To work in, or even understand, today's mobile production environment, you have to know systems. Graphics systems, camera systems, video switching systems, digital routers, audio and video recording systems, communications systems, IFB systems, wiring systems, digital and analog transmission systems, satellite systems…Jerry Gepner knows systems.
As president of National Mobile Television, he's responsible for the operations and engineering team that keeps 45 vehicles on the road, handling upward of 6,500 events a year — from regional sports to the World Series, from corporate launches to Janet Jackson Live From Honolulu in 5.1. Most of it is live, much of it is high-profile. Some of it is digital, much of it is still analog, with a sprinkling in High Definition. As television transitions to whatever digital future awaits, there are a heck of a lot of systems to grasp.
Gepner graduated from the University of South Carolina with a degree in mass communications and a background in live P.A., with a bit of studio time. He landed a job with South Carolina Public Television, then, after reading an ad in one of the trades, he went north to Philadelphia for an interview with EJ Stewart Productions.
“As part of the interview, the chief engineer took me out to the trucks and took out all the parts of a camera,” Gepner recalls. “He said, ‘I'm gonna go away, you just set this up.’ He came back an hour later, and I barely had the tripod set up. I had no idea what I was doing. At that point, he said, ‘Can you drive the truck?’ [laughs] So I became a driver.”
He admits to not being a very good driver, and further admits that he was lucky, in that he got a chance to learn by making mistakes and became familiar with every aspect of a remote. “Our original audio board in that truck was made by Carvin, I think,” he says. “I hate to sound like an old guy, but in those days, when you got six cameras working, it was time for a cup of coffee and a high-five. And if you happened to get them to match so they all looked like they were in the same stadium, that was a big win! It was a great remote! Dealing with things at that level, you had to truly understand the technology. Because I do understand that, I am amazed at what we're doing today.”
After a dozen years at various mobile vendors, Gepner moved on to CBS, when they were the top network, saying he just happened to be at the right place at the right time. He then moved on to Fox in 1994 to build — in 16 weeks! — its field operations for the NFL. Then Fox took on the NHL and Major League Baseball, and the president, David Hill, whom Gepner credits with providing an ideal atmosphere for growth, gave the operations and engineering team the mandate to innovate. At Fox, mics were placed everywhere around every field, the concept of the crowd submix was born, Dolby Surround was ushered in — the audio bar was raised.
He left Fox in 1998 to co-found Sportvision, where he took the blue-hockey-puck concept he had worked on at Fox and helped to develop the “first and ten” line for football, among other innovations. In early 2000, he went back to Fox as an executive VP to help with the integration of their regional and national operations. In the Spring of 2001, with Fox's full knowledge, he was approached by NMT.
Now, Gepner has come full circle and finds himself in a position, as president of the world's largest mobile production company, to provide real solutions to his network compatriots. Again, at the right place at the right time.
You spent a dozen years in the mobile industry, then worked for the networks, then headed up a tech company. How has this all come together in your current role as president of the largest mobile vendor in the world?
When I was at CBS, they, like all the networks, had huge technology resources in-house. It was my dream job. There were people you could sit with who could teach you so much. In days of yore, there were things like CBS Labs, and the late Julius Barnathan had this massive broadcast operations and engineering group at ABC. They brought the lavalier microphone to life. What we know as the ECM Series with Sony was developed mainly from the push from Julius. The super-slo-mo can be attributed entirely to him. At Fox, the onscreen clock and score has actually spawned a couple of companies. CBS Labs, in their day, was responsible for more audio innovations in the broadcast area than probably any other company to date. It was such a library of material and experience and technological knowledge. I was fortunate to be around at the time and make mistakes. That's the best way to learn: to make a mistake and have somebody willing to correct you and teach you.
But things have changed. The networks have largely divested themselves of a lot of their in-house technology expertise. And over the past 20 years, there has been a consolidation in the mobile production industry. One of the big things my network experience brought is an understanding of their challenges and goals, and to a certain extent their financial limitations. Then, being able to take this tremendous resource — 45 trucks, 120 engineers, 6,500 remotes a year — to be able to take that as a resource to our network clients and say, “We have some solutions here. We think there are efficiencies you can gain, some cost savings you can gain, some technological advantages you can take.”
There was a day when there was a little more tolerance of using technology for its own sake. What people have realized is that if it brings a larger audience, if it enhances the quality of the product, if it provides some sort of efficiencies, whether on the labor front or the hardware side — people still want very much to find solutions.
Are you, then, responsible for building the technological infrastructures in the absence of network developments?
