Though the industry is eyeing more opportunities in remote production, OB trucks still play a vital role for broadcasters. David Davies looks at the latest OB developments.
Whilst there is growing interest in the possibilities of remote production and more compact mobile deployments, the demand for large OB vans remains strong – with many of them now incorporating 4K production capabilities and IP connectivity. This message comes through loud and clear during a conversation with Rainer Kampe, MD and CTO of one of Europe’s biggest systems integrators, Broadcast Solutions GmbH.
“‘Standard’ large OB vans to cover the biggest productions have always been, and will continue to be, part of our business,” confirms Kampe. But no matter what the size or scale of the OB facility, versatility is more of a priority than ever: “What we see is a strong need for flexible OB van solutions that can be used in different production environments and can work in clusters to form large production environments. Our goal is to give our customers the means to meet all production requirements and to make OB vans as flexible and as modular as possible.”
At this point in time the core design of a new OB vehicle is likely to be shaped by several primary considerations, such as: the extent to which a given broadcaster intends to embrace 4K and/or HDR production for sports and live entertainment; how flexible the vehicle needs to be – the more versatile its demands, the greater the odds that an IP-based infrastructure will be the preferred route; and the long-term roadmap for the truck in the context of a fleet that may lean more heavily on remote production as broadcasters become more comfortable with centralising core tasks back at the broadcast centre.
Kampe alludes to recent projects for Belarus’ state broadcaster, Belarus TV, and NEP The Netherlands – all undertaken in the second half of 2019 – to illustrate the present range of OB requirements. “We recently built four production ‘sets’ for Belarus TV, each comprising an 18-camera HD OB van, a 4-camera HD flightcase studio and a support vehicle,” he says. “At the other end of the scale is a large, 24-camera UHD OB truck that we delivered to NEP The Netherlands. This truck, named UHD 2, adds to NEP Europe’s fleet by following [the approach taken with a similar vehicle called] UHD 1 that was previously delivered to NEP in Sweden.”
With large event coverage in mind, the trucks had to be conducive to combined usage for full-scale UHD production. “For the customer it was very important that [the two vehicles] could be used as a team, giving them the flexibility to realise productions with more than 24 UHD cameras,” confirms Kampe. “As UHD 2 is built on the same blueprint as UHD 1, both trucks can easily be combined to function as one of the biggest mobile OB facilities in Europe; alternatively, the two trucks can also work together as each other’s backup.”
At present Broadcast Solutions GmbH is not itself experiencing a notable demand for smaller facilities to support remote production, but acknowledges that this is now a target for industry creativity. The eventual level of adoption, however, is likely to be informed by multiple factors, especially in the rights-driven world of sports broadcasting.
“There are a lot of ideas for using smaller production tools on-site in connection with remote production, cloud production or collaborative workflows,” explains Kampe. “But to establish these new workflows depends heavily on a unique ecosystem where content rights owners, producers and broadcasters will probably all be part of the content utilisation chain and see a benefit in these changes.”
For instance, where the prospective customer is rights holder, producer and broadcaster, the decision to utilise smaller, multi-purpose OB vehicles can be reached more easily. Looking ahead, Kampe agrees with the suggestion that “the topic of remote production will influence the demands and designs of mobile production tools – but it depends on the region we are talking about.”
In particular, he notes, the availability of high bandwidth fibre connectivity in individual countries will be instrumental in determining the viability, or otherwise, of remote production workflows.
- Read more: How they built it: TPC’s IP-based OB truck
‘Deep resources and solutions’
As of 2020 NEP has more than 150 OB trucks situated across the UK and Europe to deliver a busy schedule of sporting fixtures, contracts, entertainment shows and state events. Across the entire European region, says NEP UK & Ireland president Steve Jenkins, the various teams “work together to support and deploy our collective and regional resources of equipment, trucks and people to help serve our clients. Last year saw a number of larger events – including the Rugby World Cup and Cricket World Cup, to name just two – and it’s always very important that we strike the right balance to ensure our regional contracts are well-resourced and serviced.”
Consequently, the NEP fleet is a perpetual work in progress, with brand new and revamped facilities habitually enhancing regional operations. In the UK recent developments have included the expansion of the Anylive fibre network – “adding an unprecedented number of venue PoPs” – and two further remote trucks based around IP core infrastructures. Meanwhile, on the European mainland, NEP introduced a trio of new UHD OBs – one of them routinely deployed for live entertainment as well as sports.
Underlining its interest in different approaches to production, NEP also rolled out its iOB Centralised Production Platform. Showcased at IBC 2019, iOB makes it possible “to provide the mobility of a production gallery connected to our hubs, allowing us to offer a further dynamic to remote production.” A proof of concept with BBC Sport during a Premier League match between Aston Villa and Watford encompassed cameras at venue location Villa Park in Birmingham, a mobile control room in Manchester, and an audio engineer working out of NEP The Netherlands facilities in Hilversum.
Echoing Kampe, Jenkins stresses the importance of providing a myriad of production capabilities – albeit one whose exact composition has to be informed by current and probable future requirements. Observing that “all of our new trucks and many of our older trucks are capable of producing 4K shows of various sizes,” Jenkins confirms that “where clients are looking to produce in 4K and UHD we have supported and invested in the required technology.” This will remain the abiding principle as newer technologies, such as 8K, join the roll-call of production possibilities.
Similarly, while some operators have moved towards an emphatic reliance on IP connectivity, NEP indicates that SDI continues to play a crucial role in its activities. According to Jenkins, “SDI is still very much part of our production environment and will be for quite some time, so we are still in the earlier stages of IP, [although] it is a quickly changing landscape. IP helps many workflows and needs, but not all of them, so not every new platform is necessarily [IP-oriented].”
Some sense of ‘before’ and ‘after’ is unavoidable when talking about the OB sector given Covid-19’s profound impact on live sports and entertainment production. The extent to which new projects may be postponed or even cancelled outright will surely be determined in large part by how long the current restrictions endure.
According to Kampe, despite the present uncertainty, “we see an ongoing demand for OB vans and studios, with some projects just being delayed. Right now, nobody can foresee how the live and sports industry will look after the crisis – although I am sure that sports will still have a great attraction.” The continuation of social distancing could herald fresh approaches to OBs, though: “It could be the case that large sports or live events will have to be produced in a whole new way. Nonetheless, to create extra, second or third screen content, the production companies will still need production tools such as OB vans and studios, as well as consultancy services provided by an SI.”
Jenkins also emphasises the fluid nature of this period and the need to be responsive to shifting OB requirements as the crisis proceeds through its different stages. “Everyone is having to re-evaluate their plans and there are still a number of uncertainties, including when events will be able to resume,” he says. “We have continued to deliver on all of our commitments, and it’s important to monitor and evaluate the changes every day. We remain focused on people’s wellbeing; we are concentrated on working in partnership with our clients; and we have taken action to manage our costs. This puts us in a strong position to be agile and to build appropriate plans for the future.”