Among various tech innovations at this fall’s coverage of baseball’s post-season play are new — and more — infield mics that drive enhanced audio production through an IP routing infrastructure.
Networks Are All Ears For The MLB Playoffs
As Major League Baseball kicks off its postseason this week, television viewers may expect to see the data-driven advanced graphics and dramatic super-slo-mo replays. But they may be surprised by what they hear, as this fall MLB has given broadcasters new latitude to place microphones at key on-the-field positions to better capture the sounds of the game.
“The number of mics has been increased for this postseason,” says Fox Sports SVP of Production Judy Boyd, who oversees baseball coverage for the FS1 cable network and the Fox broadcast network.
“We’re putting more mics around the pitcher’s mound, around the bases, and in the fielding areas, such as between the second baseman and the shortstop. It all adds up to a more lively experience for the fan when they’re watching from home.”
Fox will deploy more than 60 microphones for its ALCS and World Series coverage to supplement 40-plus cameras.
Helping to drive the expanded audio effort for the postseason is a move to an IP routing infrastructure, provided by Game Creek Video’s 4K-capable “Yogi” mobile production unit.
While Fox has used core IP routing for several years in its NFL and golf coverage, it is a new thing for baseball.
“It gives us a higher capacity into our record machines,” says Brad Cheney, Fox Sports VP of field operations and engineering. “So, we can do a lot more isolated audios, particularly for replays.”
Broadcasters have placed microphones under the bases for the past 20 years, says Phil Orlins, ESPN’s senior coordinating producer for MLB, which produces 90 games a year and aired the ALCS wild-card game on Tuesday.
But the base mics “become pretty directional,” he says, just picking up sounds that are right on top of the base. The new mic positions, including those on the field in front of home plate, represent a big step forward.
“That’s been a nice change, getting all of the sounds around home plate and around the pitcher’s mound,” says Orlins. “I think the sound of the game has been a little different than it’s been before, with mics in the grass within 8 or 10 feet of home plate.”
For its coverage of the National League Championship Series, Turner’s TBS will put four RF mics into the grassy part of the infield — two in front of home plate and one in front and one behind the pitcher’s mound. (The enhanced ground EFX microphones are the Quantum QT5100 Aquamic wireless microphones from Bexel.)
“The antennas for these mics are like a blade of grass; they’re that small,” says Steve Fiorello, VP, coordinating director for Turner Sports.
“These mics run on battery packs, like all wireless mics, and we have to install them well in advance of batting practice. So, we have to shut them off remotely, because the battery life is only three to four hours.”
TBS will also have a mic behind the shortstop and one behind the second baseman, both probably about 15 feet back. Fiorello says TBS has been working closely with the teams and the ground crews to place the mics where they can deliver great audio without interfering with the players’ footing.
“Obviously, the shortstops and second basemen do play on the grass as well as the basepaths,” says Fiorello. “So, it’s a combination of protecting the equipment and the players.
“We’re looking to get the sounds of the game, like when a second baseman goes out to try to catch a fly ball and the right fielder is coming in and calling him off, or vice versa, we want to be able to capture that. That will bring casual fans that much closer to the field, and, of course, the hard-core fan will eat that up.”
As Fiorello notes, one of the factors driving enhanced audio is the fact that MLB playoff coverage draws far more casual sports fans than regular season baseball.
That is due to expanded cable distribution from a lack of local broadcast blackouts as well as a lack of competing games, particularly when comparing weeknight playoff games to regular season contests on Sunday afternoons and evenings.
For example, ESPN, which generally does a 1.5 rating for Sunday Night Baseball, pulled a 5.2 overnight rating for the AL wild-card game on Tuesday, up 58% compared to last year’s AL wild card. In Minneapolis, the AL wild-card game scored a 17.5, the best-ever for an MLB game on ESPN, while in New York, it delivered a 13.9, the second-highest ever there.
MLB Network, which is splitting coverage of the American League Division Series this year with FS1, says that its two National League Division Series (NLDS) games last year earned its highest combined postseason viewership ever.
And TBS, which will air tonight’s National League wild-card game and which is broadcasting the NLDS and NLCS, says that its postseason coverage could draw eight times the number of viewers who watch its regular-season games.
“Our distribution is wider during division series games, so it’s certainly our biggest audience, and there are even more viewers that watch MLB Network with free preview,” says Susan Stone, SVP of engineering and operations for MLB Network.
“So, we treat every game with the idea to entertain, to tell great stories about baseball, and bring the game closer to home with things like enhanced audio and enhanced graphics.”
MLB Network is partnering with FS1 on the Division Series games, and will be using the same Game Creek Video and NEP mobile units as Fox. It will have 23 dedicated employees onsite, working alongside roughly 35 Fox personnel.
“They take the lead on the truck element,” says Stone. “We share a lot of resources, and we enhance a little more of what they already have [with additional crew and some equipment].”
