Demand For HD Trucks Expected To Outstrip Supply This Fall

By Carl Lindemann and Ken Kerschbaumer

An explosion in HD sports programming at both regional and national networks this fall could outstrip the supply of HD trucks, leaving networks and others scrambling to find HD-capable production units. “If a truck is not booked now or a network wants to change or add something it’s going to be a problem,” says Ken Aagaard, CBS Sports EVP, Operations, Engineering and Production Services. “

While production truck companies are continually rolling out new trucks or upgrading SD trucks to HD the shortage is a result of a sports calendar that, from August through January, is packed with everything from college basketball and football to NBA, NHL, MLB playoffs and, of course, NFL games.

“There’s definitely a shortage coming this fall due to a lot more demand,” says Pat Sullivan, Game Creek Video president. “More than any other sport, football has gone all HD. We’ve gone down from the big marquee games down through the regional network.”

Sullivan’s colleagues, too, are bracing for the crunch ahead.

“There is a supply/demand imbalance during football season,” adds Lou Borrelli, NEP CEO. “It’s been happening for some time and it will only get worse before it gets better.”

In other industries, such shortages of supply typically trigger spikes in prices. Here, the close relationship between mobile production companies and their clients breaks the law of supply and demand.

“The mobile business is more of a true partnership than most people think,” explains Borrelli. “There is nothing to be gained by gouging clients in the short term when we, in particular, are in business for the long run.”

What’s driving this drain on resources? Borrelli sees three key causes – the NFL mandate for HD this season, the growth in regional sports coverage at all levels of college football, and a challenging credit market that makes it difficult for smaller providers to finance new/upgraded trucks. Also, broadcasting collegiate games adds additional complications with the ebb and flow of the season.

“College football is most challenging,” says Borrelli. “At any point, broadcasters can choose to swap games. We don’t manage that schedule, and this puts a major stress on us logistically. We have to have enough trucks at the right time.”

The solution would seem to be simple – increase capacity. More HD trucks are coming online next spring. But there are added complications. Ripple effects from the nationwide credit crunch make it more difficult for mobile production vendors to finance these capital expenditures. However, there’s another key factor in play. Companies need to be careful not to exceed demand. Since demand varies throughout the year, that’s a tricky proposition.

“The challenge is that the real demand is over a six-month period and it’s hard to get financing for a truck with only six guaranteed months of business,” adds Aagaard.

Lyon Video is responding to the HD demand by building a new HD truck and upgrading an SD unit to HD in August and September. “We’re building as fast as we can for HD,” says Chad Snyder, Lyon Video account manager. “we thought the new HD truck we built last fall would meet demand for the year but we’ve been subbing out games on our standard contracts. So we want to move away from that.”

In the past, dealing with the excess demand for mobile production has been easy – lesser events have been shifted to SD at peak periods. According to Mobile Television Group’s Phil Garvin, a new dynamic is taking shape that will define the industry for the foreseeable future.

“We’re getting to the point that all events have to be in HD,” says Garvin. “It used to be that clients would choose to do some in HD, and others in SD. That gave us some flexibility, but that’s looking to go away in the 2009 season.”

The advantage of the old arrangement was that it was practical to maintain underutilized SD units in the fleet that could fill in the gaps. For the most part, these older units have already been paid for and so downtime isn’t a major financial drain. But these legacy SD trucks are losing their utility with the universal demand for HD.

“With HD dominant, trying to substitute SD is like trying to sell a black & white unit back in the SD era,” adds Garvin. “We don’t have any second-tier HD units to bring out. And you can’t afford to have an HD benchwarmer.”

Adds Snyder, “This summer our HD trucks are booked and the SD trucks are booked sporadically.”

It would seem that the long term resolution will come as today’s generation of HD trucks are paid off and age. Then, they will move to the second tier to fill in the gaps during peak seasons. Garvin doesn’t see that happening soon as older HD trucks are upgraded.

“”The first HD truck we built is now being rebuilt, refreshing the router and monitoring. This could have been the second tier, but now it will be our newest,” said Garvin.

Steps like that being taken by Mobile TV Group may help alleviate some of the HD crunch but it still promises to be an interesting few months.

“When the music stops this Fall somebody won’t have an HD chair,” adds Aagaard.