MLB Postseason: ESPN Modifies REMI Model To Produce Up to 21 Wild Card Games in Four Days
ESPN+ to present Squeeze Play, the first live MLB whiparound show
Today, ESPN and ABC kick off an unprecedented run of MLB postseason games, with exclusive rights to seven of the eight Wild Card series and as many as 21 games in four days. It’s a tall order and one that would not have been possible if it weren’t for the modified REMI production model ESPN cultivated during this year’s shortened regular season.
Over the past two months, ESPN has been taking clean feeds from the home team’s RSN for all weekday MLB games and producing the final telecast out of control rooms at its Bristol, CT, or Charlotte, NC, facilities — a model it will continue to deploy for this week’s Wild Card Series.
“When ESPN secured the rights to seven of the eight [Wild Card series],” says Paul Horrell, remote operations manager, ESPN, “it was a bit of a head scratcher in terms of how we were going to do all these games. But I think the work we did this season has really paid off. Given the logistics required for travel and the sheer volume of games, it was a no-brainer to use the same weekday-game model that we’ve been using all season. We tweaked the model, but that was definitely the only way we were going to be able to manage [potentially] 21 games over four days.”
At the Ballparks: Leveraging RSN Crew, Trucks Onsite
To pull off series in Minneapolis, Oakland, Cleveland, Atlanta, Chicago, San Diego, and Los Angeles, ESPN has enlisted the same producer/director teams, largely similar production crews, and the same mobile units used by the RSNs in the respective markets. The fleet of mobile units consists of Mobile TV Group’s HDX35, HDX36, 43Flex, and HDX26; NEP’s M11 and M12; and Lyon Video’s MU6.
During non-exclusive weekday games this season, the home team’s RSN provided ESPN with a clean world feed and supplied two unilateral cameras that ESPN could integrate into its final telecast (exclusive Sunday Night Baseball broadcasts were full REMI operations this year, with all camera feeds going to Bristol). However, since ESPN is the exclusive broadcaster of these Wild Card Series, the production crews are tailoring their coverage specifically for ESPN. Production teams inside the truck will receive net return, control-room return, and commentary from the home control room and will be in direct communication with ESPN’s producer/director in Bristol or Charlotte.
“In the regular season,” explains Phil Orlins, senior coordinating producer, Major League Baseball, ESPN, “we would take a world feed and enhance it with two of our own cameras. But here they will be [creating the world feed] just for us. They get our commentary, our network return, and our control-room return feeds back to site so they can see what we’re doing and hear our commentators. They will also be [in communication] directly with our producer and director in Bristol so they are synced up and working together.”
ESPN has authorized a modest increase in the production capacity for each of the local clean feeds, boosting camera counts from typically seven or eight cameras (plus the visiting RSN/national-broadcast unilaterals) to a standard of 10 hard cameras plus robos, including four super-slo-mos.
Back Home in Bristol and Charlotte
ESPN is deploying two production-control rooms apiece in Bristol and Charlotte, each receiving five feeds from onsite: the clean feed, a backup feed, a multiview for commentators, the centerfield K-Zone camera (to produce highlight packages back home), and a roaming ad hoc camera.
Five play-by-play talent will be calling games remotely from Bristol, while all analysts will be providing commentary remotely from their respective homes using ESPN’s Live From Home kits (with the exception of one, who will be in Bristol). Two production crews are scheduled to double up on games on Wednesday and Thursday, when ESPN is scheduled to televise up to seven games per day. In addition to the producer and director, graphics, scorebug, K-Zone 3D and home-tracker animations, and highlight packages will be located at the broadcast center.
“With very few exceptions, we’re not traveling any ESPN people to site other than the reporters, who mostly live within a few hours [of the game site],” says Orlins. “It’s a remarkably nimble, efficient, and low-travel plan. Typically, on the final Sunday of the season, to prepare for the tiebreaker game and one playoff game, the number of people working, traveling, and dealing with logistics is just crazy. But, Sunday night, we had the games set around 9:00, and, by 10:30, the plan was done.”
Since ESPN holds exclusive rights to the Wild Card series, all games will also feature virtual-ad insertion with two systems in Bristol and two at ESPN’s Seaport Studios in NYC.
ESPN+ Goes Full RedZone With Squeeze Play Wednesday, Thursday
This week will also see ESPN+’s first live MLB whiparound show, Squeeze Play, on both Sept. 30 and Oct. 1. Commentators Jason Benetti, Kyle Peterson, and Mike Petriello (who will also call MLB Statcast-driven presentations on ESPN+ during the Wild Card round) will go live on Wednesday at 1 p.m. ET to begin approximately 10 hours of live coverage each day, cutting in to key moments in MLB Wild Card Series matchups and providing expert analysis and commentary. Squeeze Play will provide coverage through the conclusion of the 7 p.m. games on those evenings.
“We’re going to come on when the second game begins at 1 p.m. and stay on live so as long as there’s more than one game being played,” says Orlins. “We’ll go back and forth between games, we’ll go big-box/small-box, we’ll try to show two or three games simultaneously, we’ll go [full-screen] to big situations.”
Although ESPN has experimented with the whiparound format on college-baseball regionals, this marks its debut for MLB coverage. Orlins says the broadcast will swing back and forth between games in an NFL RedZone-style format (ESPN will not have access to TBS’s exclusive Toronto–Tampa Bay series) throughout the afternoon. Matt Sandulli and Eric Mosley will split production duties on Squeeze Play, with Joe McCoy producing the Statcast productions.
“We’re really excited to do this,” says Orlins. “That time period between 1 p.m. and 8 p.m. should be pretty crazy. The backbone for all of this is the fact that we have 16 teams in the playoffs and 14 on ESPN. That means we’re accessing 14 local markets very committed to watching their own team play.
“But it’s going be a trickier experience for the general baseball fan,” he continues. “So having someone to curate what you see is a pretty valuable option if your team isn’t playing. We’re here to make sure those fans are in the best place at the best time.”
Looking Back and Looking Ahead
Despite spanning only 60 games and two months, this MLB season has been a very long journey for ESPN. After Opening Day was abruptly postponed in March, the broadcaster got creative in terms of baseball programming, televising live KBO baseball games from South Korea with English-language commentary by ESPN talent working from home.
“It all started with KBO and integrating talent remotely from home,” says Horrell. “That was really the litmus test for these [MLB] remotes. We did that successfully, and it set the table for the [MLB] season.”
Orlins adds, “We’re certainly proud we were one of the first ones out of the chute with KBO. While it may seem like we’re just taking a feed from Seoul, it took a tremendous amount of effort to put that workflow together and make it work day after day, with at-home commentary and introducing people to a product they were largely unfamiliar with. I think it showed what we were capable of and laid the foundation for what MLB what it has been this season.”
When the MLB season began, ESPN and other national broadcasters had to quickly adapt to working with RSN-supplied world feeds and at-home commentators while still delivering the national-game production quality that viewers have come to expect.
“It has opened our eyes to what we can do and how we can take different workflows and still accomplish the same goals,” says Orlins. “There’s no better example of that than the work we’re going to do seven games in a day on Wednesday. It would have been simply unimaginable before.”