The High-Tech Production Of Superbowl LIII 2019

The Superbowl, is perhaps the greatest show on Earth. It is the most watched sporting event in the US, with a huge following in other countries. With ratings averaging 107,978,636 viewers from 2009 to 2019, it requires an efficient way to broadcast to a wide audience. Over the years, the Superbowl has become more extravagant, with celebrity halftime shows and the most anticipated commercials of the year. It is a way for brands to advertise and for anyone who needs a few seconds of fame to get exposure. This is where big business use their ad spend budgets to boost their products markets. Putting this all together is in itself a challenge from both the technical and logistical perspective.

Superbowl LIII (2019) New England Patriots vs. Los Angeles Rams

2019 was a technological leap in Superbowl history. It was the first major NFL broadcast to use multiple 8K cameras and the creative use of AR (Augmented Reality). Getting everything setup must be done correctly because any glitch in one part of the system can affect other parts as well. To further understand, to setup all the wiring and cabling for the Superbowl broadcast takes a long time because of the magnitude and scale which the networks need to be able to successfully broadcast the event on live television. It is not the same as broadcasting to 1M people on a YouTube channel. The Superbowl requires being able to reach over a hundred million television sets nationwide and feed affiliate networks worldwide.

The Infrastructure

Superbowl LIII was held at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, GA. The venue already has laid out 4,000 miles of fiber-optic cabling, 90 miles of audio cabling and deployed 2,000 Wi-Fi access points. CBS, the studio with primetime broadcast rights to the Superbowl, add another 2,000 fiber-optic strands, 330 recording channels and 115 cameras to shoot the game from different angles. There will also be 6 network cameras fitted with AR sensors, 3 8K cameras shooting the event live and 16 cameras with 4K features.

(Photo Source: Mercedes-Benz Stadium)

The use of existing non-4k and non-8K cameras will still be needed along with the skycam, Techno-jib and AVS wireless handheld Steadicam for closer shots by the field. This combines with the other imaging systems to really deliver to the audience a high-end production quality broadcast. The only other major sporting event with this much technology would have to be the World Cup, but the use of these technologies in other sporting events is becoming the norm.

According to TVTechnology.com:

Over 25 cameras will flank each endzone including HD cameras with super slo-motion capabilities, six 4K cameras, three goal post super slo-motion cameras shooting the backlines and 14 cameras embedded in pylons per each side of the field. A total of 28 pylon cameras will be a part of the 50-plus camera feeds from the endzones.

AR Graphics

We already see the use of AR in media every day. The Weather Channel uses it to bring the news with more information and visualization. The use of it in sports is probably very practical because of play-by-play analysis. Shooting in AR was something CBS had already experimented with as early as the Ravens vs. Falcons game back in Dec. 2, 2018. It seems the Superbowl is a stage for deploying new technologies. We have seen that already back in the 2017 Superbowl with the intel drones showcase, though they weren’t flying live due to FAA regulations over the stadium.

AR is just another implementation of ways sports coverage can be more engaging and entertaining to viewers. This is also a great way to insert ads to subliminally target consumers, if you want to look at it from an advertising perspective. This will probably be necessary to have these AR segments because it is sponsors who are paying to cover the costs of production. Just flashing a brand logo might be enough at the start of a segment or they can be specifically mentioned as a sponsor. We should already be used to how television has put ads in front of our faces by now. This is just a new way advertisers are doing it.

An example of AR use in the NFL. The line of scrimmage in blue, the first down line in yellow and the Superbowl and possession graphics embedded on the field. (Source CBS Sports)

Some of the play-by-play action highlighted AR use. It looks almost like playing Madden football. I have seen some really good ones, though this Superbowl did not seem to have the best. With different persepectives and angles, including drone shot air footages, AR will continue to evolve and I mean that in a way that will be both more informative and entertaining to viewers.

8K, 4K Cameras

Just because some parts of the superbowl were shot in 8K does not mean it was broadcast in 8K. 8K is just the raw footage, but the actual broadcast is still either 4K UHD or for most homes just Full HD 1080p. What makes shooting with higher resolution cameras is that when it is downscaled, it still retains a high level of quality. 8K will be superior to 1080p and 720p any day, but broadcasting it at the moment is not entirely possible due to the existing infrastructure. Most TVs are still 1080p or 720p capable only, with more premium 4K UHD sets just gaining a market.

What makes shooting high resolution so great is when it comes to slow motion playback. This definitely helps referees who need to review a play get the best view of a play on the field to make decisions. The accuracy is there, shot from many angles. This is what helps refs make calls to determine if a play was a catch or incomplete pass. Just recently we have seen how helpful cameras were in showing that there is very little doubt that Julian Edelman did not touch the ball during the division championship. During the punt from the Chiefs, replays from different angles shot in slow motion did not show any contact Edelman made with the ball.

Replays can sometimes be controversial. What they try to do is provide the evidence that supports a call made by the referees, but if the replay shows otherwise the decision can be reversed. Some argue that it takes away from the game and doesn’t allow the players to just play. It is also the same people who get so upset when the refs make a call against their team. That is the reason we need replays and faster higher resolution cameras that can catch those footages that human eyes don’t see on the field.

OTT Streaming

The streaming TV market is a fast growing segment. Although it is a competitor to broadcast TV, it makes sense in the “Digital Age” to provide it. This is because more people are now using the Internet compared to just watching TV. This has been made available by streaming providers, that includes telecom wireless companies. Companies are realizing the wide reach of OTT among mobile users who use their smartphones, laptops and tablets to view content from the Internet.

Live OTT streaming of the Superbowl (Photo Source Yahoo)

With OTT, it is assumed that terabytes of data will flow through the networks. When things get congested, it can really slow down the data streaming rate. Latency will remain an issue that content delivery networks will always address. The 2019 Superbowl did not have any major reported outage incidents, so things seem to be moving along just fine.

Primetime networks like CBS have made streaming options available to those who have an account to their media services. Those with CBS All Access accounts can stream the game using a mobile app. Only problem with live streaming is the latency on the network. You just don’t get that same type of latency on live TV. Eventually, faster Internet speeds will take care of that problem e.g. 5G and Gigabit broadband.

Network Traffic

According to stats, Superbowl LIII smashed the event’s data traffic record for Wi-Fi at 24.05 TB (Terabytes) at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The previous year’s Superbowl data traffic was 16.31 TB. The Wi-Fi setup used gear from Aruba, an HP related company. The traffic was generated from users on social media streaming portions of the game, uploading photos and sending tweets. The most used apps were the most-used apps were iTunes, YouTube, Airplay, Spotify and Netflix. Even at the Superbowl, there are people not watching it or just taking a break from the game.

The setup and configuration of the Wi-Fi and integration with the Internet shows how much things have changed from previous Superbowls. In previous Superbowls, there was not really that much demand for data traffic. Since 2010 after the success of the smartphone the demand for data has surely sky rocketed. This is something that telecom providers are benefiting from, since they can mine data and provide insights and analytics to ad and marketing firms. This also gives developers new ideas on how to plan for capacity in future Superbowls and gather information on what the audience are using the Wi-Fi connection for.

Looks Promising

The mix of 4K and 8K with traditional cameras and AR coverage will add more value to the Superbowl. It is really about the viewership and being able to broadcast the event live. It is now becoming a showcase for new technology as well. Perhaps the time will come when we will have autonomous cameras, 3D AR graphics and even more immersive ways to view the game (think wearing headsets).

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