LTS 2010: Modern Truck Compound About Much More Than Just Broadcast

Today’s modern sports-broadcast compound no longer has the luxury of producing video for a single screen. The proliferation of new devices has forced broadcasters to alter the makeup of their truck compounds to account for new-media production teams and broadband video delivery. At SVG’s fifth-annual League Technology Summit on Dec. 14 in New York City, operations chiefs from several major networks took the stage to discuss this evolving broadcast compound.

“The whole compound has grown exponentially almost overnight,” said SVG Chairman and NBA Entertainment EVP of Operations and Technology Steve Hellmuth, who moderated the panel. “When you look at the compound today, not only does it include additional trucks for graphics, it also includes encoder farms, a place for the apps producer, additional bandwidth requirements, and other [digital needs]. In addition, there are techniques that allow the new media producers to totally bypass the compound and be a part of this, but deliver the content separately.”

Melding the Two Worlds in a Single Compound

This transformation has forced operations managers to integrate the digital staff fully into the broadcast compound. What was once an entirely separate broadband production must now circulate in the same vein as the traditional broadcast.

“When we first started this a few years ago, the dotcom show was totally separate from the television side,” said Tom Sahara, Turner Sports, senior director, IT and remote operations. “Now we see it as one overall production. That has worked well. When you start segregating them, it can be tough to keep track of things and keep it all together.”

From left: Mike Davies, Susan Stone, Jason Cohen, Tom Sahara, Steve Hellmuth

Not surprisingly, this shoulder-to-shoulder relationship between the broadcast and digital staffs has created an osmosis effect that allows much of the content created for the broadband platform to be utilized for the broadcast, and vice versa.

“We’re starting to see a lot of cross-pollination between the two,” Sahara said. “Putting these groups together has opened up plenty of opportunities to move that content from the small screen to the big screen.”

Working With What You Have
In a business that is constantly trying to reduce its resources and footprint, adding an entire staff for the digital production can be tricky.

“I’m in the business of eliminating trucks not adding them,” said Fox Sports VP of Technical Operations Mike Davies. “Anything that we can find to make things more efficient in that way, we will use. For digital stuff we are trying to utilize what we have on site to reduce our footprint rather than make it bigger.”

This more-with-less philosophy has caused most operations chiefs to get creative in their search for space. Sahara, for example, often puts his “Web guys” in the B unit that is already being utilized for the broadcast production. A select few, like MLB Network VP of Operations Susan Stone, have gone as far as eliminating the on-site crew almost entirely.

“We’ve certainly learned a lot from the [digital] workflows,” she said. “At the World Series this year, we didn’t have a [technical director] in our truck, we didn’t have an EVS operator, we had no graphics. We just had a couple of audio engineers and one video person. We had 10 cameras go directly back to [MLB Network headquarters in] Secaucus. Our TD and director were back in our control room working the show from Secaucus.”

Online FanCams – Gimmick or Moneymaker?
A growing number of networks have begun to stream alternate camera angles online for events, most notably NBC’s extensive offering for Sunday Night Football. However, most networks have yet to find a bona fide way to monetize these services and justify the additional crew and resources needed on-site to produce this content.

“It’s not easy to monetize that sort of thing,” said Davies. “It’s not necessarily because it’s too expensive, but I don’t know if it’s something that is worth a great deal of cash.”

Nonetheless, Turner Sports regularly offers personalized camera angles online for NBA games televised on TNT (on NBA Overtime) as well as for its coverage of the MLB Playoffs on TBS. According to Sahara, these efforts may finally be paying off.

“We’ve found that the sponsors are starting to realize that there is value in delivering this additional experience,” he says. “It really is an extension of what’s on television. It’s gotten to the point where the numbers are big enough that advertisers are taking notice.”

Innovation through Reorganization
Many of the most intriguing innovations in sports television often fall by the wayside because there is simply not enough room to fit them into already-crowded game telecasts. For every Flow Motion and Pitch f/x, there are dozens of technologies that have failed to catch on in telecasts despite an extensive investment of time and money.

“A lot of people in this business spend a lot of time working on tools and technologies that a producer only ends up using once or twice in a [broadcast] because there’s so much traffic they still have to get through for the show,” said Jason Cohen, HBO Sports, director – sports production. “All of sudden, you’ve spent all this time developing a technology that only gets 12 seconds of airtime.”

However, Cohen sees what he believes to be an obvious solution in the growing number of digital staffers currently on networks’ payrolls.

“There is a real opportunity to leverage the [digital] platform for stuff that will ultimately help our telecast,” he continued. “I would like to see us move these kinds of technologies over to the platforms that the new media folks are sitting on so they can use their [expertise] to develop them further.”

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