Josh Gold-Smith

Technological breakthroughs in the sports broadcasting world usually arise out of networks experimenting at special events, like the world juniors and the Olympic Games.

CBC recently introduced a “rail-cam” during the 2007 NHL All-Star Game. The innovation gave the viewer a clear perspective from nearly ice level but interfered with the viewer’s line of sight when the normal game camera was used. “It was very distracting,” says Jim Marshall, executive producer of events at TSN. “I’m sure they knew about it when they installed it, but they thought, ‘Hey, listen, it’s an All-Star Game, let’s see what it looks like.’ That’s what we need, people pushing the envelope.”

However, the biggest technological milestone in the sports world, has been the movement toward high-definition. Until recently, cameras were limited to the standard definition format, shot through a lens four inches wide and three inches high (known as a 4:3 aspect ratio). Now high-definition allows for a dramatic improvement to 16:9.

“It means you don’t have to cut cameras as much,” explains Rob Corte, a game producer at Rogers Sportsnet. “You can see more with each camera angle.”            

 The increased quality and longer camera shots have also helped the director visualize the game. “Now, what you see on the screen is a lot larger than what you’ve seen in the past,” says Corte. “With high-definition, you have a wider range of what you can see.”

HD has spawned a revolution in sports broadcasting as many networks now offer content in the new format. However, it is yet to become affordable for the majority of viewers, says Marshall, who has worked as a producer and director since 1979. 

“Even though we’re shooting with high-definition cameras, we still have to shoot for standard-definition television,” Marshall notes. “We have to cut it in our heads. So you have to actually shoot for standard definition because I’d say higher than 80 per cent of TVs are still using the standard format.”

Progressing camera technology has also brought viewers closer to the action. “When I started in the business, the longest lens you used on a camera was maybe a 20:1 or a 30:1 [zoom range],” says Ted Perrotta, a camera operator who has been working in the  business for 30 years. “Now, you have lenses that are 100:1, so you can shoot a lot tighter. What you can shoot, and how you can shoot it are a lot better now. It’s just that your concentration and skill level have to be there to make sure that your shots are in focus.”

With very little time to work with after a play ends and before a replay must be cued, the crew needs any technological edge they can get. “We have what’s called Enhanced Vision System (EVS), which is a Belgian computer that records video and spits it out as fast as it records,” says Marshall.

“You can record up to six channels of six different cameras at the same time and then decide, ‘Okay, well that’s the best replay, put that channel on the air.’”       

The explosion of information and the rise of the internet have also left their mark on the world of televised sports. Statistics are instantaneous and the average viewer is much more technologically proficient. This has allowed fans to keep up with the broadcasters, but has also made it easier for the production crew to do its job. “It’s more readily available,” Marshall says of the information he gathers for a typical broadcast.

“When I started in the business, you had to beat up PR guys at the arena to get good statistics. Now, all you have to do is log on and read it, then take what you read, put it in the graphics machine and put it on the screen.”       

The networks have seen the writing on the wall and are now adjusting to the electronic age. At the last world junior hockey championships, live, simultaneous broadband coverage was offered over the Internet. “We simulcast them on TV and on broadband. It made us more aware of a different audience,” says Marshall. “I know people who only catch up their sportscasts on the computer. They don’t watch sporting events on TV, they’re in front of their computer screen all night long. So with broadband, we’re now reaching that generation.”

Marshall says that although the electronic age has its benefits, it also has the potential to drastically affect game attendance. “The technological revolution may actually cause people to prefer the televised product rather than the real in-game experience,” he says. “In the high-definition world now, if you sit in front of a 42-inch screen at home, you might not want to go to the live game any more because it’s not the same.”          

Innovations often carry mixed results but Marshall says this kind of technological experimentation is worthwhile. “In Torino [at the 2006 Olympics], we had a referee cam,” he recalls. “Sometimes it works better than others, but if you don’t try it, you never know.”

The increased budgets at special events allow the networks to test new technology. “You try to have what’s called a legacy effect. You try to come up with new ideas and new ways of doing things,” he says. “They used a cable-cam in figure skating, but it didn’t quite work. It doesn’t show figure skating that well, but they had to try it, or they wouldn’t have known.”

 This experimentation has spawned a number of revolutionary ideas. “I never thought we’d be seeing cameras on wires over-top of football stadiums,” says Marshall. “I guess it’s endless what producers, directors and leagues are willing to do, which is great. Any time you can get the viewer closer to the action, the better off the viewer is.”