the MCR room, we have our operations center, which is where I’m based and where the engineers are managing, monitoring and controlling all of the equipment.”
All Hands On Deck
The technical support team includes employees from NEP Ireland, which is handling much of the editing workflows. Broadfoot said there’s not a huge TV compound on site. Instead, there's a main WBS broadcast center, where most of the 42 rightsholders have installed a fly pack in rooms leased from WBS. There’s also a large number of stand-up positions on the roof of the building that are being utilized by several broadcasters—like ABC’s “Good Morning America” and ESPN—for their daily Wimbledon coverage. Others are using LTE cell networks or just recording and sending signals back to their broadcast facility.
There are some people working remotely, as Broadfoot points out, but not as many as one might think.
Literally thousands of I/O IP sources were fed through Arista Switches in NEP's on site MCR to manage the broadcast production workflows.
“I know a broadcaster from Germany is here with a smaller OB truck and they're actually using a remote router panel tied into our system,” he said. “So instead of having a truck with many different recordings, they just send the feeds directly to their broadcast center in Germany and switch those feeds remotely.”
He added that the host broadcaster’s operations are very complex to do remotely because the tennis action goes on all day—the outer courts start at 11:00 a.m. and the main courts don't finish until 11:00 at night.
“We need to rotate crew around,” Broadfoot said. “It's not like a football or a soccer match or something where you could potentially have a director or operators at home working for two hours and then they're done. People need to be working in rotating shifts, so operations from the host broadcaster during Wimbledon is more productive when completed at the venue.”
Efficient 4K HDR Workflows Get It Done
He said production workflows are being handled a bit differently this year in terms of working entirely in the progressive scan domain. There’s very few interlace signals to be found.
“In previous years, we've done a P and an I version at the same time,” he said. “So the vision mixers are actually two halves tied together. You hit camera one, it cuts the progressive out of one output and the interlaced out of another. This can be resource intensive and potentially quite complicated because if there's an issue with a signal, where does it come from? So this year, we’ve improved the workflow.”
“The court OB trucks on site are working fully in IP in HDR (HLG format) and producing the outputs which we then convert into interlaced signals later on,” he added. “So you only have to embed one version of that source. You then convert it as one. That all happens for us in the MCR, which is a huge IP fly pack positioned downstairs in the broadcast center. However, the OB trucks are also tied into this network. This makes the workflow much simpler because we’re delivering one signal format from each truck. This allows the engineers to seamlessly swap sources between the trucks.”
He said that with the need to continue to offer rights holders HD SDR feeds as they have in previous years, they are now using 224 channels of conversion, and have found that the quality of the converted SDR feeds have improved, since content is now captured with a higher dynamic range.
Access To Remote MAM
An NEP facility in Northern Europe hosts Mediabank, its fully managed media asset management solution, from which rightsholders all over the world can request and receive the day's highlights and other curated content. Using a 10 Gbps link supplied by NEP Connect, content is moved to Mediabank. A highlight reel can be retrieved shortly after play has completed, while individual clips move faster. For any rights holder either on site or on the world feed, they have a log-in and access to content stored in Mediabank from wherever they are. Additional MAM support is being provided by NEP Netherlands, which is supplying 1PB of on site storage.
The Mediabank video files with embedded audio are available in the 1080i/50 HD format. As rightsholders move into HDR workflows, Mediabank has the ability to support them if required.
“The highlights are ingested live and shortly after a match finishes, rights holders can have access to the highlight reels or individual clips. These then get rendered into a couple of different formats, depending on what the clients’ needs are. A lot of the digital creative content for mobile platforms are also stored in Mediabank’s private cloud, available in different aspect ratios.”
Embedded Audio Over IP
All of the audio content—both stereo and surround sound—is embedded into the video as it leaves the IP network. It isn’t in a multichannel encoded format, but is handled as “stems” [a collection of audio sources mixed together]. Every court is mixed live in stereo and 5.1.
“We’ve built embedded audio into the system and we can add that into any of the video signals as required. We make sure there's 5.1 audio associated with most camera signals for rights holders,” Broadfoot said. “Each of the trucks have their own mixer, which works in 5.1 and stereo.”
