Outside Broadcasting (OB) is the electronic field production (EFP) of TV or radio programme: usually covering news, sports and other events, from a mobile remote broadcast television studio or van. The camera and microphone signals are fed to the van/truck equipped with a production control room (OB van), to process it and further transmit it. In today’s time, many events happen outdoors/outside the confines of a studio and thus, cannot be shot inside a studio. This is where OB is summoned. OB vans are a central element in outside broadcast events such as sports events, music concerts, performing arts and cultural functions. This type of production forms the basis of the majority of locally-produced airtime. Government broadcaster, Doordarshan, actively uses OB vans stationed across the country, to gather and broadcast news in India.
Unlike in a studio, where the director can re-take a shot if necessary, OBs are live, edge-of-the-seat productions. This is what makes them exciting. Everything happens real-time, the sound, visuals, special effects, graphics and commentary are recorded to the second, and with little or no lag. OB setups are thus, highly-charged environments, keeping each crew member on his toes. This also makes it challenging for the crew, where split-second timing can make or break the production. Television outside broadcasts can be any size and complexity, from a single camera to dozens of cameras and staff. Generally, the term OB implies multi-camera coverage co-ordinated and directed from a mobile control room. Trained staff and advanced technology gives the viewers on their TV or the listenership on the radio the opportunity to be with the crowd in the stadium, opera house or theatre when far away from the action. End customers use hi-tech video and audio devices to be ‘drawn’ into the event, e.g. immersive audio, and this at best quality. Rights holders and advertisers build on high-quality content and high-quality production and transmission. Beside the production technology for video and audio production
it is the complete technical infrastructure which must be capable of integrating all resources with full access to optimally use all devices and operators or engineers. Most OB vans are now based on IP which is the answer to all the requirements for great productions.
OB trucks are mobile broadcast units and are able to broadcast from most any remote location. They are used in many live and prerecorded events, both: indoor and outdoor. Typical use would be at remote locations away from broadcast stations, such as arenas or sports stadiums. An OB van is essentially a mobile studio. Cameras, vision control, sound mixing, vision mixing and everything else needed to produce a television production - are housed within one vehicle. Once again, all equipment is broadcast quality with the van being used in numerous broadcast programmes. An OB van is usually equipped with high quality reliable broadcasting equipment, which is capable of content production in the required format such SD/HD/4K. This kind of production station is very useful for reliable live sports coverage, high profile government event coverage, and other cultural events. “OB Vans are essential for the outside broadcast market and are the backbone of the broadcast industry. OB Vans vary in size from small sprint trucks to long ‘expando’ tractor trailer behemoths that rival the most sophisticated broadcast mothership control rooms. Without these essential studios-on-wheels, we would have to truck-in fly-packs and assemble and disassemble the entire control rooms for each broadcast,” said Rom Rosenblum, applications engineer, Clear-Com.
The concept of OB can be traced back to late 1920’s. The first large-scale outside broadcast was the televising of the Coronation of George VI and Elizabeth, in May 1937, done by the BBC’s first Outside Broadcast truck, MCR 1. After the Second World War, the first notable outside broadcast was of the 1948 Summer Olympics. The Coronation of Elizabeth II followed in 1953, with 21 cameras being used to cover the event.
Current-day outside broadcasts employ designated and specially-designed OB vehicles, many of which are now built around the omnipresent IP technology—giving the conventional coaxial cable a run for its money. The broadcast industry has witnessed a noteworthy transition in terms of the rise in the use of flyaway Portable Production Units, which facilitate a heightened level of customisation and can be rigged in a larger variety of venues.
An OB unit or van, is a mobile production unit, and encompasses equipment and the crew. Some OB units may specialise in a particular area; for example, a motorsports OB unit would carry dedicated camera equipment for in-car coverage and the crew members would know the sport well. A typical OB unit comprises of a number of capture devices including cameras and microphones, MCR (Mobile Control Room) staffed by a director, switcher, CCU/ SPG, vision mixer, PCR (Production Control Room), vision controller, sound operator, equipment and housing for a presentation area, and essential transmission equipment which is typically an antenna. With the advancement of technology, more and more technology is getting integrated and implemented within the workflow.
