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Special Events Brought To You Via Satellite

By | April 1, 2007

      With boats from China, New Zealand, Germany, the United States and Switzerland among the competitors at the 32nd America’s Cup, the event will draw an enthusiastic audience from around the globe. To provide coverage of the competition, which begins in April off the coast of Valencia, Spain, and could last nearly three months, broadcasters will rely heavily on satellite, a technology that is becoming a must for providing coverage of any special event.

      Live coverage will be offered by America’s Cup TV (ACTV), which will use up to 33 cameras mounted on helicopters, high speed catamarans and the participating syndicate yachts to capture video that will be transmitted to shore via radio frequency links then passed via fiber to the ACTV international broadcast center, says Caroline Hunt, ACTV’s executive in charge of production.

      ACTV will provide its 17 rights holders with a minimum of 36 26-minute highlight programs as well as 26-minute and 52-minute wrapups at the end of each phase of racing and a minimum of 44 15-minute enhanced ACTV newscasts. “Only a few of these broadcaster’s will access the live signal via our ACTV distribution,” says Hunt. “Others have booked fiber from the venue for onward distribution via satellite. All signals will be encrypted, other than the news feeds that will be made available to all broadcasters to ensure the maximum amount of exposure.” Alcatel-Lucent also has developed a broadband service branded “America’s Cup Anywhere,” which will be beamed to mobile and handheld devices, and the company also has Live Sailing, an animated graphics offering.

      ACTV will use GlobeCast to beam more than 100 hours of live coverage using several satellites, including Eutelsat W2, AsiaSat 2 and Intelsat 9. Along with live satellite coverage, GlobeCast will supply ACTV with a dedicated satellite newsgathering truck, on-site live stand-ups, dual uplinking of races and highlights feeds and transmission via GlobeCast’s delivery network.

      Eager Broadcasters

      Viasat Broadcasting in Stockholm is just one of several eager European satellite broadcasters which has been ramping up for 2007 America’s Cup, starting with coverage of the Louis Vuitton Cup, the competition among the challenger yachts, off of Malmö, Sweden, in 2005 and Valencia, in 2006. Viasat reaches audiences in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and will begin its live broadcasting in the beginning of April and continue through the America’s Cup Match, says Viasat spokesman Bert Willborg.

      “When it comes to the broadcasting itself, the choices for the broadcasters have increased,” says Willborg. “You have the world feed. You can add on different feeds from the two race courses, from the on board cameras and, of course, the virtual spectator, which is the graphics or 3-D way of following the races where you can see the exact positions of the boats.”

      Willborg describes “virtual spectator” race viewer as a rather flat feature in the past which has been enhanced over time. Now, the service is close to reality with all branding appearing on the boats’ hulls and the wave formation in detail depending on wind conditions. “If you have ambitions, you can tailor what you broadcast a lot more than before,” says Willborg.

      This is the first time that Connecticut-based Versus will offer the America’s Cup to North American yacht racing fans, says Rick Sarna, a former PanAmSat employee who is now director of network operations at Versus. Coverage on the network runs from May 14 through July 7. Should the America’s Cup extend to its seventh and final race, Versus will just be putting its coverage to rest when the network’s coverage of the Tour de France gets under way. Sarna sees these two special events as challenging, but the America’s Cup, which can move to a new venue every four years, is much more difficult to cover than the Tour, says Sarna.

      However, the fact that the America’s Cup is taking place off the coast of Spain is more conducive for live coverage, he says. “From an operations and transmission standpoint, each event is seamless,” says Sarna. “The Tour is more mobile with [a satellite news gathering] truck that relocates on a daily basis. For this reason, the [America’s Cup is lot easier on production personnel,” he says. “Among other things, during the Tour, we are feeding back audio from a pair of announcer teams simultaneously over our four-channel, stereo audio link. While one team is doing the live morning race coverage, the other is doing commentary for our enhanced coverage prime time show.”

      To provide coverage of these events that can cover vast areas, Sarna works with remote production and uplinking companies like Woods TV and Transvision International. Sarna oversees a vast hybrid satellite-fiber networking exercise. Versus leases Intelsat satellite capacity for a month to cover the America’s Cup and uses Intelsat fiber capacity. Versus is taking the America’s Cup pool feed out of Valencia, re-uplinking it over Intelsat 901 to Intelsat’s earth station in Germany where the feed is passed via fiber to Comcast’s Denver Media Center. Versus has a pair of duplex fiber circuits which connect its Connecticut facilities to Denver. The feed is passed between the two sites. “We take the pool feed, add graphics and do other things to give it a Versus look,” says Sarna. 