The trick now is to bring solutions to real problems, not solutions for imagined problems. “First and ten” is a good example. In terms of broadcasting, I think our recent agreement with SRS Labs is the same thing, where we addressed three distinct issues. The first is the cost of moving from mono production to stereo production, which is not a huge number, but it's a number — there's a real cost associated with it. It's not earthshaking. It's a stereo synth, but a very good stereo synth.
The second is the Broadcast Phase Protector technology they've come up with, which I think is one of the only viable solutions for solving the downstream problem that you get once you go to a stereo production environment. You can't go into somebody's home and reverse the red and black wires in the back of the speakers, which has made the announcers disappear. This solves the symptom; it doesn't solve the problem. But, very frankly, when you look at what's needed, that's what's needed.
The third piece is the sports audio processor, which does remarkable things, and this is where SRS's technology really shines, in separating the announcers from the background. One of the unfortunate side effects of this huge push from the early '90s to get more field sound is that you run the risk of burying the announcers. It's something that drives mixers and producers nuts. You don't want to give up that in-venue or in-stadium experience you get from having this tremendous sound. But if you bury your voice of the network, that content is gone. What the SRS technology does is separate the two without forcing the mixer to reduce the background mix level. So you can do one of two things: You can take the space and use it for what it is, or you can push that background up more and actually get more headroom. This is the exciting part for me. We're going to make a lot of hay with this technology.
You see, what this allows a network to do is to leverage their existing investment. You have good equipment in the field, good people, and you can't take any more time. They're gonna drop the puck or kick the ball or throw the opening pitch at 7:05, right after “…home of the brave,” and it's going to happen. And if you're not ready, shame on you. We have a hard deadline to work with, but by the same token, our clients are looking for ways to not spend any more money. “Don't tell me I need my mixer in three hours early…I can't afford this right now.”
This is what I mean by a solutions provider, because it's a real problem. Audio's become something that your content is judged by — not just how may cameras you have or how many replay angles. The audio portion of the program is now really part of the program; it's not the radio show that goes along with the pictures.
We're running into SRS for Internet audio. When you made that deal, were you also thinking toward the future?
Absolutely. We're doing a limited amount of Webcasting now, more in the corporate area. As the number of media outlets for the content increases, then technology solutions have to span the outlets, not just be focused on a single area. SRS is addressing both the broadband community and the over-the-air and cable television community. Their solutions are very broad, which fits well with my thinking for NMT.
Well, you said that you have a three-year plan; how does the Internet figure in?
I would like to see an application that allows a mixer to configure a console from home or from any Internet connection, and be able to store that configuration so that when the mobile unit arrives on site, the engineers have received a file by email. And before the mixer even shows up, it's downloaded, into the board, and the board is configured. We can do the same with the switcher. You lay your switcher out, and it's configured before you even walk in the door.
We need to use technology to solve real problems. And that's a time and energy problem. It also helps when you start talking about introducing new technologies to the group of users and technicians in the field — the mixers, technical directors, video engineers. You can provide help and support files online.
You mean training, like on the Axiom MT.
Yes, some online help so that when a mixer sits down and configures the console, and if they do something illegal, the application could be set to recognize potential problems. When I was a college student, the mainframe computer was programmed to recognize common mistakes by beginning programmers, to catch them for you and suggest an alternative. You could do the same thing very easily, where if somebody wasn't familiar with the console and wanted to walk through an input strip, they can do it online and get all this front-end work out of the way, do the basic configuration. I can even envision an optimize function, where once you have it done and saved, you can ask the program to optimize it. Then you can accept it or reject it. You can learn a lot before you even walk in the door.
You can do it on a plane on the way to the Stanley Cup Finals…
Exactly. Now a lot of that falls on the manufacturers to develop the applications. But this also goes to the role of NMT. We have an obligation, not only to our customers but to the manufacturers, to work with them. You have to remember, research and development and manufacturing are where they're focused. We're the ones who are in touch with the customers on a day in, day out basis. We're the ones who are hearing about the budget cuts and the need for efficiencies, while at the same time nobody wants to sacrifice in terms of quality. We know what our customers want because our engineers have to go into the control room and explain to a producer why something isn't ready on time. So, if we can come up with solutions that make that person's life easier…The criteria change so rapidly now. The tools you have to work with, the constraints you have to work within — everything's dynamic these days.
Speaking of dynamic, let's talk about high-definition TV. It once had such momentum. What happened?
