Mobile Studios Streams Wallenda Walk
Putting it all on the line
Discovery Channel turns to Mobile Studios and NewTek TriCaster to deliver live coverage of Nik Wallenda’s death-defying walk. Viewers throughout Latin America had a front row seat to watch the tightrope legend walk 1,500 feet above the Little Colorado River.<hr noshade="noshade" size="1" />
Nik Wallenda’s walk across the Little Colorado River gorge near the Grand Canyon on June 23 not only was a major first for the high-wire artist, but also a significant ratings coup for Discovery, which ranks the event as one of its most highly watched special events ever.
Some 13 million people tuned in to see Wallenda, a seventh generation member of the world-famous Flying Wallenda Family, walk and pray his way across the 1,400-foot expanse, overcoming the high winds gusting across the canyon and averting certain death should he have fallen to the bottom of the gorge 1,500 feet below.
The event also drew significant international attention – Discovery Brazil, Discovery Latin America, and Discovery Mexico broadcast the spectacle live to viewers.
Together with Spanish-language Discovery en Español, which serves Spanish-speaking residents across the United States, these channels played an important role in helping Discovery maximize its revenue opportunities by expanding its audience for the event, and delivering commercials in Spanish and Portuguese.
From a business standpoint, Discovery counted on what it calls its “money reels,” that is commercial run lists customized for each international channel, as well as Discovery en Español − to give advertisers more options to reach their desired audiences and to drive greater revenue opportunities for the network.
While the tightrope walk over the Little Colorado River happened on the Navajo Nation near the Grand Canyon, the feeds for Discovery’s Spanish- and Portuguese-language channels were produced some 2,300 miles away in Miami at the Discovery Latin America headquarters. Primarily a post-production center, the headquarters isn’t typically equipped for live production, especially not one requiring simulcasts of the same event, with narration in two different languages and custom commercial run lists for multiple markets.
To handle the challenge, Discovery contracted with Mobile Studios, a Boca Raton, Florida-based systems integrator and manufacturer, to provide six TriCaster live production systems, ancillary production equipment, and the crew needed to pull off the feat. The TriCaster switchers at the heart of the market customization needed to be able to roll in commercials for the right international Discovery channel and key the correct animated Discovery bug over each program feed.
From a workflow standpoint, a clean feed of the Wallenda tightrope walk in Arizona was uplinked live from the event, to Discovery’s main headquarters in Sterling, Va., which distributes the main Discovery Channel feed. At the same time, the Virginia facility transported the signal via fiber optic link to the Discovery Latin America headquarters in Miami.
There, Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking narrators translated the English commentary on the fly for each of the Latin American feeds. Unique money reels for each market were integrated into the productions, as were the appropriate Discovery logos for each channel, using TriCaster. Then each market-specific, customized channel was uplinked for distribution throughout Latin America and Mexico, as well as to Spanish-speaking residents in the US.
Inside the setup
Despite the company’s name, Mobile Studios is not primarily a provider of outside broadcast facilities and crew, says company president Rich Rubin. Rather, it develops a unique production flypack called the PortaCast®, a TriCaster-based console that provides essential video production tools for switching, graphics and monitoring, in order to produce live television from remote locations, particularly venues where space is at a premium.
“We manufacture a very unique console, which was one of the reasons Discovery went with us,” says Rubin. “They liked the way we package our systems, how portable they are and the fact that we can provide production staff when required.”
For the Wallenda event, Discovery set aside four adjacent 10-by-15-foot rooms for Mobile Studios. Rubin stationed himself in one of the rooms with a TriCaster 855 used for the Discovery Brazil feed and the other four Technical Directors set up shop in the three remaining rooms. On the Friday before the Sunday event, Mobile Studios wired the rooms and essentially set up five television studios in four small rooms.
In total, Mobile Studios employed six TriCaster production switchers for the event, including two TriCaster 855 and four TriCaster 455 units. Five of the six were each assigned to a specific feed, while the remaining TriCaster 855 was held in reserve, pre-configured for each feed, to serve as a backup.
TriCaster 855 is a full, HD resolution, 24-channel switcher with support for eight live camera inputs, an eight-source ISO recorder, integrated media recorder and eight M/E style virtual inputs. TriCaster 455, also an integrated production solution, is equipped with 14-channel switching, four-camera inputs, four-track ISO recorder, integrated media recorder and four M/E style virtual inputs.
Rubin and the crew from Mobile Studios leveraged two TriCaster features in particular to make the international feeds of the Wallenda tightrope walk a success. First, they used the integrated digital disk recorders (DDRs) of the switchers to store and playback commercials for each scheduled break. Used in tandem with the powerful tab feature of TriCaster, Rubin and the other technical directors accessed the preset playlists of commercials stored in the DDRs to make adjustments to the run list simply by dragging and dropping thumbnail frames representing each commercial spot into its proper place in the rundown.
