January 08, 2018

TV Technology

While the broadcaster plans to deploy some tech goodies, their use won't get in the way of big moments

NEW ORLEANS—New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panther receivers and quarterbacks weren’t the only ones concerned about what was in and out of bounds Sunday (Jan. 7) in New Orleans during the NFC Wildcard game.

Fox Sports, which telecast the game, walked a different sort of line with its playoff coverage—one that delineates between delivering the great shots needed to present game action and some new tech implementation that actually gets in the way of coverage.

“We don’t want to make things all that different for the production team and give them a whole bunch of stuff that they haven’t had before for the big games,” says Mike Davies, SVP of Field and Technical Operations at Fox Sports. Rather, the strategy is to start with a “base layer” of production technology used throughout the 17 weeks of the regular season and then deploy choice pieces of technology that will have the biggest impact on game production and allow Fox Sports to tell the best story, he says.

“A lot of this stuff we’ve used before and some just this year,” says Davies. “We just pick the best of the best to represent us.”

For example, for the three NFL playoff games Fox Sports is covering the broadcaster will add a second, higher SkyCam to deliver a drone’s-eye view of plays that captures all 22 players on the field. “Although you think of how over the top two SkyCams might sound, it turns out to be very useful,” says Davies. Fox Sports first used the dual SkyCam setup during the preseason and then again in Week 5 for the Packers vs. Cowboys game. “I think that camera angle is new enough that we are still learning what it can do,” he says.

The broadcaster recognized the upper SkyCam “was something special” in Week 5 during a play involving Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliot. “He jumped over that pile and no camera, including the lower SkyCam, saw that he had reached out over the first down line [except for the new upper SkyCam],” he says. “At least for that moment, we were sold that this is something special and something we wanted to offer.”

However, camera enhancements—both in terms of numbers and applications—aren’t limited to the second SkyCam. For its NFL playoff coverage, Fox Sports will deploy seven 8x Super Mo cameras, rather than the typical five. Fox also will use 6x Super Mo for its SkyCams, which it first did for its Super Bowl LI coverage in February 2017.

“There are so many replay opportunities in football, and the Super Mo gives this crisp—almost cinematic—look at the action,” says Davies.

The sports broadcaster also will take advantage of work it has done this year with Sports Media Technologies (SMT), SkyCam and Vizrt “to cobble together a recipe” to do augmented reality with the SkyCam, he says. Not only does the setup allow Fox Sports to put a live yellow line on the field of play with its SkyCam shots, but also to put graphic billboards and other 2-D graphics on the field and to fly around them with the SkyCam as if they were real objects.

“It’s a bit of an orchestration because the pilot of the SkyCam needs to be flying around the object as if it were an object on the field. If you break through it, it’s not going to look real,” says Davies.

Another enhancement is how Fox Sports will use its pylon cameras, says Davies. Rather than pointing the pylon cams positioned at the front of the end zone down the field, Fox will rotate them so they look down the field at a 45 degree angle, says Davies.

“That gives you a way to cover a play where the camera is actually looking. Yes, you have the goal line, but you also have the out-of-bounds line as well,” he says. As a result, there are more game situations in which the pylon cameras can contribute to coverage.  “The pylon cameras are a lot like catching lightning in a bottle. They are great, but you don’t want to use them unless you’ve got something that is really compelling,” says Davies.

While it is too soon to tell if the drop in viewership plaguing the league this season will carry over to the playoffs, Davies is confident that the right technology and production techniques have the potential to help fans reconnect with the game.

“I feel that what we are able to do using all of this incredible technology—the dual SkyCams, the Super Mo’s and the pylons—is that we are able to deliver that kind of experience in replay right after the play that also shows the emotions of players, not just what happens between the whistles,” he says.

Harkening back to his stint at HBO, Davies recalls the connection the cinematic style used for “Inside the NFL” created as “you watched a game that happened three or four days prior.” Today’s production tools give broadcasters that same opportunity to create that connection, he says. “I can’t help but think that these kind of storytelling tools, honestly, can only help,” says Davies.

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