Well, we're looking at the emergence of high definition as a real, viable broadcast technology. From a core level, we do own two high-definition production trucks, and we do more than 350 events a year between the two of them. Now a lot of that is due to Cablevision and Madison Square Garden, both huge proponents of HDTV. We also do work for CBS, and we're finding that the entertainment community is much more eager to use HD. We recently completed a show for WNET, Fosse on Broadway, the Dance in America series, done exclusively in HD. Every week there are more inquiries: “Can we do this in Hi-Def? Can we afford to do this in Hi-Def?” So, part of the challenge from the executive side is to try to find a way to make it affordable.
Is it still a loss-leader?
Not any more. [Laughs] It can't be. The cost of the hardware is too much. To do a Hi-Def truck, a big truck today, you're talking $7 million and up. You can't afford too many of those as loss-leaders. But by the same token, you can talk about how much of a premium you can charge. This is where the role of the CFO comes into play. I'm continually beating on them to lower the price, and they're continuing to say that we need to make this pay for itself in three to four years.
What's the current state of Hi-Def standards?
The whole thing about standards has become almost a religious issue at this point, because it almost doesn't matter. You buy a Hi-Def receiver today, and it will receive all of the accepted formats. It will convert them to whatever its native format is, but it's almost a religious issue that's argued about among engineers at this point.
From our standpoint, we understand that the big division is that the feature film community is looking very favorably at the 1080p24 format as a replacement for film. It's generally accepted in the live production industry that 24p probably won't work. It's the same difference we've run into with film vs. video over the years, so that's not a tough one. The good news is that manufacturers are now making equipment that is multiformat. Almost all big camera manufacturers — Sony, Thompson, Ikegami — are making multiformat cameras that will originate signals in 1080p24, 1080i, 720p, 480p and 480i. It's software, so you can configure the camera as you want. Sony has introduced a multiformat switcher, and Thompson/Philips is right there with them. Grass Valley, Snell & Wilcox.
What's going to push HD? Will it be sports and entertainment?
I don't think sports is going to drive it so much as showcase it. I think that everybody, myself included, felt a few years ago that sports was going to be the driving force for the penetration of HD. CBS has been in the forefront with their 1080i. ABC did a full season of Monday Night Football in 720p, with help from Panasonic.
But the thing that probably is going to drive it, in my mind, is the entertainment industry. When you can go down to Blockbuster and rent an HD VHS or DVD…if you can watch Top Gun in quality equivalent to 35mm negative. When people see it, they are amazed. Then when you have the set, and there are eyeballs watching the content, then events like the Super Bowl, World Series, Stanley Cup Playoffs, NBA Finals — the real showcase events — are going to start being very meaningful.
Enough video. Let's talk about the DX11, the truck on the cover. What makes this special? What was the push to develop?
Interestingly enough, it was an accident. Its predecessor, DX1, was involved in an accident about a year-and-a-half ago. We had to replace it, so we wanted to break the mold a little bit because the industry is changing. We approached it from a workplace standpoint, little details. Like you can walk from one end to the other inside. It's got a 47-foot expandable side, which is the largest on the road today. The monitor wall, to my knowledge, is the largest in the industry. It has 93 monitors, and to accommodate that, we're set up with about a 33-degree rake, so it can wrap around you. We made expansive use of LCD and plasma monitoring throughout the truck to reduce weight, to reduce heat, and to allow a higher density for monitoring.
And then when you start looking at the infrastructure of the truck — the routing system, the cabling, everything — the core of the truck is HD-ready. The audio console was part of that decision. It's a digital console that operates both in and out of our analog/digital world, and it gives almost infinite headroom. I don't think that they could actually tell you what the internal headroom of the board is. But as long as you don't overload that first analog-to-digital input, you can't distort it. The Axiom has proven to be a huge benefit.
That truck served as the pregame show for the AFC Championship for CBS [in Pittsburgh], and it actually did three things: the pre-game show; as a backup, if you will, for the main game, where the majority of all the microphones and cameras for the main truck were brought in on a backup basis; and it served as a transmission point for the entire show. There are very few trucks that could have done that, with the digital routing capability and the ability to reconfigure on-the-fly. I didn't say it was the only truck that could have done it, but it certainly handled it well. Again, it's a solution, it provides people options, it provides them features without huge overhead. And that's why I put in the digital desk. Prior to DX11, trucks seemed to be built as either sports trucks or entertainment trucks. Unitel has some of the best entertainment trucks in the world. They don't do sports with those trucks. By the same token, we and some of our competitors, like NEP and GameCreek, have some of the best sports trucks in the world. Nobody's built one yet that can effectively cross that line. And while we don't claim this to be the end all, be all, it certainly was part of our thinking.
Can you talk to me a bit about the digital routers. It seems to me that recording and post-production studios could learn something from the television world.
