Slam-Dunk for TNT, In Demand and NBA
Byline: ANTHONY CRUPI
Air Jordan had been cleared for takeoff in one final NBA All-Star Game, and TNT spent the week leading up to the event making sure the last look we got was a doozy.
In conjunction with the NBA and In Demand, TNT aired the 2003 All-Star Game and the league’s All-Star Saturday Night activities in 1080i high-definition (HDTV). If you’re lucky enough to be part of the silk top-hat crowd and a) own an HD set and b) have access to an HD-capable set-top box, you may have been able to count His Airness’s taste buds as he stuck his tongue out in preparation for a ride down the lane.
Although all eyes (and cameras) were on Michael Jordan last Sunday, the feast of images on display didn’t end with number 23. HD is nothing if not about the details. When it all came together, the pebbled skin of the basketball in Yao Ming’s mitts should have stood out like gooseflesh. Allen Iverson’s tattoos should have looked freshly inked. That vein in Jason Kidd’s head should have throbbed like a Bootsy Collins bass line.
Good stuff, and another validation for early adopters, to be sure. But as any hoops fan has asked himself while an MJ or a Dr. J. has defied gravity and the fixed coordinates of space and time, how’d they do that? Just three days before the broadcast of Saturday’s pregame activities, John Vartanian, SVP of technology and operations, broke down his team’s game plan.
“This is our very first HD broadcast,” Vartanian said. “So we’re going to be extra careful to make sure everything goes right.” The first step took place thousands of miles away at In Demand’s Denver, Colo., origination facility. There, In Demand’s HD encoder was linked to its standard definition (SD) encoder. After that, Vartanian’s crew had to define a new channel in the encoder software. The initial process demanded “about a day or two of prep on our end,” Vartanian said.
From there, In Demand set up the multiplex that carries the HD signal and inserted that into its second NBA transponder Thursday afternoon. Live testing from Atlanta began the day before the broadcast.
The second NBA transponder, which normally carries six SD games during the regular season, draws about 1 MBps per channel, Vartanian said. That leaves about 19 or 20 Megs for the HD stream. (A cable channel’s capacity is 26.97 MBps.)
Of course, the original feed has to be compressed before it’s ready for prime time. According to TBS SVP of public relations Jim Weiss, Turner’s original uncompressed feed is somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 to 45 MBps, well over cable’s 26.97 MBps capacity.
In Demand does its initial compression right there in Atlanta, Vartanian said. Upon receiving the Atlanta signal in Denver, In Demand turns around and uncompresses it, sending the signal to its Motorola HD encoder, where the bit rate is whittled down to a manageable 19.3 MBps.
At that point, most of the pieces of the HDTV puzzle have fallen into place. “The cable operators receive the signal with their existing NBA decoders,” Vartanian said. “From there, all they need to do is to define the new HD channel in their head-end. Once they do that, they’re in business.”
Courtside, TNT relied on no less than eight Panasonic ultra-compact AK-HC900 HD box cameras. The progressive scan AK-HC900 boasts multiple frame-rate capabilities (60fps is best for HD) and employs three 1 million-pixel (1280-by-720) IT CCDs (charge-coupled devices). The 3.9-pound cameras were located in the announcers’ booth and at the four corners of the court, capturing on-court, billboard, bumper and isolation shots for the telecast.
Turner routed the coverage provided by an NHK truck to its SW Mobile truck, where two additional cameras were added to the mix. Graphics were upconverted to HD. Any 4:3 material aired in 16:9 aspect ratio with the requisite black bar letterboxing.
Rather than charging operators for the pricey 1080i feed, TNT asked that each MSO system run a number of free promotional spots for the All-Star Game in the days leading up to the broadcast.
One minor disappointment was the lackluster sound. The event was produced in standard stereo, not Dolby 5.1.
THE NEXT QUESTION:
*Will sales of HDTV sets begin to gain momentum following the NBA All-Star Game?
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