Outside broadcast: Then and now

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Marconi OB unit 1937 (Image credit: Telent)

Over the years, television outside broadcasts, have brought live pictures from as many locations as producers could have imagined. It’s pushed the ingenuity of designers, engineers and technical gurus to the limit and spawned new technologies that give us truly magnificent content that amaze and inspire us. Live outside broadcast television, particularly sport, is like a lubricant, keeping the gears and cogs of the media industry turning and it’s incredible to think that it all began in London exactly 80 years ago. 

They come by many a name – in the States a ‘Production Control Room’ or a ‘Production Truck’, in the UK it is known as a ‘Scanner’ or ‘Remote Truck’, elsewhere it’s a ‘Live Truck’, ‘Mobile Unit’ or ‘Live Eye’. More familiar to most of us is the term ‘OB or Outside Broadcast van’, a vehicle used to produce television and radio programming from remote locations.

The first all–electronic, ‘high definition’, 405-line outside broadcast unit was built for the BBC some eighty years ago, back in 1937. The unit consisted of three large vans, was equipped by the Marconi EMI Company and cost roughly £14 000 – which in those pre-war days was big budget. One van contained all the control apparatus, which included two vision monitors, four microphone inputs and three Emitron iconoscope cameras to supply the pictures. A second vehicle carried the 1kW VHF link transmitter and the third contained a diesel generator to provide power to the control van and transmitter van. On 12 May 1937 this unit televised part of the Coronation procession of King George VI. It was hailed as the broadcast that established an audience for television, and importantly, sold large numbers of TV sets. It’s interesting to note that at this time the technology of linking television signals was very much in its infancy. The main vision link was by landline with a standby vision link operating at 1kW on 60Mhz over a 6-mile path, which had to be line of sight with the studio.

Later that year the United Kingdom saw the first live sport broadcast, 21 June – the BBC broadcasts television coverage of the Wimbledon Tennis Championships for the first time, followed by a specially arranged football match, between Arsenal and Arsenal Reserves on 16 September 1937. By the end of the 1930’s, OB television cameras were shooting anything that came to hand from zoo trips to life on a farm, arrivals at airports to fashion events. Live television was cheaper to produce because recording technology for delayed broadcast was still in its infancy. But two years later, after an exciting start for television broadcasting, it suddenly stopped as war was declared on Germany.

The outside broadcast trucks would not be used for the BBC again until after the war. In the meantime they served as vehicles for the war efforts, stripped of their electrical equipment. World War 2 saw the temporary end of any live television production; a complete halt in the manufacture of television sets and the engineers who had been developing television technology put their expertise toward designing radar and communications systems for the military.

By the 1950s the BBC was experimenting again, more with outside broadcast locations, and in August 1950 plans were made for the first outside broadcast abroad, in France for the Centenary of the first message sent by submarine telegraph from England to France. It was the first time in history that a programme was transmitted across the Channel when viewers saw the town of Calais “en fete”, with a torch lit procession, dancing in the square and a firework display. It took almost two months to plan and five portable radio-link stations, designed to receive and send microwave signals, were set up temporarily along the 153 km route from Calais to London. Previously the working range for outside broadcast units was just 40km.

The 1950s was a very significant decade in the development of broadcast television, especially with regard to outside broadcasts. Whilst such broadcasts had been a reality since before the war, it was the prospect of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, which really made the whole idea a big success and really launched television for the masses in the UK. At least 20 million people in Britain and another 200 million people around the world viewed the Queen’s Coronation across the planet, (via live relays and tele-recordings), not a bad number considering there were no satellites back then.

1958 also saw a Tokyo based company Tsushin Kogyo which was founded in the 40’s, change its name to Sony, a company that in later years would prove to be a major role player in the OB market. It’s not clear when and where the first OB was commissioned in Africa, it could have been French Algeria but was most probably Nigeria when television began broadcasting on 31 October 1959 under the name Western Nigerian Government Broadcasting Corporation.

The swinging sixties provided many a moment of excitement for the television viewer. 1963 proved to be a watershed year in the broadcast field. Six seconds of time on 22 November changed the way media worked for decades to come. The assassination and funeral of President Kennedy was a transformative live, global TV news event. It swept an industry without a guidebook for covering a breaking story of such magnitude and utterly changed how people would receive their news, much of it thanks to the 400 odd mobile units out in the field during the 71 hours of coverage.

A few weeks later CBS rolled out a technological innovation that would change sport broadcasts forever. On 7 December 1963, US Army and Navy football teams squared off in their annual game in Philadelphia. In the fourth quarter, Army quarterback Carl Stichweh faked a handoff and ran into the end zone for a touchdown. Army fans watching at home were ecstatic. But then something strange happened. Stichweh again faked a handoff and ran into the end zone for a touchdown. The event was so disorienting that Lindsey Nelson, the commentator for the broadcast, had to explain to the audience at home that what they had seen wasn’t live. “Ladies and gentlemen, Army did not score again,” he said. Tony Verena, a young CBS producer, with a 580kg Ampex videotape machine perched on a seat in the van, using an untested method of recording tone to mark an event, on a re-used I Love Lucy tape, performed the first ever live instant replay. This was the beginning of a technology revolution that would continue through the 70’s and 80’s leading to bigger and better things.

The 70’s saw most of the world’s broadcasters migrate to colour. The 1972 Olympic Games were the first to be broadcast to all five continents using 19 colour capable OB vans. It was here we also saw the introduction of computer graphics in the world of television and CBS Sports were among the many that made use of the new technology developed by Computer Image Corporation (CIC). It was in the 80’s that Sony has delivered their first OB van. Sony has since delivered over 250 Outside Broadcast Vehicles (OB Vans) worldwide. In South Africa, Sony has been a major role player in the supply of vans to both SABC and Supersport and with the proliferation of sport throughout Africa the outside broadcast industry continues to grow with the latest technology to accommodate the need.

The majority of OB vans today are HD and UHD4k and size is certainly no limit. Broadcast Solutions GmbH recently delivered a whopping 31 camera, 29 crew van to Al Kass sports channel in Qatar.

With nine EVS XT-3 servers (12 channels each), 68 monitors and 240 multiviewer screens, this is one of the biggest vans produced so far and is unique in its design to handle the 50°C outside temperatures. In total contrast is Scandinavian economy Den lille OB-vogn (The Tiny OB Van), housed in a Piaggio three-wheeler moped. It can handle up to eight cameras, all powered by a single household power connector. It can live stream in Full HD using 3G, 4G or LAN, while a director switches using a 46in. LED multiviewer using an ATEM 1 M/E Production Panel.

This year, FOX SPORTS, Australia’s sports specialists have developed what they believe is the outside broadcast production model of the future, and it doesn’t involve vans. ‘Hubs’ built in Sydney and Melbourne allow for ‘remote production’ of FOX SPORTS’ tier one sports. This means cameras and microphones will be located at the venue, and the majority of the production team based back at the hubs many, sometimes hundreds, of kilometres away. The central control facilities accommodate up to six simultaneous events, connecting with venues via high capacity/low latency countrywide fibre network. The new hubs will mean better working conditions and opportunities for staff, increased scope for creativity, flexibility and consistency across our productions as well as providing significant savings and future-proofing FOX SPORTS for decades to come.

It will be interesting to see if the rest of the world will follow and will this become the new standard for sports television outside broadcasts globally?

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