About 1 billion viewers will be watching Super Bowl XLII Feb. 3, but few will give much thought to, let alone understand, how much digital data is being fed to them-and how it’s all assembled and telecast.
Mike Davies gives it a lot of thought. Davies, director of field operations for Fox Sports, spent some time with eWEEK recently and offered an overview of what it takes tech-wise to put on a huge live show like the Super Bowl.
As one might imagine, it’s a pretty big operation. Everything has to work together down to the second; a production mistake can stand out like a missed field goal in overtime.
“We’ll be using about 300 people and eight on-site production trucks-four for general game coverage, two for instant replays and two for the preview, halftime and post-game shows,” Davies said. “We’ll have 35 high-def cameras at the game [including the motorized, radio-frequency-operated, over-the-field cam] and three for the red carpet show.”
Red carpet? At the Super Bowl? Yes, there indeed will be an Oscars-like pre-game show, featuring host Ryan Seacrest, in which he interviews various celebrities and VIPs for two hours as they arrive at the game. There is also a two-hour pre-game show before the game actually starts at 6:30 p.m. Eastern time. Both pre-game shows will be intermingled on air.
So when scheduling your Super Bowl party, keep in mind that the game actually starts four full hours after the so-called Fox “coverage” begins.
“Hey, they were quite able to sell all that time,” Davies said. “People will watch, all day long.”
Indeed they will. According to the Nielsen television rating folks, the Super Bowl-no matter who’s playing in it-has been consistently in the top 10 of all single-event telecasts year after year since 1969, when Broadway Joe Namath put the event on the map by boldly predicting a victory for the underdog New York Jets against the then-mighty Baltimore (now Indianapolis) Colts.
Miles of Cable and "TiVo on Steroids"
The Super Bowl is the single most powerful television event in the marketing world-and has been for a generation. It will earn the attention of between 30 to 40 percent of all the world’s televisions being used on that Sunday evening.
No matter for Davies, who seemed very calm about it all.
“It’s really just another game for us,” he said. “We’ll have a few more cameras, trucks and crew than usual. The long pre-game is all extra, but we’ve done this all before. When we did the NFC Championship game in Green Bay (Packers vs. Giants, which the Giants won), the cold was definitely a factor. I don’t look forward to doing that again. But Phoenix-weather won’t be an issue.
“The hardest preparation problem I have to solve is that the red carpet show is 4,000 feet away from where the trucks will be parked at the stadium, and we have to lay three fibre- channel cables that far. That’s about three-quarters of a mile; a lot of cable to lay down, and a lot of territory to cover [across streets, culverts, walkways, and other obstacles],” Davies said.
Davies and his crew will use high-end, industry-standard EVS video servers, as they do for all NFL telecasts.
“These are the cornerstones of all our telecasts,” Davies said. “They are like Tivos on steroids. They can each handle either four or six channels of input and output-at the same time. They can record and play back HD video at the same time.”
Fox Sports will use 22 of these specialized servers in the broadcast, Davies said, with either one or two cameras assigned to each server.
“One of the replay servers and replay cameras, for example, will only be collecting highlight clips for the end-of-show highlight reel,” Davies said. “By the end of the game, it’s all cut, packaged and ready to go. During the game, the other instant-replay cameras and servers will work together to show various angles on the plays, to see what really happened during a controversial call, for example.”
These same replays are the ones used by the officials when they are reviewing whether Wes Welker had two feet inbounds on a sideline pass from Tom Brady, or whether big Brandon Jacobs actually did push the ball over the goal line when he was tackled by Junior Seau.
“Four of our replay cameras will be shooting 180 frames-per-second HD video, which will give us ‘super-slow’ motion,” Davies said. “We’re also going to use one Vision Research Phantom V9 hypermotion camera, that shoots 300 frames per second-for ultra-slow playback. It’s normally used for government jobs. We expect some phenomenal shots with that one.”
A Year in the Making
Fox Sports uses standard XFile video storage drives that hold 500GB of video data files apiece. “They’re really just high-end SATA [Serial ATA] drives, and we simply save all the video clips as files, like you would any other video file,” Davies said.
Fox uses Apple’s Final Cut Pro video editing software to cut and paste video clips at two separate editing stations during the game. Each editing station uses a 7.5TB-capacity Xserve RAID storage server, far more than is needed to handle a football game-even one with a four-hour pre-game show.
By game’s end, there will be a several terabytes’ worth of video data in the Fox archive servers “melted together from all the best shots in the game,” Davies said. “We can’t store everything we shoot with 35 cameras.”
Fox’s first-team telecast lineup of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman will be in the booth calling the action, and the usual suspects-Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long, Jimmy Johnson and Chris Myers-will be handling the pre-game, halftime and post-game shows.
Davies said his trucks arrived in Phoenix on Jan. 25, nine full days before the game.
“It takes a full year, really, to plan this out,” Davies said. “We’ll start planning the 2009 game right after this one’s done.”