NHL innovates to improve TV coverage

By Ken Kerschbaumer

The National Hockey League dropped the puck on a new season last night and, with the painful strike of the 2004-2005 season still lingering in some quarters, the NHL hope that this is the season the NHL begins building its game back into a legitimate top-four professional league.

For Adam Acone, NHL VP of broadcasting and programming, those efforts include a number of league-wide initiatives designed to enhance the TV viewing experience for both the hardcore hockey fan and, more importantly, the casual sports fan.

A new “Game Camera Certification Program” embodies the new philosophy. In an effort to build a more consistent look across all of the NHL broadcasts the league is implementing a training program for the operator of the number one camera, the camera located near the center line that is responsible for shooting about 75% of the game action (in Canada the camera is referred to as camera two).

“How NHL games are currently framed on that camera today varies from market to market,” says Acone. “Some cameramen shoot it tight while others are loose, showing 20 rows of the crowd. But it’s important that we teach those cameramen how to frame for a power play or what to do when the whistle blows.”

The real benefit of the program, in fact, isn’t necessarily for the viewer of the home broadcast but rather the away team and other content distributors who rely on that camera one signal to tell the story to fans thousands of miles away from the market the game is being played.

“That camera position is truly a world feed camera,” says Acone. “And the problem has been that the primary broadcaster would frame that shot to suit their home production which may have graphics located on the bottom of the screen. But that infringes on the broadcaster who is on the road because they may have their graphic in the corner.”

Veteran cameraman Al Mountford, who also shoots events like Monday Night Football, will teach the certification program. He’ll travel from market to market during the course of the season teaching local camerapeople how to best shoot from the camera one position. Acone says the goal is to have at least two certified camera people in each market.

“The rights holders have bought into this program from the beginning,” says Acone. “You could argue that the camera operator for camera one is as important as the audio mixer or technical director and everyone understands that if the framing is more consistent you can attract more viewers. Someone might tune in today to watch a game and see 20 rows of fans in the stands, not be able to follow the action, and then tune out.”

Going Wide

The training becomes even more important as NHL coverage serves both the wide-screen HD viewer and the SD 4:3 viewer. Only HDNet, which will broadcast 52 regular season games in HD, takes full advantage of the widescreen frame because it doesn’t deliver content to SD viewers. All other broadcasters find themselves battling the dual-production needs.

“We’ve talked about letterboxing for 4:3 but the perception of viewers is that the puck just got smaller if you don’t take advantage of the full height of the screen,” says Acone. But he does believe in widescreen framing.

“The key to shooting hockey is to not follow the puck as much as it is anticipating where it’s going to go and knowing what is going on away from the puck,” he says. “On television we have to show the puck which means we end up chasing it around the ice which can sometimes be the equivalent of watching a fly inside a phone booth.”

Widescreen will change that. “You can take a film mentality where you set the frame and let the action happen in the frame,” he says. “And that’s a much different discipline for the camera operator.”

Star Power

Another initiative this year involves improving the promotion of star players, both young and old. Over the years the NHL has always viewed its game as the ultimate team sport. But the reality is that today’s sports industry has increasingly become about star power.

To that end the NHL has identified top players in the league who will become ambassadors for the league. In addition, local broadcasters have been told to spend upwards of 40% of the time during a game discussing the away team and its players, a move that will increase awareness of the league. And the NHL will be watching, implementing a report card system that will grade local broadcasts on a monthly basis.

“We’ll provide each team with feedback on everything from storytelling to camera work to announcer commentary and play-by-play,” says Acone. “Even things like promos and how they package the game will be graded. The goal is to help them become better and better at delivering a quality broadcast.”

The NHL is also shooting and editing more than 60 player profiles that will then be distributed to the broadcasters. Broadcasters, in turn, can run the profiles in their complete form or break them into smaller segments to air throughout a broadcast.

“There are some great high-profile players and terrific veterans and we want to make them household names,” says Acone. Shooting of the standard-definition profiles began in early September and, following a recent conversion of all of the league’s Avid editing systems to HD, editing of the profiles is in full swing. Acone says the hope is that all of the profiles will be done by the All-Star break in February.

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