How the Proliferation of Official Video Replay Has Affected RSN Productions

As MLB, NBA, NHL, and MLS institute replay systems, RSN responsibilities have increased

For regional sports networks, maintaining a quality relationship with the leagues and teams for which they hold the rights is essential. Besides serving its primary local TV audience and fans on digital platforms, RSNs are called on by their league partners to serve a variety of needs. As Major League Baseball, NBA, NHL, and now MLS, have adopted official-video-review systems, RSNs have taken on the added load of delivering camera angles from their productions for replays.

“[Official review] has had a significant impact on what the RSNs do — in a good way,” said Jon Slobotkin, SVP, content and live programming, NBC Sports Regional Networks, at SVG’s RSN Summit in June. “All the leagues have done a really good job from a technology standpoint by introducing methods to make it easier from a production standpoint to turn their decisions around quickly.”

NBA Replay Comes of Age With a Helping Hand From RSNs
The NBA launched its state-of-the-art NBA Replay Center in Secaucus, NJ, for the 2014-15 season and has continued to cultivate its official-review workflow.

“We think [official review] is going great,” said David Denenberg, SVP, global media distribution and business affairs, NBA Entertainment. “It’s a work in progress, but we reduced the time from headset on to headset off to 30 seconds this past season. That is [partially thanks] to the RSNs, who have been great.

MLS’s Larry Tiscornia (right) speaks at the RSN Summit as NBC Sports Regional Networks’ Jon Slobotkin looks on.

“We built a system where we have seven camera feeds coming into [the Replay Center in] Secaucus, NJ,” he continued. “But sometimes that’s not enough, and we need a different angle, and the RSN has it. The cooperation between the leagues and the RSN has allowed that to happen. There have been times when a play has been decided from one angle that [the RSN] has captured with one of their own cameras.”

Denenberg added that the NBA makes, SVP, Replay and Referee Operations, Joe Borgia available for live pre/postgame interviews at the Replay Center to NBA TV and other outlets. He believes this could be valuable content for RSNs to use in the future.

The NBA has also allowed RSNs to take a live feed of officials reviewing a replay and integrate it into the telecast, creating a new level of transparency for fans.

“Credit to the NBA for being completely transparent with the way their replay process works. They allow viewers at home to see exactly what the referees are looking at, so there is no confusion as to how the decisions are being determined,” says Slobotkin. “And to the credit of NBA, NHL, and MLB, they have been excellent in taking feedback regarding how the process works in reality. There has never been a shortage of attention to try to make that better. I think it’s moved light-years ahead in the last few years.”

MLS Hops Aboard the Video-Review Bandwagon
At long last, video review has arrived in soccer. An official-video-review system was used at the FIFA Confederations Cup earlier this summer (although some controversy brought into question FIFA’s stated plans to institute it for the 2018 World Cup). The MLS became the first domestic league to use video review on every game when it launched its Hawk-Eye–based Video Assistant Referee (VAR) following the MLS All-Star Game on Aug. 5.

“It’s been a long haul, but finally the governing bodies agreed to pursue ,” said MLS VP, Broadcasting, Larry Tiscornia at the RSN Summit prior to the launch of the VAR system. “From the [national and regional] networks, the No. 1 concern is how will it affect the length of the game? One thing about MLS is, there is a clock and it doesn’t stop, so we fit nice into a two-hour window. Will Video Assistant Referee extend us past that programming window?”

From left: NBA Entertainment’s David Denenberg, MLB’s Bernadette McDonald, NBC Sports Regional Networks’ Jon Slobotkin

The MLS is focused on not slowing the pace of the game —and thereby extending beyond the two-hour programming window — as a result of VAR. The system, which serves as “the fifth referee,” alerts the head referee to potential clear and obvious errors in four match-changing events: goals, penalty kicks, direct red cards, and cases of mistaken identity. Only the head referee can initiate a video review, making the video-review signal (TV-box sign). If video evidence is inconclusive, the original on-field decision stands. The final decision always rests with the head referee.

“There is so much we are doing behind the scenes, and it doesn’t work without the cooperation of the local and national productions,” said Tiscornia. “So, over the last few months, we have been working with the local and national broadcasters [regarding] what the expectations are onsite. We are going into each venue and patching in their cameras. Hawk-Eye does all the replays with another official there. It’s going to be a game-changer for us.”

MLB Replay Continues To Evolve
Since MLB launched the manager-challenge system for its video-review process in 2014, it has become a key element in not only how the game is managed but how fans watch. New rules this season include a 30-second window for managers to challenge and a two-minute guideline for replay officials to make a call on a review.

“For replay, there are a lot of different pieces. It’s a phenomenal setup in New York, and it’s an elaborate process,” said Bernadette McDonald, SVP, broadcast operations, MLB. “I think pace of game is always a concern. This year, the managers have to indicate quicker when they want to do a challenge, because adding minutes to the game is a concern for all of us across the board.”

The system will likely continue to evolve — along with the role that RSNs play in feeding the camera angles — in the coming years. MLBAM’s MLB Replay Center is expected to relocate from Chelsea Piers to the league’s new Sixth Avenue location in Manhattan in 2019.

“Certainly, things have been cleaned up through the years. [MLB is] going to look at new technology, [such as] how we can cover the foul poles better,” McDonald said. “Ultimately, that could be [via] cameras put in each ballpark that may be an MLBAM camera vs. a TV camera, and, hopefully we would be able to get access to those cameras for [RSNs] to show. It may not be the perfect puzzle … but it’s always a work in progress, and It’s a key part of the game. I think it’s 50-50 when we hear things from announcers or the trucks about what’s wrong or what’s good. Please keep those comments coming,” he told attendees. “We always want to hear from [the RSNs].”

CLICK HERE to hear the full audio from the League & Team Perspectives: Creating Quality RSN Partnerships panel at the RSN Summit.

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