In Year Four, MLB Network’s Draft Coverage Comes Into Its Own
MLB Network has seen significant gains in both viewership and production quality since its launch more than three years ago, and, as the network’s profile continues to rise, so does its annual coverage of the MLB First-Year Player Draft. Once an afterthought on the sports-television landscape, the MLB Draft has been transformed into a full-blown spectacle at MLB Network’s studios in Secaucus, NJ.
The Draft’s evolution continued this week, with MLB Network pulling out all the stops for its coverage of the first round on Monday and the production moving over to MLB.com for the later rounds on Tuesday and Wednesday. The undertaking includes a record number of on-site MLB prospects, two fully outfitted studios, nearly two dozen “Draft Room” camera feeds, and the debut of RF wireless camera systems from CP Communications.
“We take Studio 42, which is usually our demonstration studio, and we totally turn that over to the draft for its main set,” says Susan Stone, SVP, operations and engineering, MLB Network. “We put a host location there, tables for the club reps, [and] media locations, and, this year, because we have so many more players than ever before, we have given both of our dugout areas to players and their families. That is part of the reason we needed additional RF coverage: to be able to highlight the players and their families.”
Kicking Up the RF
CP Communications has rolled out two RF wireless systems in Secaucus, one traditional Link Research MPEG-2 7-GB system (equipped with a Sony 1500) and one brand-new MPEG-4 AVC GigaWave system from Vislink, which is making its North American debut for the Draft (as well as on Fox Sports’ baseball A game this weekend). The GigaWave MPEG-4 system, featuring the latest in NEL chip technology, is capable of delivering up to 24 Mbps (although it is at 18 Mbps for the Draft).
“We’re moving all [of our systems] towards MPEG-4,” says Kurt Heitmann, SVP, sales and marketing, CP Communications. “We’ve been waiting for this system for two years now. It is as good as, if not better in latency than an MPEG-2 system. And the system’s video quality is astounding. It won’t be indicated as much here inside, but outside, with the grass and movement, an [MPEG-2] encoder struggles with that. You can see it when you look at white lettering on black background. That is all gone with this new GigaWave MPEG-4 system.”
MLB Network Director of Engineering Brad Cheney adds, “There is a definite difference between the two [RF systems]: you can tell that one is an RF camera, and, with the new MPEG-4 camera, it is almost to the point where you believe that it is a regular fiber-based studio camera. And that is obviously what we’re always shooting for: higher-quality images.”
Home Sweet Home
MLB Network has deployed a combined total of 17 cameras between its main Studio 42 location (11 cameras) and Studio 3 (six cameras), which is normally the home to the network’s flagship MLB Tonight nightly program.
Studio 42 is home to the primary set (featuring MLB Network’s full roster of talent and analysts) and is also the site of interviews with front-office personnel, prospects (a record five were on hand, including top pick Carlos Correa). Also on hand Monday night were various Hall of Fame club reps and New York Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia, who became the first active player to announce his club’s selection at the Draft.
Studio 3 is being used for segments featuring Baseball America’s Jim Callis and MLB Network’s massive touchscreen video display (featuring SMT data-driven graphics).
In addition to dedicated control rooms for both studios, the network will use its existing EVS infrastructure and graphics-control room, both of which were enhanced before this season.
“We definitely have a distinct advantage in terms of production value by having this draft in our own plant,” says Stone. “We have everything available to us: all of our touchscreens, 360s, edit rooms, graphics infrastructure, EVS network. It just makes things so much easier and adds a much higher production value.”
More Than Just On-Site
MLB Network has once again teamed up with MLB Advanced Media to provide 22 Draft Room feeds from club headquarters around the country. The partnership also allows MLB.com prospect analyst Jonathan Mayo to serve as part of the network’s linear coverage. In addition to simulcasting first-round coverage on Monday, MLB.com is serving as the home of the Draft on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The network’s coverage also includes several remote feeds of amateur players, including two satellite uplinks and about six Skype video chats.
A Year-Round Effort
As the scope of the Draft telecast grows, so does the number of player-highlight packages produced each year. This week, MLB Network has about 260 packages available on individual players. But it’s not just highlight packages that the network is looking to boost.
“It’s been a year-round process visiting these players and collecting footage,” says Stone. “Our goal is not to have the Draft be one week in June but rather a long-term project throughout the season, where we go out and visit these players and highlight them during MLB Tonight so that our viewers get to know these players a lot better. Unlike football, where you have college football, our viewers often rely on us to get to know these players