There are actually two audio routers that operate inside of DX11. One of them is inside the Axiom. The digital consoles, in general, have tremendous internal signal routing capabilities. Obviously, this plays to their ease of setup and recall ability, and just sheer signal path power inside the desk.
The overall audio routing system in the truck is 128×128 right now, which is not considered overly large for a mobile unit. It's a Philips routing system, and it's good-sized. We can scale this particular router to 1,024×1,024 if we needed to.
For Mix readers who live in a studio, how does the router work with tape?
Every tape machine has a bus from the router feeding it, and you have multiple router outputs feeding inputs to the desk. You have four channels in every tape machine, and you bring each in on a router, so you don't have to tie up four input channels on the board. You can then preload memory so you say, “Okay, for pre-production for this game I need VTRs 1-8, 32 channels,” and you lay it out as a two-mix. But I can reconfigure my system in a snap so when we're done with pre-production and ready to go live, I need the announce booth and I need these other tape sources and all my effects mics and I push the button. And because the truck router is interfaced to the board router, your signal path linkages are already set up. So it gives you instant ability to get at any source — access to things much more quickly, and access to sources that you just would never have had before.
What about Dolby E and true 5.1 transmission?
Not right now. We planned for it and designed for it, but right now we use Dolby Surround encoding. Dolby E will really benefit from digital transmission. Now digital transmission is not ubiquitous. Fox is doing it a little bit, and most others are still using analog transmission. One of the more ironic parts of the industry is that we have a truck like DX11, a totally digital plant, full SDI-compliant so you can embed all the audio into the video, and all these wonderful features of the serial digital interface. We have a digital console. All the video through the truck moves digitally, and most of it originates digitally. And we convert to analog for transmission. When we connect up to the existing wide area distribution in this country, or we feed a satellite….now it is changing, and Fox is one of the companies pushing that change. They've been experimenting and putting on the air MPEG2 backhauled material for a couple of years now. They really are leading it, and I'm hoping other people start doing it because I want to put MPEG codecs on the truck. And I want to be able to just push an MPEG stream out at whatever bit rate the client wants: SDI stream in, MPEG-code it, and we shove it down a DS3 or whatever the transport is, whether it's frame-relay or ATM or whatever.
Last year at NAB, it seemed everybody was looking for storage. You call storage the “alligator under the rug.” Can you explain?
Well, you're in a room and you know there's an alligator under the rug. But you're not going to lift it up. And the person next to you isn't going to lift it up. That's where we're at with storage. What we're finding is that our producers really like the nonlinear aspects of digital storage. Unfortunately, it's not transportable yet, and that's the rub. You can't walk out with a disc. Or you're stuck with taking the time to transfer to videotape format or some other media. And that's a real-time process today. You can use all of these features and enhance your production, but you raise your costs on the back end because you have to select and assemble those highlights you want to take, transfer them and preserve them. That's the problem with storage right now.
I believe that within the next couple of years, we will see wide area connections that will carry multiple channels of content in real time from the truck to some central storage area. This way, they can use the nonlinear features of disk storage on the truck, and we'll get away from videotape as a transportable medium except as prepackaged material brought into the environment. Replays and everything else will come off of disk, but at the same time all these channels will be streamed and recorded somewhere else. Like bandwidth becoming a commodity, storage is becoming a commodity. Prices are getting that low. People don't even talk about cost per meg anymore, it's cost per gigabyte, or terabyte. This would solve the problem of transportability. The producer can go home and connect and pick the highlights he wants, assemble, the edit list is stored, it's rendered out anywhere in the world. It just takes secure bandwidth between the truck and some central storage facility.
Any final thoughts?
The skill that you need today is being able to maximize the value of the tools. And that is systems — being able to help somebody solve a problem, being able to sit with the mixer and have the mixer explain to you what kind of power and flexibility is needed. “How do I take this system and bend it to my will?” Audio guys are perfect for that, because to a large extent, in field production, the tools we use haven't changed. The announcer headset is better quality, it's lighter, it's stronger, all of that. But it still has a 3-, 4- or 5-pin XLR connector on the end of it. One of the things that has helped field production go smoothly is a good understanding of how the entire system works. I like audio guys as techs because audio guys, more than say video engineers, have had to have a broader cut of the entire process to understand how it all works together. A ground problem on the other end of the stadium can all of a sudden cause a problem in the IFB system for your announcer up in the booth. So you have to understand how this all comes together — that kind of background is really helpful in today's world, where you have to maximize the use of the tools.
Mix editor Tom Kenny can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.