LTS 2010: State of Mobile Production Is Strong

At SVG’s fifth-annual League Technology Summit on Dec, 14, a panel of sports-network and mobile-production experts took the stage to discuss the state of the sports industry. In front of a full house at the New York Hilton, the panelists proclaimed that the industry is, indeed, strong.

“What I’m always amazed at is how resilient this business is,” explained Jerry Steinberg, SVP, field operations, for Fox Sports. “Our ratings in the past few years have been through the roof. People stay home and watch sports, so business is good.”

Added Ken Aagaard, EVP, operations and production services, for CBS Sports, “We’re live, and that’s what it’s all about. When we come on live, when we have a sporting event that the whole nation is watching, that’s the big reason that we are successful now and will continue to be successful.”

Across the pond in Europe, the state of the industry is best described as a tale of two regions.

“The UK and mainland Europe are completely different,” said Barry Johnstone, COO of the Euro Media Group. “The UK in 2010 has had a booming year. With the World Cup, Commonwealth Games, and Ryder Cup, it has been a blinding year. Europe is having a harder time across the board.”

Cost-Effective Creativity
When it comes to building mobile-production trucks, although the ability to raise capital has not changed much, mobile-production providers are feeling a growing need to be more responsive, creative, and forward-thinking in the technical builds of their trucks.

From Left: Barry Johnstone, Andrea Berry, Jerry Steinberg, Deb Honkus, Ken Aagaard, Pat Sullivan, Ken Kerschbaumer

“That’s the challenge that we face,” said Pat Sullivan, president of Game Creek Video. “We have to pay forward-thinking people to come up with great ideas that they can give to their production teams, but we have to find ways for it to not cost too much more money. That is one of the things that has changed for us.”

NEP Broadcasting CEO Deb Honkus pointed out that it takes longer to get to a new product than in previous years. “It’s more back and forth, working together with the Sonys and Grass Valleys. Our guys are going over to Japan and helping with new products. That’s a major challenge for all of us going forward, the technology of new products and being able to pay for that.”

A Youth Movement
One major challenge facing the industry is education and training. Andrea Berry, Fox Sports SVP of broadcast operations, discussed how the Big Ten Network found a cost-effective way to produce hundreds of games for both streaming and broadcast by training students to work the broadcasts.

“Every school has 30 kids that they’ve employed to do these games,” she said. “The kids are now competing with each other to create the best production, and now some of them have been employed at lower-level positions locally as freelance technicians. When they get out of school, they have on their résumé that they’ve had games air prior to them even having a degree.”

Outside of the Big Ten, Berry continued, it is the responsibility of the industry to approach those universities that are teaching and developing engineers and computer scientists. “These kids have a lot of knowledge that we’re not tapping into as broadcasters. If you take an IT kid, it’s easier to teach them television than to go backwards. What the Big Ten is doing, that model could be used with other networks today.”

At NEP, an apprentice program takes promising students through all phases of a truck build so that young employees are well versed in the full cycle of a mobile-production truck. At Game Creek Video, Sullivan has been fortunate to have a goldmine of students from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

“Five or six guys that graduated from UMass Lowell are learning how to run our big trucks now,” he said. “For us, that has been a great source of young people. The primary thing they bring to the table is a lot of IT knowledge. That helps us and helps them get started in our business.”

Need To Mike Up
This season has been a difficult one for NFL audio, as the positioning of the miked referee has changed the area from which Fox, especially, gets its ideal game soundtrack.

“In the past four to five weeks, we’ve tried 10 different prototype shotgun mikes on the NFL coverage,” Steinberg said. “We got spoiled week one and two with some players wearing microphones.”

Yet those microphones on players, Aagaard said, will be crucial to the improvement of sports audio moving forward. “We need to be able to get mikes on these players. I think that we’re going to see some movement there over the course of the next couple of years. Once leagues get through contract negotiations, I think leagues understand the importance of audio as well.”

Once an agreement is reached in collective bargaining, Sullivan said, the microphone budget will clear itself up. Still, over the past few years, audio has become the biggest change in the budgets for Game Creek’s new mobile-production trucks.

Still, Steinberg added, technology can go only so far.

“I think the key is access, not technology,” he said. “We’ve had players in regular-season games in baseball wear microphones. It’s all about access. Sometimes we get too lost in the technology and forget that it’s really about access.”