Inside the high-tech, high-pressure world of Outside Broadcasting

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There are few sectors of the production industry as technically demanding, and few environments as highly pressured, as outside broadcasting (OB) and its related service, electronic news gathering (ENG).

As viewers, it’s fair to say that – with the slickness of live sports events, music concerts, news segments and awards ceremonies – we are blissfully unaware of the frantically moving parts that allow the production to run smoothly. The art and the skill of outside broadcasting is to make us feel ‘like we are there’ – but to achieve this requires not only an arsenal of equipment, but a truly collective effort, characterised by the ability to remain calm and to problem-solve in even the most stressful situations.

As Anton Pretorius, founder of the Johannesburg-based company Obeco says, the basic components of OB broadcasting consist of a “studio control room in a truck. Simple as that. We add components that you don’t really see in a studio, like EVS systems, but essentially that is what an outside broadcaster provides.”

However, when you begin to break down what that service entails, it is clear that the operation is far from simple. As Pretorius explains, “You have many cameras, with cables that connect them to the van, you have a vision mixer in the van, and you have recorders that record what is being mixed. If it’s a live event, you have a Satellite News Gathering (SNG) van parked next to it that sends the mixed signal to the station. Obviously, there are a few more devices to make the end product look more exciting, but that is the gist of it.”

For Greg Nefdt, managing director of Alfacam SA – an independent company which established itself, largely, through the process of capturing the 2010 FIFA World Cup – what is essential about outside broadcasting is the “multi-camera facility” that it provides. “In the context of news, and ENG broadcasting, someone might go out with one or two cameras and the uplink vehicle, and they shoot what they need and uplink to the broadcaster,” Nefdt says. “But for covering a sports game, for example, you’re using somewhere between 12 and 24 cameras, and for some of the bigger event shows it could be more.”

Nefdt gives an insight into the unique pressures of working within such a setup. “All these cameras are filming at the same time, it’s generally live, and what you’re basically doing – in the OB van – is creating a show as it happens. You get one shot at it, and that’s it. It’s a kind of magic, really.”

Of course, such a production feat would be hard enough without any unexpected surprises along the way. However, as Nefdt explains, with so many elements involved in a production, hiccups can happen – and how they are dealt with is, ultimately, what distinguishes one OB crew from another. “Before you get onto a job, you’ve specced it, you’ve spoken to the client, you’ve done a technical brief and you’ve got a very good idea of what the show is going to look like and what it’s going to take. But, when you arrive on the show, things change. It can be various circumstances or situations that come up, and you’ve got to be able to blend in and work with those changes in a live environment, which can be challenging. And when things don’t go exactly according to plan – and because you’re working with so many components, things can go wrong – it’s vital to keep the temperature cool in the OB van and solve the problem quickly and calmly.”

He goes on to explain that one of the key features of any successful OB production is effective collaboration between the various sets of crew members. “You can have in excess of 50 crew members on a job. You have the cameramen and support crew in the venue, and then you have people inside the OB van: the director, the assistant director, EVS operators, vision controllers, vision mixer, graphics operators, auto cue operators, producers and engineering crew. Then you have crew on the audio side that are making sure everything sounds good, then the people who are managing the signal – and everyone on the crew needs to be in communication and know exactly what’s going on at all times.”

Pretorius underscores the point, saying, “Any OB van is only as good as its communications system.”

Luckily, the advancement of communications technologies such as fibre has had a tremendous effect on the OB production industry. As Thandekile Nyembezi and Eddie Seane of Vision View Productions explain, “In the past, the distance of where the van could park could cause serious challenges, but since we run our vans through fibre now, this challenge isn’t really a factor anymore.”

Pretorius emphasises the importance of this innovation. “To me, the greatest technological innovation in our industry over the last few years has to be the use of fibre. Two weeks ago we did a recording of an event in Cape Town that needed 13 cameras, video feeds all over, audio feeds and communications to everyone on the crew. The van was parked 250 metres from the stage and on the other side of a river. Every single feed had to be done using fibre – and without it, the job would have been impossible.”

In addition to the multitude of “micro problems” that outside broadcasters encounter – as Pretorius puts it, “Once you’re parked and you have three-phase power, because the equipment is so sensitive, the fight starts to keep the dust out and the cold air in” – hearing Nefdt describe the costs involved in equipping and maintaining a first-rate OB production truck gives a sense of the broader challenges facing the industry, and particularly independent players within it.

“A good outside broadcasting van, like our OB-1, if we had to replace it with all the cameras, all the long lenses, the EVS recording equipment and the audio facilities, you’re looking at about R100 million plus. And on the second-hand market, something good is still going to cost you plenty. And one of the big disadvantages in the South African market is that the quality of the OB services we produce, generally speaking, far exceeds what people are generally willing to pay for them.”

Nyembezi admits that “budget restraints will always be a cause for contention”, but insists that the only way to keep thriving in the OB industry is to “constantly nurture relationships” and to stay ahead of the pack by offering the latest technologies. “Augmented and Virtual Reality is the most exciting thing that we’ve done lately, from creating the VR environment to showing it on air. The 4K, ultra-slomo replays currently used in international cricket broadcasts – which are filmed at 2000fps – are actually directed by our very own Eddie Seane. It largely depends on where your clients are coming from because you might find an international client who wants 4K and another who are happy with HD pictures.”

As broadcasting methods and, more significantly, viewing habits continue to evolve, Nefdt sees a bright future for outside broadcasting. “The mechanisms and the platforms are changing. More and more people are finding ways to get their own broadcasting streams out to the public, who themselves are more interested in seeing the content they want to watch on the medium or device that suits them, where and when they want to. So although the landscape is changing, the advantage for OB companies is that the public is increasingly going to want to watch live multi-camera content, and they are always going to need us to be there and capture it for them.”

 

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