FOX’s Super Bowl Playbook: Bigger and Faster, With IBM
By Alexander Wolfe
When the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers take the field for Super Bowl LIV, they’re expected to draw a worldwide television audience of approximately 100 million.
For many of those viewers accustomed to taking in big events on multiple screens, watching highlights, feature stories and replays on their smartphones and laptops will be just as important as the live telecast on television.
The game’s broadcaster, FOX Sports, will produce and deliver more content than ever to those multi-screen viewers. The Super Bowl, along with pregame coverage and the halftime show, will not only be broadcast to TV screens but streamed on FOXSports.com and on the FOX Sports app.
For FOX to create so much content for viewers, the network’s producers and editors require quick access to the terabytes of raw UHD video footage created during and surrounding the big game.
"We’re trying to get footage to our producers faster than before, to get more content on the screen to our audience," says Brandon Potter, FOX Sports Director of Post Production.
That’s why FOX Sports tapped IBM and its Aspera patented transfer technology. FOX Sports will use IBM Aspera to transfer its media for video editing, post-production and archiving.
"IBM’s Aspera technology continues to be the essential tool for moving our media around," says Potter. "We’ll be leveraging 10-gigabit connectivity and IBM infrastructure at all our main locations touching the event. It’s a game changer that will allow us to manage an estimated 250 terabytes of content."
More Content Than Ever
The quantity of content and the speed with which all this video must be transferred, edited and managed is a tall technical order. Adding to the challenge: In a Super Bowl first, all video will be shot in ultra high definition (UHD) with high-dynamic range (HDR), which features more detail and contrast, including brighter whites and deeper blacks, than standard video.
“Live events require much more flexiblity with data transport than those involved in running a business-critical data center,” says Mike Flathers, Chief Technology Officer, IBM Aspera. “The FOX Sports team is always pushing the envelope. And for the first time, all content is UHD HDR. That’s a big difference, resulting in a lot more data to be transferred and manipulated.”
For the broadcast, FOX Sports will be using production facilities in Miami, Charlotte and Los Angeles, as well as cloud infrastructure located on the west coast. These sites will be linked by Aspera technology that will securely transfer video over the public internet. “Our technology is being used between venues,’’ Flathers says, “to produce content for quicker airing, where previously it might have taken minutes or hours or even had to be physically delivered."
IBM has pioneered technologies behind fast data transport that are key to the reliable delivery of video that FOX Sports edits and shares with viewers. IBM uses its patented protocol to stream and transfer data at maximum speed without being affected by distance or network conditions and without saturating the network.
“The ability for FOX to stream UHD footage from the Super Bowl for archiving to the cloud, making it immediately accessible and available to the editing facilities in near real-time, is super important,” says Flathers.
The point is to give the entire FOX Sports production team faster access to more content, says Tayler Acosta, Senior Manager, Media Management for FOX Sports. “The end result is to have more rich content at our disposal,’’ Acosta says.
A Continued Collaboration
The Super Bowl is by no means the first collaboration between FOX Sports and IBM. IBM Aspera and Watson have both supported FOX Sports’ broadcast of the Men’s and Womens FIFA World Cups, but with different solutions and workflows than the Super Bowl.
For example, FOX Sports and IBM worked together on the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup soccer tournament, streaming all video directly from France to FOX production facilities in Los Angeles and transforming the event by infusing AI analysis into the coverage. FOX launched a new broadcast segment called Player Spotlight Built with IBM Watson. The tool employed Watson AI to help analyze player stats and provide that information to FOX Sports for use by the on-air commentators.
A year earlier, FOX Sports and IBM teamed successfully on video coverage of the FIFA World Cup from Moscow. The 64 soccer matches generated some 1.9 petabytes of high-resolution video. IBM successfully managed the transfer of multiple HD and Ultra HD streams—many with 220 megabits-per-second bit rates—from the events in Russia to FOX Sports’ facilities in Los Angeles. The fast transfers cut production costs by enabling crews to remotely edit the feeds in real time in L.A., rather than setting up large editing facilities in Moscow. FOX Sports also worked with IBM Watson to build the Ultimate World Cup Highlight Machine, which offers up clips from tournaments dating back to 1958.
“In the many months of working with IBM, we have established unparalleled media workflows on the some of the most viewed television events in the world,” says FOX Sports’ Potter.
As multiple screens increasingly become the way the public consumes tentpole sporting events, IBM’s Flathers expects evolving technologies to help create even greater fan engagement in the future, especially as the rollout of high-speed, low-latency 5G mobile networks continues.
“The use of handheld devices will proliferate as 5G comes into play,” says Flathers. “I think 5G is going to greatly enhance the fan experience and allow fans to participate. I anticipate a time when fans will actually be contributing to on-air broadcasts.”