ESPN is ready for some football

By Ken Kerschbaumer

When it comes to massive road show the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus has long held the standard but there’s a new circus in town: ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” telecast.

Last night the network broadcast it’s first MNF game and set the wheels in motion, literally, on a caravan that will include four production trucks dedicated to the game, four to the pre-game programs, support vehicles and a bus for MNF commentator Tony Kornheiser.

“Pardon the Interruption,” Primetime,” and “MNF Countdown” will all originate from the site of the game. In addition reports from the stadium will be filed to “SportsCenter” during the day.

“It’s the Super Bowl every week,” says Rick Abbott, ESPN vice president, remote operations of the production that will require nearly 400 people, triple the amount of previous MNF telecasts. “The toughest part will be making sure everybody is communicating properly because everyone knows how to do their job.”

Along with the game itself ESPN will broadcast “Pardon the Interruption,” “NFL
And it’s not only people that need to communicate properly: the trucks need to talk as well. “We have complete fiber connectivity between the trucks,” says Abbott. More than 45 camera feeds will also be pumping through the NEP trucks (an NMT side-by-side unit is also on hand with Illumination Dynamics supplying power) with 29 used for the game coverage and an additional 16 or so used for all of the pre-game coverage.
“There are also two different stage locations, one outside the stadium for ‘Primetime’ and one inside the stadium for ‘Countdown,’” says Abbott. “All of the extra needs is adding a full day to our set-up.”

The core of every production will be the 53-foot NEP dual-trailer unit known as SS25 and SS25A. “The new truck is outstanding,” says Abbott who has been working with the truck for about a month. “Everybody is getting used to the workspace because they’re just not used to working in areas with as much space as they have now.”

The replay area, for example, has 14 fully interconnected EVS units.
The 29 HD cameras include a four-point Skycam, four Grass Valley LDK 6200 super slow-motion systems, and a full complement of Grass Valley LDK 6000 cameras. ESPN also expects to experiment with Fletcher Chicago’s UltraMo HD slow-motion system on August 28 in Cincinnati. “It will be interesting to see if that system works in HD,” says Abbott. “We’ll use it to get in really tight on player’s faces.”

While Abbott looks to ensure the entire crew is operating on all cylinders its up to Steve Carter, ESPN remote operations manager, to keep the trucks up and running. The main production area is centered on a Grass Valley Kalypso production switcher and up to 24 Grass Valley LDK-6000 cameras, has more than 120 Ikegami CRT monitors to ensure proper syncing and cuts. Three Vizrt graphics units with all of the latest options and features are also on hand. “The Vizrt units are great and in HD the look of the graphics pop,” says Abbott.

“Typically a sports production truck is laid out front to back but we went with an entertainment-type truck design,” says Carter of the side-to-side layout. “Instead of three work benches we have two.”

His favorite feature? Because the monitor wall is located on the side of the truck instead of the front it can be pushed out via an expand section. “When the wall is pushed out we gain three feet of space and the monitors aren’t on top of the crew,” he says.

More workspace is also found within the other truck, SS25, which houses the audio and tape area. Ron Scalise, audio consultant, says older truck have a smaller work area that required anyone else working in the area to whisper so as not to disturb the mixer. But the new area gives the mixer the space and privacy required to focus while also having enough space to properly set up a surround sound-monitoring environment.

“The mixer can sit right in the sweet spot,” says Scalise. The room also gave NEP the ability to move audio processing gear from above and in front of the Calrec console and place it in a counter located right behind the mixer.

“That makes it more like a recording studio, where the mixer can turn around and tweak the gear easily,” says Scalise. “It also allows for more monitors above the console so the mixer can keep track of the audio from different playback machines.”

While the audio, graphics and production areas all impress it’s the tape area, the largest to ever hit the road in a remote vehicle, which shatters stereotypes of cramped quarters. Up to 14 operators can be located in a room built around Panasonic flat-panel displays and EVS replay devices. And like the main production area, it’s laid out in a unique way with seven operators facing outward from a main aisle.

“It allows the operators to spin around and talk,” says Carter. “And again, the operator can lay out the monitor wall the way they want and call up a file and see their layout of up to 16 different images.”

Abbott says the extra room should lead to better work. “When the game gets exciting it will be easier for everyone to focus on their work because they won’t have someone looking over their back,” he says.

Of course, while ESPN may be comfortable rolling around the country in a fleet of up to 10 production trucks and buses what about the stadiums? “Dick Maxwell [NFL senior director of broadcasting operations and services] and the NFL really teed us up well in meetings with the stadiums,” says Abbott. “We went on a 16-stadium tour in the spring and early summer and the reception was incredible. We didn’t get any push back and that’s saying something when our credentials jump from 140 to close to 400.”

Abbott also says the cooperation of ESPN NFL senior coordinating producer Jay Rothman and director Chip Dean has been a huge help. “It doesn’t work without their interaction,” he says. “Sometimes the operations side can feel they’re working for the production side. But not here: it’s a true team.”

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