LTS 2011: Producers Face Challenge of Balancing Sales with Storytelling

Sports fans are used to the routine. NBA on TNT T-Mobile Halftime Report; Fox NFL Sunday’s Game Summary presented by Chevy Trucks; the YES Network Yankees Post Game Show sponsored by Bigelow Tea; the NHL on NBC Save of the Game built by the Home Depot.

John Filippelli, YES Network, President, Production & Programming

Network sales departments work sponsorship opportunities into their broadcasts any way they can, and with skyrocketing rights fees dominating the sports television landscape, it’s only going to become more prominent and it offers unique challenges to the producer.

At SVG’s sixth annual League Technology Summit last week, some of the industry’s top producers discussed the challenge of balancing sales and storytelling and walking the fine line of paying the bills without overloading viewers with sponsor elements.

“Sales is paramount to our industry and certainly to our network,” said Curt Gowdy, Jr., SVP and executive producer at SNY, a regional sports network in New York dedicated to the Mets and Jets, “but our goal is to never let sales interfere with our storytelling. We have to be very selective about what elements we put on the air and how we put them on the air. Anything that clutters up our game at the end of the telecast is something we avoid totally.”

Producers attempt to make the sponsorship process as subtle and simple for the viewer as possible by incorporating elements that seamlessly flow with the broadcast. Everything from shoulder programming to lineups, game summaries, defensive alignments, etc., will have a related sponsor element added to it in an attempt to generate more ad revenue outside of the standard commercial breaks.

There are times, however, when that is easier said than done.

“A few years ago, one of our over-the-air partners had a campaign for Poland Spring’s “Plant a Tree” and they wanted to incorporate that into the telecast and I didn’t see a natural fit,” cracked John Filippelli, president of production and programming at the New York Yankee-owned YES Network. “So I told the producer and director to shoot the bat rack. That was the closest thing to a tree that I could find. Maybe they’ll get the message.”

Producers are also looking for more original ways to weave in their sponsor’s spots.

“If there’s anybody from sales out there,” John Slobotkin, vice president and executive producer of live events at Comcast SportsNet joked to the crowd, “I’d ask you to try something more creative than ‘keys to the game’ because everyone knows that the key to the game is to outscore your opponent. So we would like to remove ‘keys to the game’ as a standard sales item.”

The panel also discussed the advantages and disadvantages of keeping some live production elements at home studios, cutting the costs associated with keeping full crews on the road. The responses were mixed.

“We are not looking to bring things in house,” said Harold Bryant, VP of production and executive producer at CBS Sports, “For our weekend broadcasts, in particular, we want to keep our guys on the road. We want them out there with the teams, going to the practices, getting that experience, and adding that extra flavor to the broadcast.

“We also don’t have the volume to have our control rooms running every day during the week. It’s not cost-effective for us to build three, four, or five extra control rooms to do games in our home base.”

SNY's Curt Gowdy, Jr. (left) speaks to the crowd as SPEED's Bruce Shapiro looks on.

For some, including SPEED Channel’s Senior Coordinating Technical Producer Bruce Shapiro, a hybrid model works best.

“We send our on-air people and some of our frontline production people out to site but keep some other people back to produce in house,” he said. “It’s actually worked very well for us. If it’s streamlined well the viewer really won’t know the difference one-way or the other.”

There are risks to keeping production staff at home and hiring outside crews to run road events. As Filippelli points out, “the more you cede control the more you give up the type of broadcast you want.”

“I think it’s based on the significance of the event,” said Slobotkin, whose regional nets carry some Major League Soccer games – a league that has actually put a workflow in place that discourages visiting production teams to visit game venues, putting the work load on the home team’s crew.

“The ability to be able to [broadcast] the event is terrific but you have to be careful when you do go out of house,” Slobotkin added. “We did it and it worked. It wasn’t ideal all the time and it was something we had to live with but for the most part it worked.”

Click here for SVG’s comprehensive coverage of the 2011 League Technology Summit!

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