Sportstime Ohio makes leap to 24/7 network

By Carolyn Braff

Sportstime Ohio has raised the bar on regional sports coverage, and it only took 13 months to do it. Making the transition from a part-time network focused on Cleveland Indians baseball to a 24/7 regional channel covering everything from minor league baseball and Browns football to local high school and college sports, not to mention all 161 Tribe games, STO is expanding its increasingly wide range of offerings across platforms to its ever expanding, demanding market.

“In Cleveland, there was such a void in local events and programming that we had a huge opportunity to cover sports and events in this region that had never been covered before,” says network President Jim Liberatore, who previously worked with the MSG network and the SPEED channel. “The cable operators were interested in the 24/7 channel; they didn’t want to have a part-time network, and we told them from the beginning that we would be working towards that.”

Knowing from day one that he wanted to turn the part-time network full-time made for a far easier and more efficient transition in the network’s second season, but plenty of new equipment was still needed to bring the channel up to snuff.

“This season is our first year in a lot of ways,” says Liberatore. “Last season we started six weeks before the first pitch so we kind of rushed. Now we’ve had some time to prepare and we’re excited.”

STO punctuated its extended programming hours by purchasing a new edit suite, master control, traffic system, and a new studio.

“We have a new studio and master control facilities located at WKYC-TV Cleveland, the NBC affiliate,” says Pat Kilkenney, executive producer at STO. In that new facility are the master control, two HD edit suites, and two HD robotic cameras routed through the master control. “Everything that we have at our studio is all HD.”

STO uses a fiber connection linking the stadium cameras to the local television station from which they broadcast, enabling a simple set and production operation that keeps costs low and productivity high.

“The studio that we built is set up to be operated through master control,” Liberatore said. “It’s very simple operations for simple productions, and all the seats are interchangeable so you can move from one program to another. It was made with the idea of multi-functionalism.”

The network has also kept up with national trends, acquiring a super slow-motion system to enhance its broadcasts.

“We added Stomo, super slo mo from Sport Media,” Kilkenney said. “It’s also a pitch tracker, to show the degree of break, where it lands in and out of the strike zone, and the miles per hour. It’s all brand new technology Sport Media unveiled this year, so we’re almost like the guinea pig for Sport Media to use this technology.”

STO has become its own guinea pig this season, trying out different types of local programming to see what will generate the best ratings and interest. The victims include CCHA College Hockey, Cleveland State University and Ohio State University action, golf, cage fighting, and high school basketball. The network is also producing original programming, most of which revolves around Indians baseball. The highlight of that programming is an afternoon sports talk show entitled “All Bets are Off,” hosted by Radio/Television Hall of Fame broadcaster Bruce Drennan.

The crux of the network’s schedule, however, is Indians baseball. The network produces all 161 Tribe games, broadcasts them live (141 on STO and 20 on WKYC), and replays the broadcast during overnight hours and the following day at noon. In-game features include a hitters’ spray chart, text message capabilities, and a pitch tracker. All Tribe home games are currently broadcast in high definition, along with 10 road games this season, and HD expansion is a priority for the start-up network.

“What we would like to be able to offer is an entirely new high- def channel,” adds Liberatore. “STO can have enough programming where we will be able to support a hi def channel, so we’re thinking with that in mind.”

Liberatore also envisions the Sportstime Ohio Web site (www.sportstimeohio.com) as a big part of the network’s relationship with the fans. The network recently changed Internet content providers, which delayed the site’s progress, but work is now back on track. “We want people to be able to upload video, pictures of their kid playing little league, we want to have a talent contest where we search for the next Cleveland talk person, and that will start by uploading videos onto the website,” explains Libertore. “The web is going to play an important part in what we’re doing.”

“The tie-ins are endless, with everything from web polls to streaming video,” adds Kilkenney of the cross-platform possibilities. “We can’t do a live broadcast but we’re going to take a video on demand approach.”

With so many platforms and outlets available to sports fans nationwide, STO must work to make its anticipated niche a reality.

“People think that we are the Indians network and that’s all that we do, but that’s not true,” says Kilkenney. “We are so much more than the Indians. Everything ties into Ohio, which has been Jim’s mantra from day one. We’re not taking shows from California or New York; everything that we do we try to tie into the local programming.”

“I think right now the challenge for us is to really make ourselves an important part of what’s going on in Cleveland,” Liberatore said. “You walk around the country and Cleveland gets some knocks, but one thing that everybody agrees with is Cleveland has great sports fans. We get it and we’re fans ourselves, so it’s that much more valuable for the cable operator. That’s the biggest challenge, to make sure that we’re relevant.”

As a native of Cleveland, no one is better suited to step up to that challenge than Liberatore and his STO team.

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