Live sports are undoubtedly the biggest draw for broadcasters and rights owners today. In our region, one of the most eagerly awaited events is the annual Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, which attracts a global audience of around 350 million TV viewers.
That’s before we even consider the 2022 FIFA World Cup coming to the region, which is set to attract upwards of 3.5 billion viewers globally.
The challenge for broadcasters now lies in acquiring compelling live sports content, in the quality today’s fans expect, at a cost that makes commercial sense. This has led to major developments in remote production solutions as broadcasters and rights owners seek to reduce on-site people and equipment. This is also timely within the context of COVID-19 and social distancing measures. There are, of course, challenges and compromises that must be addressed with remote production, with costs often just one consideration.
Challenges with remote production
Synchronising all video, audio and metadata feeds is one critical element in remote video and audio mixing. For example, an operator switching between two cameras capturing the final putt on the 18th green doesn’t want to see the golf ball appear to momentarily jump back out of the hole.
Minimising latency in the production and distribution chain is also key, however this becomes even more important in a remote workflow. How crucial this is, and to what extent the maximum latency can be tolerated, is dependent on exactly what control tasks are being performed remotely. This could include camera control, video and audio mixing, and video and audio being returned to the venue.
Thirdly, the availability of data bandwidth at a venue and the cost of connectivity can vary enormously. However, it is key to the technical and commercial viability of remote production. Without the necessary amount of bandwidth to transport all of the video and audio feeds back to the production facility at the necessary quality and within the desired latency, remote production is not possible.
Luckily, there are several ways these technical challenges can be addressed.
Compression based remote production
Sending uncompressed video and audio offers the highest quality and lowest latency technique for remote production, if the bandwidth suffices. Using the latest real-time media over IP standard, SMPTE ST 2110, the required timing information is inherently embedded within the streams, simplifying the synchronisation at the production facility.
With no video compression/decompression delays, this incurs minimal latency. Yet the bandwidth required, particularly with the move to UHD productions, can be prohibitive, and the costs of such connectivity, if available, are very high.
If the availability or cost of sufficient bandwidth from the venue to production facility means some form of compression is required, light compression standards (such as TICO or JPEG-XS) offer a credible alternative.
If sufficient bandwidth is not available or the cost of the bandwidth is deemed too high for the use of light compression, a higher performance codec is required. Today, this increasingly means the use of HEVC, which can provide between 120:1 to 150:1 or better visually loss-less compression which equates to a huge bandwidth saving over the light compression codecs, but at the price of an increase in latency of a few video frames.
No fiber? No problem
Given the latency requirements of remote production, fiber connectivity is often considered a prerequisite. However, if remote control of the on-site equipment is not required, then the additional latency of satellite transmission does not preclude its use. In fact, where fiber connectivity is not available, nor the additional security of having a back-up transmission path, satellite links can be used.
Another alternative to direct fiber connectivity is the use of mobile networks. Digital news gathering systems that provide live video and audio links via the mobile network — often bonding multiple connections together to obtain sufficient bandwidth — are increasing in popularity. The end-to-end latency such systems can provide is similar to those enabled by satellite-based systems, and therefore, can equally be used for remote production.
The future of remote production
The media industry is increasingly shifting towards remote workflows, and technology developments are helping service providers to deliver new offerings with greater ease and robustness. The growing availability and reliability of high data rate IP connectivity at venues, combined with the desire to reduce the financial and environmental impact of event coverage, means the increased adoption of remote production is inevitable.
Transporting all the video, audio and metadata from an event to a central production facility has so far dominated industry conversations. Going forward, however, what could be termed ‘distributed production’ with increased use of cloud platforms is likely to emerge. Meanwhile, broadcasters have more opportunities than ever to better utilise highly skilled staff and expensive equipment as live sporting events return to our screens.