      Sarna sees these two special events as challenging, but the Tour is less so given that the America’s Cup tends to move to a completely new venue every four years. However, the fact that the America’s Cup is in Spain this year as opposed to the previous competition in New Zealand is advantageous from the standpoint of the scheduling of live coverage.

      When we interviewed him, Sarna was wrestling with issues surrounding broadcast formats, such as 4×3 versus 16×9. “We are sorting though exactly what feeds will be sent to us,” he says. “The pool feed will be a 16×9 SDTV. HDTV would be great, and while there is a possibility that an HDTV feed will be available for the Tour this year, the [America’s Cup] will remain in SDTV format for now.”

      Beyond Traditional TV

      In 2006, Swedish-based MPS Broadband Ltd. was selected by Alcatel-Lucent, the media rights holder for the 32nd America’s Cup, as its media service provider. MPS Broadband has created “America’s Cup Broadband TV” and will offer yacht racing fans a choice of live streams at 300 or 850 kilobits per second.

      In this instance involving live coverage of the race series, MPS Broadband works with TWI — part of IMG Media and the host broadcaster in Valencia employed by ACTV. MPS Broadband will downlink the TWI live feed — a 50-megabit-per-second i-frame MPEG-2 stream — off the SES Sirius AB satellite at the Kaknas Tower in Stockholm. From there, MPS Broadband has a direct link via fiber optic cable to its data center facility where MPS encodes the live stream into Windows Media Video format using its Interactive Content Factory technology licensed from Verizon Business.

      America’s Cup Broadband TV is just one of many projects which has propelled MPS Broadband to the forefront of the fast-growing Web TV industry, says MPS Broadband CEO Lance Stevens. The company’s ability to access numerous global satellite feeds is what makes it possible. “MPS Broadband uses satellite delivery as one of the principal methods of receiving content for subsequent publishing online,” he says. “In particular, satellites are a vital component where live webcasts are concerned, as MPS Broadband streams coverage of events taking place all over the world.”

      MPS Broadband delivers TV, film and video content via the internet to personal computers and other online access devices using its state-of-the-art engine, the MPS Publishing Platform, which has been developed and refined over several years to support commercial Web TV services. Besides America’s Cup Broadband TV, MPS Broadband uses live satellite feeds to generate webcasts of numerous other sporting events including boxing, football, ice hockey and golf as well as a growing number of business-related live videoconferences.

      Embracing Satellite

      As a niche form of entertainment and competition, yacht racing has benefited enormously from satellite technology. According to Thinus Svendsen, a spokesman for Thrane & Thrane A/S in Copenhagen, during the around-the-world Volvo Ocean Race in 2005 and 2006, each of the participating boats was equipped with one Thrane & Thrane’s Sailor Fleet77, a Sailor Fleet33 and two Inmarsat-C satellite systems.

      “The Sailor Fleet77 system was an important part of the communications package on board,” says Svendsen. “This solution enabled data rates of up to 128 kilobits per second and thereby provided spectators around the world with live coverage and TV footage of the Volvo Ocean Race. Each boat had 10 cameras installed. They captured everything that happened on board. Each week, 20 minutes of video were sent back from the boats to [Volvo Ocean Race] headquarters in Fareham, U.K., via satellite.”

      All of this offshore video was available on the race Web site as a result including the “virtual spectator” race-viewer option. This site recorded 3.5 million hits, according to the organizers. Among the TV networks who used this video feed were ABC and ESPN in the United States, ITV in Great Britain, TVE in Spain, Channel Ten in Australia and TVGlobo in Brazil.

      Using the Sailor Fleet77, crews could also send photos and e-mails, marking their progress on a constant basis, while accessing large weather maps at the click of a mouse. The smaller Sailor Fleet33 terminals were mainly used for high-quality voice transmissions.

      The America’s Cup stands out as the premier event in the yacht racing world, and yacht racing enthusiasts will tell you that it is a strong and steady wind along with a hard-working and well-trained crew that yields a successful challenge in this instance. We would simply remind them that teams of hard-working and well-trained satellite personnel with their reliable satellites fixed in place are essential here, too.

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