Power Hitter Profile: John Leland: Remote Production Expert, Systems Integration Guru
John Leland took a roundabout route into sports television. Through a varied career that has constantly oscillated between live remote production and systems integration, the vice president of global media operations for Origin Digital has stood at the helm of sports networks, led the charge at technology companies, headed digital operations at media conglomerates, and even sat in the driver’s seat (literally) of mobile production units. Few professionals have held as many positions — and had as much success in those positions — as John Leland.
From the Beginning, on the Road
Leland began working long before he began working in television. After a four-year stint with the government, he served as the general manager of a real estate company, building shopping centers, housing, and office buildings.
Fifteen years after starting college, he returned home to New Hampshire, where he earned a degree in communications and behavioral science from the University of New Hampshire. As a way of paying for this final collegiate push, at the age of 33, Leland got his first television job, working as an audio mixer at New Hampshire Public Television. He was soon hired as the operations manager for the station.
“Then I decided that it would be fun to do remotes,” he recalls. “I did a few remotes in New Hampshire when we had specific hockey events and we would rent a truck, but then, I went to work for a little company in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, PA, called Northeast Productions, which was then shortened to NEP.”
Leland served as the truck EIC for NEP Supershooter 1, the company’s first mobile unit, and it was there that he fell in love with remote production. He subsequently went to work for A.F. Associates as a project manager, overseeing the building of a series of mobile production units for CBS Sports.
“I have moved around frequently because I have been offered other opportunities and I just go there,” he explains. “I got into television as a fluke, and I don’t have technical training, so I’ve gone between being a systems-integration person and a production person.”
Onto the Network Stage
After A.F. Associates, Leland served as director of engineering for Rupert Murdoch’s first foray into a television network in the U.S. He helped build a direct-broadcast facility for the network, but it never opened because Murdoch never got the content necessary to program the network.
After another systems-integration job, Leland returned to production with mobile-unit and uplink company TCS, working alongside George Wensel as director of operations.
“From there, I became a tech manager for NBC Sports,” Leland says. “In another stroke of luck, an opening came up for the 1988 Seoul Olympics for the director of venue technical operations, which they needed filled fast. It was NBC’s first Olympics, and I was in charge of running the 23 venues. I was very happy to be there.”
Brought in just one year before the Olympics began, he was renowned for being a bulldozer who could hit the ground running and get any project done.
“I used to be a lot more ambitious than I am now,” he smiles. “I’m sort of famous for once getting to an event at a stadium and the people weren’t there to let us in. We had a one-day set-shoot, so I drove the mobile unit up to the gate and pressed on it until I broke the locks. I’m one of the few management people that also drive the mobile units.”
Leland returned from South Korea to serve as a tech manager and, a year later, was made director of technical operations for NBC Sports. “It was fortunate on my part that they risked having me do that,” he says.
In 1992, he served as director of technical operations for the entirety of the Barcelona Olympic Games, which put him in charge of all the venues, the personnel, and the International Broadcast Center. In typical Leland fashion, immediately after the Barcelona Games, he moved on.
With Canadian partner Jim Eady, Leland co-founded Broadcast Services International, which kept him at one company for seven years and kept him inside the Olympic family, with BSI supplying tech management for two venues at the Lillehammer Olympics. The company also supplied commentary positions for international feeds for NBA All-Star Games and finals, provided facilities and personnel for the Good Morning America Passport to Europe tours, and, on a contract basis, sent Leland to Fox SportsNet New England as director of operations.
Back to Integration
In 1999, Leland returned to the operations business as VP of operations at Sportvision, but systems integration continued to call his name. At that time, National Mobile Television had decided to build a systems-integration division, and NMT President Jerry Gepner tapped Leland to serve as VP of operations for the division, the Venue Services Group.
“We built mobile units for NMT, including the truck that now does Monday Night Football,” Leland says. “When I left the Venue Services Group, I started looking at the future and saw that the new digital world was here. Although I was at a relatively advanced age, I found that, in this new digital world, there still was a need for the old-fashioned television operations work. They have new ways of transmitting, saving, and manipulating it, but content still requires guys shooting cameras.”
On to the Digital Future
Leland took that vision to IMG, working at the digital division until the company closed it, and then took his talents to Origin Digital.
“I was hired to take on their global media operations,” he explains. “This year, we’ll do between 10,000 and 12,000 streaming events. Their growth in media operations has been tremendous. For me, some of the joys of this are the fact that I work with people that are half my age, I am learning new things all the time, and the people that I work with are wonderful.”
Working with wonderful people has been a theme throughout Leland’s career. He points to the fact that every Emmy he has won has been a group Emmy. At age 63, he relishes his role as the “old guy who figured this stuff out.”
He adds, “I have no children so my crews on the road are always my children. The biggest challenge always is managing people. The rest of it is just listening, taking their good ideas, and acting on them. I try to make sure that I showcase all those around me.”
Over the course of his career, Leland has had three major role models.
“Tommy Shelburne [founder of NEP Supershooters] was somebody that I looked up to more than even he knows,” Leland says.
David Raynes, director of Little Bay Broadcast Services, gave Leland his first job in television, and the two are still good friends.
Gepner, now CEO of the Vitec Group, hired Leland at Sportvision, bringing Leland into the digital world.
“It’s the people through this business that make all the difference,” Leland says. “I’ve been so fortunate to have met and known so many people. It’s really the people on my teams that get these events on the air.”
Countdown to a New Kickoff
On his desktop, Leland has a countdown of the days before he turns 66 and expects to retire, or at least semi-retire.
“I’m looking forward to that because I’ll be able to do what I like best, which is remotes,” he says. “I’m going to retire and just do shows. I’m hoping to do large events. I have always enjoyed auto racing, but I’m not a sports fan at all.”
Indeed, although he has worked the Masters golf tournament, several Super Bowls, NBA Finals, NBA All-Star Games, and four Olympics, among other events, Leland could not care less about sports.
“I play along well and cheer at the right places, but it kills people because I’ll be at the Super Bowl playing solitaire, waiting for it to be over,” he laughs. “I like doing entertainment events as much as I like doing sports.”
As retirement looms, Leland is also looking forward to continuing to expand his travel horizons. “I like working around the world. I’ve been very fortunate to work almost everywhere: New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Korea, all over Europe, the Middle East, northern Africa, South Africa, and all the Scandinavian countries. I have a worldwide family, my wife, Simone, being Dutch, so we tend to go places and visit people.”
With his ebullient personality and experience solving just about every challenge in remote production and systems integration, those people around the world are almost always thrilled to see John Leland.