To Beat the Heat at US Open, ESPN Keeps People, Assets Moving

The sweltering, 90-degree temperatures in New York this week are certainly taking their toll on the players at the US Open, but broadcasters are feeling the heat as well. Operationally, broadcasters CBS, ESPN, and Tennis Channel regularly rotate the camera and microphone operators who must sit outside on the courts, but it is never easy to ensure that everyone is hydrated and healthy when the thermometer flirts with the 100-degree mark.

“CBS is attuned to the rhythm of breaking shifts a few hours earlier and making sure the water supplies are out there,” says Jamie Reynolds, VP of event production for ESPN. “The question is, how well can we create a depth chart at every position and keep people fresh. With temperatures like this, we get into a higher, faster frequency of rotation. But there are certainly plenty of people here on-site to make sure nobody gets spent.”

Instead of bringing a larger team to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center to accommodate the more frequent shift changes, Reynolds is working the same workforce smarter. Instead of six-hour rotations, for example, the team might do four-hour pulls to get more-frequent breaks.

Although the nighttime hours might be long — tennis is frequently played past midnight at the US Open — fewer resources are required under the stars. At most, two courts are used during the evening session, rather than the five that are televised during the day.

“We have a second shift that comes in prioritized for the evening body of work, so you know that you’ve got fresh folks coming in,” Reynolds says. “We have the same kind of relief plan in place so that the night matches are optimized.”

A Constant Rotation
Besides heat-induced fatigue, Reynolds must fight time-induced fatigue among his team as well. Even for the most dedicated employees, 14 consecutive 12-plus-hour days can be a long time to spend packaging highlights, so Reynolds has devised a rotational system to ensure that his team does not burn out on a single task.

“We put everyone through a two- to three-day rotation, so that everybody touches a different station between highlights, tape producing, Orad graphics, and listening to press-conference sound,” he explains. “The theory there is, that will help them to understand how complicated this compound is. I’m going to teach them how to do something new, but they’ve also built an aptitude from what they did previously, so they may find a shortcut or a way to do it better. By the second week, I don’t want them asking how to connect the dots. I’m hoping I’ve bred a compound where they understand the connectivity in everything that we do.”

The operators train as they go, shadowing position leaders on their first two days and becoming position leaders by day three, before moving on to the next station. Finding the 150 bodies that ESPN needs to work every day from 11 a.m. until the final point, however, required some insider trading at Bristol, CT, headquarters.

“We have college football going on and NFL launching, so we get into a little bit of horse trading with personnel,” says Reynolds. “I will ask for a certain person because I know he loves tennis, and we’ll get him over to college football in time for week two.”

Phantom Goes Mobile
For its second year covering the US Open, ESPN decided to bring to tennis some of the technological advances the network has brought to other professional sports. New at Flushing Meadows this year are the Spidercam and FlyCam aerial camera systems, and a new type of high-speed Phantom Camera from Vision Research.

Typically, the Phantom Camera, which can shoot up to 1,000 frames per second, is used in a studio setting for glamour shots of athletes — the GQ shot, Reynolds calls it. The latest version of the camera, however, is portable, and the images can be ingested and rendered in the camera, instead of in the production truck.

“We’re actually taking it out on court, recording to P2 cards, coming back, ingesting, and using that content on quick turnaround, which is great,” Reynolds says. “That whole conversion process, the render time to turn 1,000 frames into eight seconds of footage, we’ve now got the functionality in the camera. We output to a P2, and we can have the footage within two minutes. That means we can go into a break with a Phantom shot of Roddick doing a fist pump. We’re pushing that on-court application of Phantom pretty aggressively.”

A New Home Truck
Not so aggressive, however, is ESPN’s use of all of the new features available in the network’s newest mobile-production unit, F&F Productions’ GTX 16 truck.

“The layout is very similar to what we used last year, but we have a [Grass Valley] Kayenne production switcher and a [Calrec] Apollo audio console,” Reynolds says. He notes that some of his folks have training time on the new gear, “but I don’t really know if we are exploiting all of the tools available to their fullest.”

The new truck gives ESPN plenty of opportunity and capability, but, without a better handle on how to troubleshoot if something goes wrong, Reynolds’ team will be playing it close to the vest for this first time out.

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