Covering All The Courts…With Software
In years past the outer courts at the All-England Lawn Tennis Club were typically covered with static CCTV style cameras, but more recently, including this year, NEP’s Fletcher automatic tracking system has provided great content for rightsholders’ digital sub channels and online services.The Fletcher “Tr-Ace” automated robotic camera system automatically tracks players using LIDAR sensors that follow the players. As they run around the court, the cameras move by themselves. A single director using Simplylive’s software-driven live production platform can easily cover the outer courts and add basic replays.
Fletcher has developed a fully automatic camera system called Tr-Ace that automatically tracks players on the outer courts for additional coverage online. This year, for the first time, it's using AI technology.
The Tr-Ace set-up consists of four cameras that are typically used like the main game cameras, two low cameras by the net that automatically track the players, and a fourth camera that is automated using new AI technology. If required, the system operator can manually take control of any camera at any time.
“[The Tr-Ace system] has been used for a number of years now and every year it gets better,” Broadfoot said. “For viewers, it’s great. They can watch all 18 courts (online) and follow their favorite player like never before.”
Up To The Challenge
After doing this event for so many years, NEP’s on site team of approximately 400 engineers and operators have the production humming like a well-oiled machine. That does not mean, however, that there are not challenges.
“I think it's the size of the project that makes it a unique challenge,” Broadfoot said. Looking at Centre Court as a standalone broadcast, that's quite a big project on its own. But it’s probably 10 percent of what we have to manage on site, yet it’s 95 percent of the product viewers watch.
“There’s been a lot of work put into getting the HDR right,” he said. “I think we’ve gained more experience in the last few years with HDR. Engineers are used to working with it now and we've got a very strong team of engineers and operators here in London. We’ve been told the pictures at home look very good.
“I've been very pleased with how it's going this year,” he said. “There's been a big technical change for us [HDR] and everything that goes around it. There’s a lot of technology to integrate together. Covering one court with five cameras isn't complex, but when you add that to everything else that's going on, there's a lot that needs to happen correctly. The crew has been amazing. The atmosphere is really good this year. Everyone seems to be enjoying it.
“We’re incredibly proud of our successful partnership with Wimbledon Broadcast Services and we’re excited to continue to deliver the very best broadcast technology, solutions and resources to their teams as they bring the Championships to life.”
Watson Is On The Case
Supported by a dedicated team of IT experts, the Watson supercomputer from IBM has been working with WBS for several years, with on-screen stat generation and graphics for player performance improving each year. For this year’s Wimbledon tournament, the company has unveiled a new Artificial Intelligence (AI) feature that leverages generative AI technology from its watsonx— an enterprise-level AI and data platform—to automatically produce tennis commentary for all video highlights packages during the entire tournament. Without a human voice.
This year’s Wimbledon tournament saw the introduction of generative AI, using IBM’s Watsonx to generate automatic, live match commentary for online and mobile viewers.
To develop the new feature, a team from IBM iX, the experience design division within IBM Consulting, worked with The All England Club to leverage foundation models from watsonx to train the AI in the unique language of tennis. Generative AI built on these foundation models was applied to produce narration with varied sentence structure and vocabulary to make the clips informative and engaging.
The new AI Commentary feature offers fans audio commentary of key moments, along with captions, which they can toggle on or off. The tool has been designed for those watching highlights videos on the Wimbledon App and wimbledon.com. For the first time it’s making commentary available for matches outside of Wimbledon's main courts that already have live human commentary.
Another new feature IBM introduced this year is the IBM AI Draw Analysis tool—the first statistic of its kind in tennis—that uses AI to define how favorable the path to the final might be for each player in the singles draw. A player's draw favorability is indicated with a rating along a scale, based on factors including the player matchups against potential future opponents and how the player's position in the draw compares to competitors. IBM said this new insight will help tennis fans to uncover anomalies and potential surprises in the singles draw, which would not be apparent by looking only at the players' ranking.
The new features being introduced this year add to the suite of AI-powered digital tools for fans already available on the Wimbledon App and wimbledon.com and used in years past. They include the IBM Power Index Leaderboard, IBM Match Insights and Personalized Highlights Reels and Recommendations. Using over 100,000 data points from every shot played across the tournament, analyzed by IBM's Watson AI technology on IBM Cloud, these digital features are designed to make it easier for fans to understand which players to follow, how they compare to their opponents and who's likely to win.
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