Tennis Channel Writes Second Chapter at US Open

After a whirlwind US Open in 2009, Tennis Channel entered its second year carrying the tournament as the next step in a three-year process. The second chapter in the network’s US Open odyssey focused on incremental improvements and building on the groundwork it laid last year.

“We definitely feel more comfortable this year, but I think it will be a three-year process before we truly feel like we have it down.” said Larry Meyers, SVP of production/executive producer for Tennis Channel, during the tournament. “Last year, we were building a technical infrastructure on top of what was already here. This year, we took everything we’ve learned, and we feel much more comfortable with what we’ve built.”

Back for 2009 were the majority of the 40-plus Tennis Channel staffers from last year and NCP 8, which once again served as the network’s dedicated production unit. Chief among the new additions were two new sets at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and an expanded virtual set at Tennis Channel master control in Culver City, CA.

“It’s very important to us to give people the feeling of what it’s like to be at the US Open,” said Meyers. “It’s like the Travel Channel in that most people that watch the Travel Channel never go to the places they watch but they feel like they’ve been there. We need to we create that same kind of viewer experience.”

The Loft
Last year, Tennis Channel’s primary set was located on the roof of Armstrong Stadium (now occupied by Russian broadcasters), far from the player locker rooms and dining area. The long exposed walk from Ash to Armstrong made it extremely difficult to recruit players for post-match interviews.

In an effort to avoid this issue in 2010, Tennis Channel worked with the USTA’s broadcast-operations staff and production company Northern Lights to design a unique stage, situated 24 ft. off the ground and just steps away from the players dining area inside Ashe. The Loft, as Meyers and company refer to it, also boasted a spectacular view that captures the famed Unisphere, outer courts, and roaming crowds in the background.

“We came here in February, and [USTA Director of Broadcast Operations Steve Gorsuch] lifted us up in a scissor lift, and we took pictures of what the background would look like here. It was gorgeous,” said Meyers. “Then, they were able to design a platform that has room for a jib and a couple of cameras, and we can light it up nice.”

The three-camera set featured a jib, an operated minicam, and a robotic camera operated remotely from NCP8. It also included a state-of-the-art touchscreen telestrator system from UK-based Point HD, which was used by analyst Justin Gimelstob to break down matches.

The Plaza
In addition to the Loft, Tennis Channel set up a smaller stage right on the grounds in an effort to incorporate the crowd at the Tennis Center. Hosts conducted live interviews with the crowd behind them and interacted with the fans through trivia contents and other games.

“This was a Today show kind of concept, where we can come down here and have some fun with the people,” said Meyers. “We’ve been very happy with this. We want people here to be looking in and participating.”

Tennis Channel also dispatched a roving RF cam throughout the grounds and had access to ESPN’s FlyCam point-to-point aerial camera system throughout the tournament to capture the US Open atmosphere.

Breakfast and Dinner on the Same Set
At Tennis Channel’s HD broadcast center in Culver City, the network made some major upgrades to its 5,500-sq.-ft. virtual studio, which debuted at the US Open last year.

IDS designed the studio, and Brainstorm’s graphics engine, Ultimmatte, provided the virtual integration. General Lift supplied the telemetry for the two cameras and one jib used on the set. Among the significant design upgrades were a new “room” with huge picture windows of the city, new walls, a new ceiling, a balcony, a wireless tablet-based telestrator, and a virtual robotic monitor that came out of the floor when needed.

Tennis Channel used the virtual set for both US Open Tonight and Breakfast at the Open. The former aired at 11 p.m. ET with two replays; the latter, airing at 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. each morning, was essentially the same as the evening show with a new title and a few new segments.

Said Meyers, “We can do two differently branded shows on the same set.”

A Friendly Rivalry
Both Tennis Channel and ESPN debuted at the US Open in 2009 and, as a result, often faced many of the same issues in 2010.

Said Meyers, “Going into the first year, there were three networks where there used to be two. “USA [network] had been the incumbent for so long. There was a lot new last year, so this year is a refining year, and I think ESPN would say the same thing.”

Although Tennis Channel and ESPN were in constant cooperation at the Open, they are also competing for the same eyeballs. The two had weekday TV windows in direct conflict with each other.

“One of the challenges, especially during the weekdays of the first week, is that we’re on at the same time that ESPN is on,” said Meyers. “So it’s important that we have a differentiated product. It’s important that the viewer has a reason to decide to watch Tennis Channel over ESPN at a given time. Early on, we will give the harder-core tennis fan the best matchup of the day instead of just the highest-seeded player. Is it Roger against a wild card? No. But it’s going to be a great five-set match, and people want to see that.”