Since: Mar 2011
Wouldn't the easiest solution for playback of file-based content be a laptop?
The issue I have with AVCHD is that most consumer authoring software older than about 2 years doesn't support it, and I suspect a LOT of people who compete would have no experience with it at all.
My preference would be h.264, with either AAC or MP3 audio. In that case, videos could be tested with Quicktime, and if they can be played in Quicktime on one PC, they should work in Quicktime on another.
.mov containers can be a bit of an issue due to A ) Gamma Shifts, and B) PC's without Quicktime/Quicktime Pro installs.
h.264 is certainly the most commonly available codec for delivery that will do the job right - finer details like bitrate, and the issue I mentioned of deinterlacing for hardware playback is the issue. Laptops are a bit of a non goer for playback because of 8 centres requiring playback, and also the virus issue of file based delivery, unless there was sponsorship to supply Macbook Pro's to all region organizers this is a hard cookie to crack (even then, that can STILL be problematic, because of calibration issues etc).
A hardware player seems like the best solution for consistency across regions.
But that's why interlacing is an issue - enough commonly employed mp4 encoding solutions (e.g. Quicktime, and Mpeg Streamclip which is free but based on Quicktime to some extent) do not support interlaced mp4 encoding, which is particularly problematic, and because of that I am not actually certain whether these players will also actually handled interlaced mp4's properly - for a good insight how complicated the standard actually is for h.264 the Wiki is instructive: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H.264/MPEG-4_AVC
By going through all that here is what I am now thinking...
One of the most fully featured h.264 encoders is the Main Concept encoder, which as a plugin for it's reference system is 890 Euro. No Go.
Procoder is the other most fully featured - that's around 400 US. No Go.
DivX Converter is cross platform (Mac and Windows) and will convert to h.264 but I believe in a MKV wrapper, and should handle interlacing... I had avoided it because it's pay software and I have found previous implementations of DivX to be buggy but at $19.99 US with a free 15 day trial version I think some further testing with the hardware players is in order.
Maybe, needs testing, but not ideal.
MPEG Streamclip was my next choice, because it's free and cross platform, but it's reliance on quicktime/inability to encode interlaced h.264s has proven a problem. Tested, might work, but not great solution because not handling interlacing.
x.264 can also do interlaced encoding, which leads me to Handbrake - Handbrake is a great app, but I preferred mpeg streamclip because Handbrake tries to do TOO MUCH for the user... You actually need to turn a lot of stuff in Handbrake OFF to get good results if you are planning on playing the resulting conversion back in full quality.
BUT if I can supply a custom preset for download for Handbrake this might work... The difficulty I think though is that the user will still need to add a command line command into a box on x.264 settings to tell the encoder if the footage is top field first or bottom field first, not sure if that can be done as a preset.
But I still don't know if the players in question will play the interlaced video properly even if I can get the encoding solution sorted for the contestants - so that will also need to be tested.