MLB Network will use 24 cameras, including an aerial unit, three super-slo-mo cameras and two Vision Research Phantom ultra-high-frame rate cameras, which can capture images at up to 2,000 frames per second.
When the production team has the time for a Phantom replay, “they give those iconic slo-mo shots like [former San Francisco Giants pitcher] Sergio Romo standing in the rain,” says Stone. “They really help show the intensity and dedication players bring to the game.”
MLB Network will produce its graphics using the advanced performance metrics generated by MLB Advanced Media (MLBAM), MLB’s digital arm, through its Statcast and PitchCast products.
The Emmy Award-winning Statcast system, created by MLBAM, TrackMan and ChyronHego, uses a combination of Doppler radar, optical tracking and statistical algorithms to show hitting metrics like the exit velocity of a home run ball leaving a bat and its launch angle, as well as pitching stats like spin rate and defensive metrics like catch probability.
The new Pitchcast system, which was created by MLBAM and ChyronHego to replace the 10-year-old PitchFX system, gives an updated strike zone display and tools like pitch trails and strike zone graphics.
All of the networks use Statcast and PitchCast to varying degrees, though the branding on their onscreen graphics differs.
In addition to ALDS coverage, MLB Network will also produce its MLB Tonight studio show at the World Series venue using an “at-home” production model, with talent and cameras onsite linked back via fiber paths to production control in Secaucus, N.J.
MLB Network first tried the “at-home” scheme for MLB Tonight at the 2009 World Series and has done it successfully since then.
ESPN has also been experimenting with some “at-home” production techniques this past season for its weekday MLB games, using IP links that allow staffers in Bristol, Conn., to remotely control some graphics systems and EVS replay boxes located in onsite production trucks while still maintaining a producer, director and other key crew onsite.
Fox will have two production trucks for the Division Series, then ramp up to four or five for the ALCS and up to six for the World Series.
At the World Series the network will have about 185 technicians and 40 production staff onsite. Fox is using Game Creek’s 4K-capable, IP-based Yogi truck as the linchpin of its LCS and World Series coverage, and plans to produce a second feed of ALCS Games 3 and 4 in 4K for distribution via DirecTV and other partners as it has already done for select NASCAR, college basketball and college football events.
While the core broadcast for FS1 and the Fox network will be 720p, Fox will use a mix of 4K- and 1080p-capable cameras in its coverage.
With super-slo-mo replays in mind, they will include two Phantom units as well as Sony HDC-4300 cameras that can capture HD at 6x real-time and HDC-4800 cameras that can capture 4K at 8x real-time and HD at 16x.
Cheney says the technical improvements in high-frame-rate cameras has “allowed us to meld that technology with a broadcast-camera look. So instead of putting in two cameras, we can do one and do both modes, both an 8x replay mode and a 16x mode.”
In total, there will be 72 record channels and 30 playout channels for the World Series games, all tied back to edit facilities in Los Angeles via one-gigabit fiber links. “It’s a pretty all-encompassing thing,” says Cheney. “We don’t miss anything that happens.”
Fox has also been working with MLBAM on creating a new augmented reality product for enhanced pitching analysis, a kind of virtual strike zone, that Boyd says will be tailored to the needs of lead analyst John Smoltz and help him show the movement of a pitch.
At press time, it was still unclear whether that would make it to air, and Boyd said it would be a “test project” in the division series.
Boyd says that compared to the once-a-week schedule of football, the nightly pace of post-season baseball is a better venue for experimenting with new technology, such as trying different frame rates with high-speed cameras.
“It’s like anything else,” she says. “You’re going to know something better with more reps. Doing a game every night gives you more time to refine the practice of it. And we have such great operators on our crew.”
While Fox is focused on new visual toys, ESPN’s newest gizmo for baseball, Front Row Cam, is simply replacing something that has been taken for granted decades ago: the “low-home” camera position that gave a head-on shot of the pitcher staring in at the catcher and slo-mo images of their throws to home plate.
With the push to put high-priced seats behind home plate, the wide space (up to 16 seats) that used to be taken up by a traditional camera and an operator has been repurposed in many stadiums.
“We’ve been struggling with how to get back that long-lens camera and super-slo-mo from behind home plate, to get back what was long seen to be a fundamental position for baseball coverage,” Orlins says.
This season ESPN found the solution, working with former 3D camera specialist Patrick Campbell to create a system that delivers big-camera performance in a compact package that sits flush against the wall behind home plate without obscuring any views.
Front Row Cam, which measures 16 inches wide by 32 inches tall, is a vertically-oriented robotic camera, wrapped in padding, that shoots at a robotically-controlled mirror that reflects the pitcher’s image.
The mirror moves to give tilt functionality, and the camera rotates on its base to give pan functionality. At press time, Front Row Cam was slated to be used in Yankee Stadium for the AL Wild Card game.
“It’s not rocket science,” says Orlins, “but it’s good high-end TV science.”