Second, using a TriCaster virtual input, Rubin and his fellow TDs were able to apply a DDR in each TriCaster to playback the animated Discovery bug and overlay the logos onto the program content, using TriCaster’s downstream keyer (DSK) function. This configuration made it an automatic process to insert the bugs for each international feed, only on live program content, not commercials or promos, one of Discovery’s important production requirements. “It was very nice having that particular feature,” says Rubin, “because we didn’t have to call ‘Bug on’ and ‘Bug off’ when we went to commercial.”
Similarly, Rubin and the other TDs used the TriCaster DSK function to insert a graphic displaying an audience rating of the program for some of the international feeds.
“That was a manual operation, and it had to stay on for the first 15 seconds for some of the networks,” says Rubin.
To ensure things went smoothly for the Mobile Studios team on the day of the event, Rubin spent the day before Wallenda crossed the gorge checking and rechecking all of the media that would be played out of the TriCaster. “We found some of the media didn’t play, so we had to re-encode it,” he recalls. But by the time of the event, Rubin estimates 99 percent of what needed to be done was complete. “By the time we got to air, the only real problems were a couple of commercial breaks that needed some on-the-fly adjustments.”
The problems related to commercial playlists and some discrepancies between the scheduled and actual lengths of a couple of spots, says Rubin. “There were mistakes on the playlist on two occasions,” explains Rubin, “and we didn’t find out about them till we were going to the segment.”
Prior to going to each commercial segment, Rubin would ask the other TDs over the intercom to verify the length of the segment. “I would say I am looking at 3:15 for this segment, and one of the TD’s replied, saying, ‘I’ve got 2:45.” A quick check with Discovery revealed an error on that TD’s playlist, with a 1:30 spot recorded on the list as a minute.”
“So, on the fly we had to cut a commercial and put it in on the next segment and remove a promo for Discovery,” says Rubin. “We were able to make those changes on the fly very easily with TriCaster by doing a simple cut and paste.” A similar error involving the playlist on another TriCaster was also easily resolved in the same way, he adds.
From Rubin’s perspective, the ability to assign an IP address to every TriCaster in use, combined with the network availability of all the commercials to be used, was very helpful. While each TriCaster was live with the Wallenda event, Rubin and the other TDs could actually go to a folder and access the commercials for a particular commercial segment.
That IP connectivity and folder access allowed Discovery to push spots to TriCaster folders so changes could be made live. “I’ll tell you, without that we would have been dead in the water,” says Rubin. “If we had to physically take a jump drive and plug it in, I don’t think we could have made the changes we needed to make. I don’t think we could have accessed the jump drive out of the presentation.”
In other words, he adds, the TriCaster allowed all of the Mobile Studios technical directors to manage media without breaking out of the project, which would mean going off-air, something that was utterly unacceptable for such a major television event.
Everything on the line
While it’s impossible to argue that anyone had more on the line than Nik Wallenda, that doesn’t mean the stakes weren’t high for Discovery and Mobile Studios. With so much revenue on the line, slip-ups that possibly could be compounded across multiple networks were simply unacceptable.
“This is a live event, and there is a tremendous amount of pressure to ensure that everything is going to perform as advertised,” says Rubin. “The key to it is to make sure every commercial runs at the break and runs correctly and the revenue side is met.”
“There were times that I actually felt like I was on the wire with Nik Wallenda. Until he crossed the gorge, and the show was over. Until the end, I felt like I was on the wire right there with him,” says Rubin. “Obviously, he had a lot more to lose than I did.”
However, Rubin notes that as the president of Mobile Studios he was constantly aware of the amount of potential liability his company might face in the event of a catastrophic problem. The Wallenda crossing of the gorge was a worldwide event with a lot of revenue at stake if the commercials didn’t run, if one of the systems went off the air. “We are talking about five systems supplying all of the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries in South America, and millions of dollars of revenue on the line,” he says.
As a technical director, however, Rubin says he was able to remove himself from worrying about the potential for problems and focus on operating TriCaster.
On Monday morning after the event, Rubin says he received a congratulatory letter from the Discovery vice president of engineering, commending Mobile Studios on the quality job they did producing the international feeds.
While Rubin is understandably proud of the Mobile Studios performance, he is quick to attribute the success to three elements: the right equipment, a good crew and great support.
“When I say great support, I mean great support from NewTek, which provided someone who actually lived with us for the three days leading up to and including the event. Having him there was indispensable. That level of support was particularly key to the success of the project,” he says.
The TriCaster, too, performed flawlessly, he adds. “It was the perfect choice, and the crew that I selected performed perfectly. The combination made for a successful event,” he says.
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