College Sports Summit: Next-Gen Production Tools Make Way Into Telecasts

As the overall production quality of college sports telecasts or live streams continues to improve, many national and regional sports networks are looking for new ways to differentiate their shows from others. At the SVG College Sports Summit in Atlanta last week, production executives from national sports networks gave attendees an inside look at the tools and philosophies that are changing today’s college sports-video product.

Panel on production tools: (from left) SVG’s Ken Kerschbaumer, CBS Sports Network’s Chris Fitzpatrick, Big Ten Network’s Mark Hulsey, Fox Sports Networks’ Roy Hamilton, ESPN’s Dave Miller, and Turner Sports’ Tom Sahara

Panel on production tools: (from left) SVG’s Ken Kerschbaumer, CBS Sports Network’s Chris Fitzpatrick, Big Ten Network’s Mark Hulsey, Fox Sports Networks’ Roy Hamilton, ESPN’s Dave Miller, and Turner Sports’ Tom Sahara

“We are always trying push the envelope — no matter what [sport] we are covering,” said Chris Fitzpatrick, coordinating producer, remote production, CBS Sports Network. “We certainly have budget constraints, but, at the end of the day, with the evolution of technology and the integration of social media [with live sports telecasts], we are trying to figure out how to do innovative new things. … We are looking for pieces of equipment that are relatively inexpensive but that you can use across a variety of sports.”

Red Bee’s Piero Heads to College
One example of CBS Sports Network’s search for innovative new production tools is its use of Red Bee Media’s Piero 3D analysis technology. The “super telestrator,” as Fitzpatrick calls it, has become a popular tool for coverage of major pro sports but is now making its way into less high-profile college sports telecasts. CBS Sports Network will either produce Piero replay content back in New York in anticipation of a big game or send the system and an operator out to the remote for very high-profile telecasts.

“That is just one example of how we are constantly trying to push the envelope and give the viewer the absolute best experience possible,” he said. “It doesn’t always mean that you have to spend a ton of money to get the return on the investment. If we see something out there that is relatively inexpensive, we are definitely going to try it at CBS Sports Network, and then it may end up being something we implement over on the [CBS] broadcast network.”

Fox Offers Fresh Perspectives for College Fans
Meanwhile, Fox Sports Networks has focused largely on amping up its graphics presentation in recent years, utilizing in-depth statistics and in-your-face visuals to enable viewers to better understand the action.

From left: CBS Sports Network’s Chris Fitzpatrick, Fox Sports Networks’ Roy Hamilton, and Big Ten Network’s Mark Hulsey

From left: CBS Sports Network’s Chris Fitzpatrick, Fox Sports Networks’ Roy Hamilton, and Big Ten Network’s Mark Hulsey

In addition, Fox has increased its use of CableCam and RF cameras on college sports telecasts. For example, Tightwad Hill, the hill rising to the east of UC-Berkeley’s California Memorial Stadium, offers one of the most unusual perspectives in all of college football: fans are privy to a perfect view of the live action on the field (à la the rooftops surrounding Wrigley Field).

“We utilize the RF camera in our broadcast a little differently,” said Roy Hamilton, VP, production/coordinating producer, Fox Sports Networks. “For years, at Cal Berkeley, you would always see the fans sitting up on the hill, and it was always a great shot. So, a couple years ago, we added an RF camera up there, and the viewer got a perspective of what the fans were seeing. It was a beautiful shot of the stadium and the Bay Bridge. That brings the fans closer. We know, if we can bring you closer to the game, then you will really enjoy the experience.”

Research Remains Key
At Turner Sports, the production group and its announcers are tasked with covering 68 college basketball teams that they haven’t had the opportunity to see once all year during the first two rounds of the NCCA Men’s Basketball Tournament. As a result, Turner conducts comprehensive research leading up to and during the tournament to make sure every possible angle of the tournament is covered accurately.

ESPN’s Dave Miller (left) and Turner Sports’ Tom Sahara

ESPN’s Dave Miller (left) and Turner Sports’ Tom Sahara

“A lot of the preparation goes into research. There is no shortcut; it’s just hard research. As soon as we get a list of who the possibilities are that the committee is looking at, we start digging into who the teams, the players, the coaches are and condensing those down into notes for our talent and production teams. Once the game starts, it’s all about telling the story that is unfolding in front of you, and getting those pertinent details [in advance] to the production team allows them to know what’s important.”

Capturing the Moment
Big Ten Network had the opportunity to capture one of the most compelling moments in recent memory of college sports. Last season, the network produced a moving feature about 7-year-old cancer patient Jack Hoffman and his unique relationship with then-Nebraska Cornhuskers running back Rex Burkhead and his role as the team’s inspirational leader.

During the team’s spring football game in April, the Cornhuskers opted to take this story to the field, bringing Hoffman onto the field in full pads to actually take a snap with the team. Originally, Hoffman was supposed to simply take the snap late in the fourth quarter of the exhibition game, but the brave youngster instead ran the ball 69 yards for a touchdown followed by a rousing celebration in the end zone (click here for video).

“We had no idea what they were planning on doing,” said Mark Hulsey, VP, production, Big Ten Network. “We found out about five minutes before it happened. We had little time to prepare, but it produced a pretty amazing moment. To me, it was the most memorable thing we did all year. That is the great thing about our business: when you prepare for a game, you have no idea what is going to happen. It was very simple, but it was very special to be a part of.”

The Next Generation on the Air and in the Compound
One of the largest concerns at almost all remote productions these days is the rapidly aging technical and production crew. Seeking out the next generation of behind-the-scenes talent, networks are mining college campuses around the country.

“For us, it’s all about taking the time to identify good young talent and then giving them honest feedback so they can grow — either patting them on the back or, when they don’t succeed, telling them what went wrong and how they can do better,” said Dave Miller, senior coordinating producer, ESPN. “Then you have to take a chance and give them a shot. Make sure you put people in the right position where they can succeed and not a spot where they will just be overwhelmed.”

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