CBS Sports’ PGA Championship Production Spans the Globe; Embraces Drones, Toptracer, 4D Replay
Working safe and smart with ESPN, NEP, and Game Creek enables large compound to be realized
For CBS Sports and anyone involved in covering the PGA, this year has been a year unlike any other: the Majors schedule was shuffled, events were canceled, and fans have yet to return to any professional golf events. And that is why the production plan CBS Sports has put together for the PGA Championship, which begins today at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco, is so important: it signals the return to producing a sports event in a big way.
“To my knowledge, this is the biggest remote sporting coverage since the whole pandemic began,” says Mike Francis, VP, remote engineering and planning, CBS Sports. “We have a very robust compound with 22 mobile units, a two-story tech structure, and office trailers. We’re out here with fewer people, but, if you didn’t see the masks and other protocols, you would think it was a regular PGA Championship.”
NEP Supershooter CBS is handling back-nine coverage; Game Creek Video’s Encore, the front nine. NEP ND7 will have a split role: two control rooms for ESPN’s two featured groups in the A unit, audio and replay in the B unit for one featured group, and audio and replay in the C unit for the other. Other units will handle replay overflow, graphics, and other functions although the production, like all CBS golf productions since the pandemic, will involve personnel located across the country and even New Zealand, where ARL will insert virtual graphics.
According to Harold Bryant, EVP/SVP, production, CBS Sports, some of the technical highlights this year include the return of the 4D Replay system on the 14th hole (marking the system’s return to the PGA Championship), a 700-ft. point-to-point FlyCam system that will cover the driving range and practice area, and the AR graphics.
Many of the production elements — most of the Toptracer, ARL, editing, video shading, and additional replay devices (including four new multichannel Hawkeye systems) — will be handled from remote locations. CBS Sports professionals in California, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Texas, Maine, Colorado, and New Zealand (where ARL will handle virtual graphics) will be tied into the facilities at Harding Park. More specifically, the four Hawkeye operators, for example, are in Maine, Texas, Colorado, and Oklahoma and a production team at The Switch in Burbank is handling Toptracer duties, with the ball-tracking system used on all 18 holes.
“We will have 11 people handling Toptracer, handling signals from three RF Toptracer systems that are roving the fairway, and four video shaders,” says Francis.
Mobile units in Stamford, CT, will also be in use for the nightly highlight show Clubhouse Report.
“We have a set onsite at Harding Park with two talent and interview locations just off set,” says Francis. “It will be produced and directed out of Stamford.”
Farthest afield will be ARL, which will operate the Virtual Eye augmented and virtual graphics from its office on New Zealand’s South Island. Coverage on all holes (except the par 3s) will be increased, with Virtual Eye using Toptracer ball-tracking capabilities on tee shots within a 3D hole model while showing the golfer hit shots from the tee. Virtual flyover animations also return, giving a second-shot perspective once the ball comes to rest; GolfTrax information will provide key statistical information on each player.
Drones Cover the Course
Without fans on the course, CBS Sports has been able to embrace the use of live drone coverage at PGA tournaments this year, and CBS will have multiple state-of-the-art drones as a live camera source for coverage of TPC Harding Park, providing unique views during the action.
“Drones cover the course for different perspectives,” says Bryant, “so the coverage is going to be as good as or better than any PGA Championship coverage.”
Francis adds that drones have been a great addition to CBS Sports golf coverage since the pandemic put an end to golf events with fans. Kaze Aerials is providing the drones.
“We have more freedom on where we can fly them,” he explains. “Drones were always in the plan for the PGA Championship. We have two different drone systems and will be keeping them over the water and various safe areas.”
Scenic flyovers of the course were prerecorded, and Francis says the production team has done a great job working live drone coverage creatively into earlier PGA coverage.