The control room houses audio monitors, which enable the operators to hear and edit the audio. The audio room typically comprises a sophisticated audio console that ties in to the truck’s router system and in more modern vehicles, into a DANTE network or other digital audio platforms. It also has a variety of audio playback systems as well as telephones to connect to offsite coordination venues such as the network’s master control room, though that is starting to be replaced with more modern VoIP systems. You will also find an integral audio (digital and analog) patch bay and all the many signal processing gear to style the sound to conform with the standards necessary for any particular broadcast.
Just next to the audio room is the PCR. This is where the director, producer, graphics and other essential people work. It typically has a very large video monitor wall and the TD (Technical Director) switches the various video sources at the command of the director. The graphics operator/designer follows those same instructions to enhance the production. Assistants would be on the phones coordinating with the MCR off site from this PCR.
Next comes the tape room. “We rarely actually use video tape anymore, but the name stuck. Here, the tape operators play back and record the elements of the show, while building ‘packages’ from snippets recorded during the broadcast for later use,” explained Rosenblum.
He explained that usually at the back of the OB Van would be the video control and engineering spaces. Video cameras are remotely set up and maintained by the video operator who ‘shades’ and ‘colours’ the camera from this space. The camera operators zoom, pan, tilt and focus the cameras, but the video operators adjust all the electronics from the van. Next to them, is the transmission area, where the Engineer-in-Charge (EIC) works. They make sure the encoders are properly set and that all the signals leaving the OB van are up to snuff. “They also do maintenance and keep everything ship-shape. Sometimes we call them the ‘truck-mother!’” he added.
Teletext monitors uses a local teletext system to provide information to televisions located around the venue. A few environmental controls are also provided for lighting and power. Edit stations enable editing. Video monitors are provided for the main preview and program feeds, each VT machine, and certain selectable sources.
Interestingly, off-air decoders are used to monitor the broadcasted programme off-air when using a paid coding system. Camera monitors are unique for each camera; five cameras would typically be connected to five monitors. Graphics requires its own set of monitors, in addition to a waveform monitor and vectorscope for monitoring the technical parameters of video signals. Vision mixers are the main components controlling the video input/output. Operated either by the director or a vision switcher, they determine which vision sources are fed to the program feed.
The modern OB van is notably more efficient than its predecessors. Now, it is fitted with the latest technologies in digital audio and video, as well as modern video walls (replacing the older CRT tube televisions), which greatly reduces the weight and efficiency of the truck. Digital transport of the video and audio also greatly reduces weight, as we no longer need so many long audio multi and video triax cables, fibre and network cables are quickly replacing these heavier copper cables.
“Digital communications system are being introduced, such as more modern communication matrix systems as well as advanced wireless communications gear, such as Clear-Com’s newest Eclipse HX matrices with Dante, AES67 / SMPTE 2110-30 capabilities, FreeSpeak II and FreeSpeak Edge (the new 5GHz wireless communications system), among other advanced systems,” added Rosenblum.
New digital platforms are quicker to set up and so very much more versatile than the legacy systems. A technician from just a decade ago would not recognise many of the advancements; several major leaps of efficiency and versatility have been implemented these last few years. As the demands of the production executives expand, the technology is not only keeping up, but actually pushing the production values ahead, as more and more features keep popping up in the new gear. According to a spokesperson from Sennheiser,
equipment inside an OB van is high quality reliable equipment, which is capable of content production in the required format such SD/HD/4K this gives production crew confidence to focus on their work. In case of long working hours, production crew can leverage the comfort provided by an all-in-one system, with backup of critical equipment which ensures 100% reliability.
“The more intertwined the integration—achieved by IP devices and a networked IP infrastructure—the more efficient is the use of the available equipment in and out the OB van by using an overall control and operating system. This will logically lead to a more efficient use of all resources, saving time and energy by less preparation time, faster startup time, requiring less staff with the OB faster heading its new destination, and, thus, saving costs and making general operation easier and faster,” said Wolfgang Huber, head, Public Relations, Lawo.
