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HD OBs – trucking on a road near you

They're everywhere - at cricket grounds, football stadia, conference venues, theatres, local arts centres or just generally slogging up and down motorways - and, as Kevin Hilton reports, there looks like no stopping the growing number of high definition outside broadcast trucks. This perception is confirmed by figures in the latest edition of the HD OB Van Directory, which details 42 new vehicles across the Europe, Middle East and Africa region.

Like any publication of its kind, the HD OB Van Directory was out of date as soon as it was printed because more trucks were waiting to come on the road before it was posted. Telegenic’s 3D T18 was the first such facility in Europe but this new area of the market is already beginning to grow. T18 is now in South Africa, where it is providing 3D facilities for the HBS/Sony/FIFA stereoscopic coverage of 25 matches during the FIFA 2010 World Cup Finals. Also working on this is France’s first 3D OB truck, AMP’s Car 8. The Euro Media Group is to have a 3D vehicle available for all its subsidiaries, while the UK is due to have more of this new breed later in the year. Arena Television is likely to launch a 3D truck within the next 6-9 months, although group managing director Richard Yeowart views the market as “very niche and not a large one at that”. Regardless of this, Arena continues to put new HD vehicles on the road. The trend in recent years has been for ever larger OB and VT trucks, with bigger production areas and more equipment cleverly fitted inside. Arena’s tenth HD truck is due to go into operation later in the year and will be a single expanding artic housing 16 to 20 cameras. “OB14 will fill the gap between the articulated double expanders – OB7, 8, 9 and 10 – and our rigid single expanding trucks, like OB12,” Yeowart explains. Also in the UK NEP Visions has two new trucks planned to be on the road by July, ready for the start of the new English and European football seasons. These have 3G infrastructures, which, although they are designed as HD facilities, will enable them to be used for 3D production in the future. Steve Jenkins, managing director of NEP Visions, says the company was among the first to have HD units and acknowledges that some of the fleet was getting “long in the tooth”. He feels the demand for HD production is not necessarily increasing the impression is there because the demand for standard definition programme making is on the wan. “Technology is moving on,” Jenkins says, “and it is important for facilities providers like us to respond to how our clients see themselves and what they’re doing. We’ve worked with Sky for a long time and they’re using new technology, not just because it’s there but to work more efficiently as well.” Keith Lane, operations manager at Sky Sports, describes the first generation of HD trucks, which are barely ten years old, as “technically advanced dinosaurs”. He says that when those pioneering vehicles appeared broadcasters and OB companies probably did not think they would be re-investing so quickly. Visions carries out its own systems integration and is working on the first of its trucks right now. Most OB companies go to specialist integrators and this is proving to be a lucrative area for such operations. Among the leading exponents of fitting out OB trucks in Europe are Grass Valley Germany, sono Studiotechnik, BFE Studio und Medien Systeme, Broadcast Solutions (all Germany), ARET Video and Audio Engineering (Italy), Danmon Systems Group (Denmark), ELVIA-PRO (Czech Republic), Gearhouse Broadcast, ATG Broadcast and MHz Broadcast Systems (all UK). MHz recently delivered two “HD-compliant” vehicles to Mediatec UK for its big LED screen production work during the 2010 England cricket season (shown in picture). The trucks were built on a tight five week schedule to be ready in time for the first match. Sony Professional has a share of the integration market in the Middle East and the Nordic region. It also worked on four new trucks for the South African Broadcasting Corporation and Telegenic’s T18. Malcolm Robinson, senior manager of the OB unit within Sony Professional, says the trend is now almost wholly towards HD, with integrators in general charging a premium for SD vehicles. A major change has been the attitude towards audio for OBs. 5.1 is not universal but it accompanies a great many HD transmissions and with new 3G-based routers and 16-channel capability, there is a move towards embedded discrete distribution for multichannel sound, rather than compression. Robinson says audio mixing areas are no longer pushed to the ends of trucks and are more integrated with everything else going on in the vehicle. Sony continues to use Calrec Audio consoles; the UK manufacturer has the bulk of its home market and is now expanding into the US, with a recent report by the Sports Video Group showing that 64 percent of the total fleet in the country feature Calrec desks. In Europe Studer and Lawo are the big players, with Stagetec a strong third. SSL, Yamaha and Euphonix also feature but do not have as strong a hold on the OB market as Studer, Lawo, Stagetec and Calrec. At Lawo marketing spokesman Wolfgang Huber says that of trucks featuring the company’s consoles, 96 percent are now working in HD, with 50 percent of its output going to the OB sector. Keith Watson, vice president of marketing and product management at Soundcraft Studer, says HD is driving the market to a degree, with France in particular showing considerable demand. “France is seeing a lot of HD-driven truck use, awaiting the full effect of 3D,” he says. “Europe works on economies of use. Bringing in an OB truck for a big sporting event is common but many studios will use them as temporary facilities for special projects or where there is overload.” Henry Goodman, head of sales and marketing at Calrec, says the company has seen OB operators go through the change from analogue to digital and SD to HD. Many now, he observes, are going straight from mono to 5.1 but more change is ahead. “Our ongoing discussions with broadcasters are about 3D audio,” he comments. “Many of the issues are the same as HD but the approach to mixing is different.” On that showing don’t expect to see the convoys of trucks disappearing any time soon.