He is looking forward to working with the FlyCam system, which provides some additional flexibility compared with other point-to-point systems. “It can be lowered and raised so you can get it down to about a foot off the ground,” he explains. “That is a lot more versatility than the systems we have used in the past. It will give us some nice moves covering the range.”
CBS will bring back 4D Replay on the 14th hole. Deployed for the first time on a U.S. golf broadcast at the 2018 PGA Championship at Bellerive, an array of cameras border the tee box to offer a 180-degree view around the player to provide a thorough breakdown of the swing (the 4D Replay system in other applications can offer a 360-degree look).
Jim Nantz, lead play-by-play announcer, highlights the importance of the event, which is the first golf major since the Open Championship last year and also begins a historic run for golf events.
“No other sport can say this today,” he says. “We’re a
bout to enter the greatest stretch of golf in the history of the game. In the next 11 months, we will have seven major championships, two Masters, two PGA Championships, and the FedEx Playoffs.”
In recent weeks, Nantz has worked solo in the onsite broadcast booth, but analyst Nick Faldo will join him in the tower at 18 this weekend. Nantz explains the bizarre disconnect when walking to the broadcast booth without crowds, noting that it looks like an average day at an average golf course.
“I have not been in a clubhouse, locker room, on the range, on the CBS compound and not even seen [Coordinating Producer for Golf] Lance Barrow since the Colonial in early June,” he says of the strict pandemic protocols. “So that part is bizarre. But then I put the headset on and get the feed out of the truck, and it’s embellished with visuals, graphics, and drone. It feels normal with the headset on.”
Francis says the the broadcast tower at 18 will look similar to the way it did in the pre-COVID days. “The size of the desk keeps [crew members] at a safe distance, and we will have a lot less people at the tower in general with some located nearby and others working remotely.”
Nantz applauds the efforts done by Barrow and the production, operations, and technical teams: “The presentations have been fantastic. And audio has gone to a new level with the absence of fans as we can eavesdrop between the player and caddie. The technical and production team have done a great job bringing that into the broadcast. We would love to have the fans there, but the audio quality from the players and caddies has improved.”
Getting that audio requires less of a battle without the crowds, Francis says. “We have 16 parabolic antennas sprinkled around the course, so we don’t have to move them. We have one planted at each par 4 fairway for second shots, and we have two on the par 5 fairways. They are great for the ball-strike audio and the dialogue if we can get in close enough.”
This year’s PGA Championship will be the final one for Barrow. His first was the memorable 1997 PGA Championship, when John Daly burst on the scene. Over the years, Barrow has seen the equipment complement change tremendously.
“With golf,” he explains, “the more equipment you get, it is not easier, but you know you can cover every hole and every shot. So that is a positive thing for us. We’ve been planning with ESPN for many months, and it’s a real tribute to our operations and production department and everyone at CBS.”
Francis says the job by everyone — from health and safety to the engineering, technical, and production teams — has been unbelievable.
“It has been an amazing team effort because we have not been in the same room planning this out,” he points out. “You have to be more diligent than ever to get the paperwork right the first time, and you have to be sure that everything from compound design to fiber to equipment specs is accurate. And then you have to distribute the documents and communicate to the masses.”
The team effort also extends to the vendors onsite and beyond.
“NEP, Game Creek, and Filmwerks are always tremendous partners,” says Francis. “4D Replay is a mainstay for us at the PGA Championship, and this is our first go with FlyCam, so we’re excited to see what they bring to the table. And EVS, Sony, and Canon are on the broadcast gear. There is a lot going into this one and a lot of great partners.”
Getting to this point has been a months-long process, and CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus praises the CBS Sports team for its efforts over the past nine weeks.
“I couldn’t be prouder of the job our team has done under the most difficult of situations,” he says. “The productions are four times as complex, and I’m excited about our first partnership with ESPN on this event and providing coverage from the first tee shot to the last putt on all four days. And having the PGA Championship in primetime will be terrific from a ratings, branding, and positioning standpoint.”