College Basketball Coverage in Full Swing on ESPN Networks
By Carolyn Braff
Although the college-football title has yet to be determined, college basketball is already in full swing, and ESPN is making a dent in the 1,200-plus men’s and women’s games that will be broadcast across its platforms this season.
ESPN will air more than 1,100 men’s games and nearly 150 women’s games over the course of the season, with a growing percentage in high-definition, thanks to the launch of ESPNU HD in August. The majority of ESPNU HD’s games will be shown as part of the larger conference packages on Wednesdays and Saturdays, featuring the Big East, ACC, and Big 12. Finding programming time for the HD games was easy; locking in available production trucks was not.
“With the demand from all the various regional sports networks and startup sports networks out there, everybody’s needing HD trucks,” says Christopher Farrow, coordinating producer for ESPNU and ESPN Regional Television’s college-basketball productions. “There’s definitely a bigger demand, especially on some of those busy Saturdays.”
This Saturday, Dec. 6, is a particularly busy day as ESPNU has a full slate of basketball games, while other networks are busy with Division I-AA football playoffs, conference championship games in Division I-A, and the regular-season schedule of NBA and NHL games, all of which require mobile facilities.
“On any given Saturday, sometimes demand exceeds supply of HD trucks, but we work anywhere from four to six months in advance on blocking trucks off,” Farrow says. “There are no surprises.”
Lyon Video and Token Creek are ESPN’s biggest vendors to support shows for ESPNU, ESPN Regional Television, and syndication properties.
With production support in place, ESPN’s networks can focus on game-day production, the details of which vary depending on the broadcast network.
“On ESPNU, we generally have four cameras on 90% of our games,” Farrow says. “We give our directors the freedom to make choices with their camera angles, and oftentimes, they will move things around.”
On a recent ESPNU broadcast, rather than the traditional two-high-cameras, two-low-cameras setup, the director used three handhelds, placing one under each basket and one at midcourt. The fourth camera was the traditional high view.
“When you spread your cameras out like that, it makes it feel like it’s a five- or six-camera show,” Farrow explains. “We’ve given our directors the latitude to do that. We just tell them, if you’re going to take your camera 2, the high tight camera, and move it somewhere else, make sure you run a second video line up to camera 1 as a backup.”
Games broadcast on ESPN and ESPN2 use a minimum of five cameras, with six or seven in the mix for more high-profile games.
Directors have less freedom when it comes to audio, because conferences have specific guidelines stating where microphones can and cannot be placed, especially in proximity to a huddle.
“Sticking a 12-inch stick mic onto the scorer’s table sometimes makes coaches a little nervous, so directors don’t have that total freedom with audio,” Farrow explains. “Certainly, they mike up the baskets and put mics on their cameras and on press row opposite the benches.”
ESPNU games rely on a Chyron Duet for graphics support, while ESPN and ESPN2 productions use a Vizrt system, although they will pull in a Duet as well for extra support on some of the larger productions.
Jan. 19-25 will kick off one of the biggest initiatives for ESPN’s college-basketball coverage this season. ESPNU Campus Connection Week, previously known as Student Spirit Week, will feature 39 games broadcast on all ESPN platforms and incorporating student involvement.
“We make students part of the broadcast, working in the TV truck, on the air, as a sideline reporter, or in the announce booth,” Farrow explains. “We may take student radio calls and incorporate that; schools will provide vignettes on traditions or nicknames. It’s a great way to get these students involved, many of whom aspire to be in TV sports when they get out of school.”
ESPNU will also be producing a package of high school basketball games this season, which can be more complicated on the facilities side than the college venues.
“Certainly, our high school sites are always a little tricky because those rotate year to year depending on who the best high school players in the country are,” Farrow says. “In terms of colleges, everything’s been very smooth. The mid-major conferences — MEAC, SWAC, Horizon League — they’re used to having us. Just about all of these campuses we’ve been to at least four or five times now.”
ESPNU staffs a crew of 25-30 for each show, the majority of the staffers being local.
“We keep travel costs down by hiring a lot of good crews locally,” Farrow says. “We probably have a good 90%-95% of our crew is completely local for ESPNU games.”