The BBC has a long and respected tradition of covering large sporting events and has constantly refined and improved its coverage over the decades. Having worked for them for 35 years, Lead Sound Supervisor Dave Lee has gained a wealth of experience planning and delivering the sound and communications of a wide range of TV programmes.
Today, remote production is increasingly used to help deliver more content, to more screens, across more devices; and it is proving a key challenge for modern broadcasters.
The case for remote production is compelling. Remote production reduces our carbon footprint, it maximises utilisation of existing studio equipment at the home location, it keeps quality high and keeps costs low; and the staff can work in a well-established and familiar production environment that’s close to home.
Since the start, sports broadcasting has been central to the growth of remote production. Manufacturers and broadcasters have had to work together to overcome some fundamental challenges. In the broadcast audio world, the biggest challenge is how to combat latency; not of the overall transmission signal, but the live on-air conversations between reporters, presenters and experts at the remote venue(s), as well as in any remote studio.
These are relatively new problems for broadcast workflows. The traditional way to cover large international events is by driving an outside broadcast truck to the event, setting up flypacks, or building a transmission suite on site and mixing the entire event locally. As broadcasters begin to embrace the concept of remote broadcasting, they are finding that with careful planning they can maintain quality levels while at the same time save money.
Remote broadcasting cuts travel budgets, saves on shipping and equipment, and gives more time to staff. It maximises a broadcaster’s investment in existing studio architecture, increases content across a variety of delivery methods and allows broadcasters to be more creative with content.
But such things come at a cost and the challenges are something that broadcasters haven’t had to deal with before. BBC Sport’s Dave Lee has been central to the development of remote production for the organisation.
“Latency is absolutely key to any live sports production – the main consideration being the talent hearing what they need to hear to do their job properly. They need to hear a combination of things: mainly instructional talkback information from the production team plus the programme into which they are contributing – a mix minus themselves. They must be able to talk to one another – presenter to commentator to reporter and so on. This involves a lot of bi-directional audio traffic.”
It may surprise many that BBC Sport has been embracing remote production for many years: for example, the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics and again in Sochi 2014. Lee explains, “We had a very small team on location in Sochi with all video and audio sent via International connectivity back to the UK for transmission. The majority of the production and technical team members were located at BBC Sport in Salford, where we have our state-of-the-art transmission suites.”
When audio engineers mix live TV content, they combine local content at base where the transmission occurs, such as video from servers, audio play-ins and studio content; with a number of outside sources. The OS remote contribution from the venues generally includes Commentary, Presentation and Reporters; and often involves physical studios at the remote venue too.
These outside sources must hear the programme into which they’re contributing. To achieve this, broadcasters use a mix minus feed for every outside source. Some ground-based staff also need specific programme mixes that includes their own voices, for example, when Presentation is stationed in a noisy environment such as amid an enthusiastic and vocal crowd.
The various mixes can all be adversely affected when working remotely.
Traditional mix minus working is forgiving and successful when dealing with small latencies, because people at the venue are not hearing (echoes of) themselves. If this latency doesn’t affect the flow of conversations between contributors, then everything is good.
But as soon as you move into remote production, with its inherent higher latencies, the conversations start to suffer. This was exactly the challenge that BBC Sport encountered in Sochi – as have other broadcasters working in remote production environments.
Lee explains, “In Sochi we did use remote production successfully. However, whenever any onsite talent needed to talk to any other onsite talent, that traffic came over our international links, through the UK sound desk and back out on the mix minus to the other talent. They replied and then that came back to the UK, through the sound desk and back out again to the other talent. This torturous signal path introduced a considerable amount of latency, a combination of multiple international round trips plus video encoding/decoding (with the embedded audio). It all adds up to a significant delay.”
This results in slow hand-overs, laboured conversations and interruptions, which can be particularly confusing and frustrating for viewers when presenters and reporters who appear at the same venue exhibit a significant delay. “They are all within metres of one another, but there’s a delay because they hear each other via this international latency. We had to find a way of making this better,” says Lee.