Audio Tech Powers the Postgame Press Conference
Increasingly, pressers are productions in their own right
It was the press conference that didn’t happen that put what journalists offhandedly refer to as “pressers” on the table and under scrutiny. Tennis phenom Naomi Osaka was fined $15,000 for skipping a mandatory news conference following her first-round win at the French Open over the Memorial Day weekend. The seemingly administrative kerfuffle quickly spiraled into a global debate over athletes’ mental health, suggesting that a post-match press conference might be the sports-media equivalent of a perp walk.
The press conference has been part of broadcast sports almost as long as sports has been on television. Sports-business website Sport Management Hub defines it sarcastically as a place where “athletes are held against their will in a contained place with reporters asking lots of questions. Most players just want to get over it quickly.” (And some manage to do just that.) But, as an element in the larger broadcast, press conferences are also situations where audio tends to take the lead.
Increased Technical Sophistication
“Press conferences after games have changed a lot, especially in the last five years or so,” says Joe Carpenter, veteran A1 for MLB, NFL, NBA, and other major-league sports telecasts. “It used to be that the host broadcaster would provide a camera and a microphone and a feed and that was pretty much it. Now it has become the responsibility of the [governing body], like the league, and how complex they get varies from entity to entity.”
Carpenter cites golf’s Masters tournament as having the “best-run press conference ever, the most high-tech in the world.” Augusta National Golf Club runs that presser, and an RFID tag alerts the conference manager which individual reporter and their media outlet is in which seat in the room. A dedicated microphone in front of each seat allows the reporter’s question to be heard clearly by both the golfer on stage and the viewer at home. Augusta National sends broadcasters two separate feeds — questions and answers — and has all audio embedded in the video feed. Carpenter also lauds the NBA’s press conferences for their audio quality.
Fox Sports Executive Director, Assignment Desk, Matt Engelberg, who manages the 14-member unit charged with supporting programming on multiple Fox Sports platforms, acknowledges that the “marquee-level” press conference often becomes a production in and of itself.
“[Even] the local-team press conference has become nationalized because sports itself has gotten so much bigger,” he says. “Because of the growing presence of sports-talk [media], there’s so many more hours to fill” on television and digital outlets. Press conferences, he contends, are a great way to generate that content.
The proliferation of player audio has helped meet fans’ increasing demand for content to fill those digital voids. However, rightsholders will be understandably protective of those clips. Even during a game to which the network may have broadcast rights, any interview audio from the field usually remains the intellectual property of the league or team.
“If Tom Brady says, ‘I didn’t know it was fourth down!’ in a miked-up–type segment,” Engelberg explains, “contractually, I can’t use it for our talk shows without the permission of the NFL.”
The press conference, which by nature is wide open for media outlets, takes on even greater importance as a source of content.
There are some broadcast protocols at press conferences. Although only the host broadcaster can show the game in real time, any present media outlet is allowed to cover the press conference. However, says Carpenter, secondary media can show only an athlete’s responses to a question, not the question itself. That becomes somewhat moot since, as he points out, the host broadcaster has the most access to the game, the venue, and the athletes and will often have roving reporters putting questions directly to the athletes right after the game on the field or in a locker room.
In terms of pecking order, the host broadcaster’s reporter have dibs on the first question, followed, for national sports events, by other national media, then by reporters for local broadcast television and radio stations. Regular home and away games follow a similar format, but local media likely have more presence.
The Nuts and Bolts
Discrete audio feeds from press conferences are increasingly rare, as conference managers, such as the MLB, opt for just using embedded audio with the video feed. Carpenter prefers that because it minimizes the potential for lip-sync delays and because he also has to manage distribution of the press-conference audio, which he does from the audio compartment of the production truck where he had just mixed the game. Furthermore, it also ensures that the conference audio is in the center channel, critical on a 5.1 broadcast.
“What I really want to do is send clean, uncompressed, undelayed, un-EQed audio downstream,” he says. “That’s always the goal.”
Larger, more complex press conferences may require more gear. That could include microphones on pole booms overhead and a stick mic or two passed among the reporters in the room. Those situations may call for separate audio tracks for questions and answers. An NBA presser after a big game may deploy two boom mics and someone actively mixing the conference on a small audio mixer, such as a Mackie or Behringer console, to a PA system in the room. Some host broadcasters then do a mix of the microphones on Channel 3 of the 5.1 feed, with the individual sources — the questions and answers — available on Channels 2 and 1, respectively.
The Super Bowl has “the ultimate postgame press conference,” Carpenter asserts, noting its 18 individual podiums and microphones (sardonically referred to as “hot-dog stands”), each with its own camera and question microphone, all with embedded audio. Q&As often take place simultaneously, with media organizations picking and choosing the ones they want to cover.
The microphones deployed are virtually always wired, and Carpenter looks to the national awards shows for more guidance. Hyper- and super-cardioid capsules, such as the Shoeps Colette he ordered for the press conference on Fox Sports following the USGA Open, are much preferred for rejecting sound from anywhere other than right in front of the mic, a critical feature in the often noisy scrums after big games.
“You’re not typically going to find one of those lying around on a truck, but a good PA company will be able to get one,” he says. “That will also eliminate feedback from the PA system.”
Technology is adding another dimension to press conferences, in the form of bonded-cellular transmissions, according to Engelberg. In the past, accessing press-conference content was a laborious task, from setting up complex dedicated fiber feeds to using FTP sites to move large files around. Today, 5G solutions, like those now beginning to be applied as an end run around spectrum shortages, are enabling press conferences to be pulled up in real time anywhere and to become instant content for live sports talk shows.
Noting a tense press conference in March with Bears quarterback Andy Dalton about his possible replacement’s coming aboard, Engelberg says, “I can watch that in my facility live and theoretically have it on The Herd immediately with embedded audio, instead of trying to set up a fiber feed at 4 p.m.”
Osaka ultimately withdrew from the French Open tournament, citing the repetitive nature of questions from reporters as well as their invasiveness. However, she might have taken a leaf from Marshawn Lynch’s press conference playbook: “You know why I’m here.”