“As we see trends being adopted, we not only meet the demands of the end users, but exceed them, so as to make their professional lives easier. Clear-Com takes pride in having our finger on the pulse of the industry. Many of our engineers come from the broadcast industry, so we not only know the pain points but also recognise where we need to move the ball forward to keep up and advance the industry’s needs. Clear-Com takes pride in not only attending, but leading trainings and seminars at all major trade show and technical symposia, where the exchange of ideas take place. As active members in associations such as Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers (SMPTE), the Audio Engineering Society (AES), and AIMS, as well as many trade and commercial associations, we stay in touch with techniques and technologies that are on the horizon,” said Rosenblum. However, the cost of an OB van is high as compared to the substitute product available in market (3g/4G backpack).
If one takes into consideration the ease, efficiency and an end-to-end setup facilitated by an OB unit, one can readily come to the conclusion that it doesn’t pose any major challenge. “In fact, all aspects are easier with the introduction of the OB van. Everything is in one tidy place, which is designed for efficiency and easy access. Costs are kept lower and the very nature of OB is mobile…so the van can pick up and move to the next spot configured for the next shooting or be set back to nominal for the next customer,” said Rosenblum.
An OB van enables high-definition content capture, processing, storage and transmission—the entire universe under a single roof. Maybe there’s one thing that is eventually threatening the use of OB vans—size and compactness?
TECH AND TOOLS
Doordarshan used OB vans to capture HD content during recent foreign delegate visits in India, and also for live sports coverage. Sennheiser has an array of equipment employed in various OB vans across broadcasting companies worldwide. It specialises in long gun and shot gun mics, wired lapel mics for reporters, plug-on transmitters and accessories, portable receivers and professional headphones. Clear-Com’s FreeSpeak II makes use of DECT technology, whereas the wireless communications now are not restricted to one single point of transmission, but a network of transceivers can be assembled to greatly broaden the coverage area without the need for expensive and cumbersome antenna distribution gear. Multi-studio and multi-floor coverage is now available as well as the LQ product line, which allows network and internet transport of communication and audio signals around the facility and around the world.
Lawo’s V__matrix, software-defined IP-routing, processing and multi-viewing platform plus Lawo’s video routing and processing equipment, as well as the Lawo audio broadcast production consoles, with the complete (Lawo and other) technical infrastructure controlled via Lawo’s independent VSM “Broadcast Control System make any OB van a highly flexible, efficient and easily integrated mobile unit. It all provides the above mentioned requirements to tackle any production and to deliver the highest possible quality and availability. The use of IP-based mobile units—from small-size ENG sprinters to large OB trucks – allow the broadcasters to be on site with a full production studio or with smaller units to be fast at the scene. OB vans solve the task of broadcast production where no other ways of broadcast production can be accessed,” said Huber. For its M15 OB truck, NEP chose the Lawo V__matrix IP routing and processing platform loaded with function-specific software handling all IP I/O, SDI I/O, audio processing, and multiviewers.
WAY TO GO
Due to advancement in technology, an OB van might eventually lose its importance. Broadcasters now prefer using 3G/4G backpack due to their low costs, light weight, and less manpower requirement. Despite this, many broadcasters will continue to use OB vans for content production, owing to its ability to create high-quality content in real-time.
The introduction of technologies like network transport (LQ) and AES67 / SMPTE 2110-30 (Eclipse HX) have greatly enhanced ability of OB van technology companies to aid communications and audio transport and distribute it anywhere in the world. This keeps costs down and production efficiency up. The demand for live content via TV/radio and internet/online networks is extremely high and in constant growth, fuelled by the introduction, development and constant advancement of customer-friendly reception equipment like high-quality TV screens, digital radio, modern laptop computers and smartphones, in combination with a different lifestyle—be it more travelling or, as now, lockdown measures. The vast number of events happening anywhere in the world in the fields of sports, music, theatre, news gathering, politics etc. and expected to be retrievable anywhere in the world requires, naturally, a huge number of larger or smaller outside broadcast units, mobile studios.
The future looks bright, I’d say!