Mobile Vendors Enjoy Smoother Ride in 2010, Part I

After a rough few years that saw television networks cut back on spending and put HD upgrades on hold, 2010 has brought renewed growth to the sports-production industry. Mobile vendors have experienced a surge in business, commensurate with a rebound in advertising revenues for their network clients.

Several companies have rolled out trucks as the industry’s long transition to high-definition nears the finish line. And looking ahead, alternative delivery platforms, such as Web streaming and stereoscopic 3D, hold promise as a source of additional revenues.

But challenges remain, say top executives at remote-production vendors. The biggest concern is a potential work stoppage by the National Football League next year, which would have a devastating impact across the industry. Although the economy has rebounded, securing financing to build new trucks or upgrade existing units is still difficult. And price increases by mobile vendors are few and far between, with the demand for live-production technology nicely balanced by the existing supply of trucks.

“Business has gone extremely well,” says Debbie Honkus, CEO of mobile-production giant NEP Broadcasting. “[NEP Supershooters President] Mike [Fernander] comes to me every week wanting to build another truck. We’re booked solid, out of capacity. Sports as well as entertainment are doing extremely well. We feel the economy has kicked back in, and we see things moving forward.”

Adds Fernander, “We’re starting to get our levels back up to where they were before the economic slowdown.”

Business is also good for F&F Productions, and the Clearwater, FL-based company is expanding. It has five large HD A-unit trucks supported by five B units. Its oldest is six years old, and the older units have been updated, with Calrec digital audio consoles replacing older Yamaha boards and EVS replay servers upgraded to XT[2] Gig E units. F&F is also replacing old CRT monitors with virtual-monitor walls using flat-panel displays.

Its newest truck, GTX-16, debuted in August with CBS’s coverage of the US Open tennis tournament. It has 12 Ikegami HDK-79EC CMOS cameras equipped with Fujinon lenses, a Grass Valley Kayenne switcher, and an Evertz VIP routing system with integrated monitoring.

“We put a new $10 million truck on the road, and we’re booked solid,” says F&F President/CEO George Orgera. “We were busy last year, and we’re just as busy this year.”

Bookings are also strong for Chicago-based Trio Video, which counts Comcast SportsNet Chicago, Tribune station WGN, Fox, and ESPN as its biggest clients. The company operates three 53-ft. HD trucks and finished building its fourth HD truck, Tempo, this fall. Tempo, a 48-ft.-long unit with a split axle, is designed to get into tight spaces at big-city venues, which is sometimes difficult with 53-footers.

“Some of the spot work still has not come back to where it was prior to the recession, but we seem to be coming along,” says Trio Video Managing Partner Gary Meagher. “Overall, we’re doing what we thought we would do, maybe a little better. A year ago, it was poor. We were doing enough to pay our bills, but it was not much of a growth environment. The recession hit our industry more so than I remember in the past.”

He says the ongoing transition from SD to HD has contributed to Trio’s continued growth. In the wake of National Mobile Television’s folding in early 2009, his company has picked up some more work from ESPN and ESPN Regional Television.

Continued investment in HD is boosting business for the member companies of Alliance Productions as well. The Little Rock, AR-based consortium of small to midsize mobile vendors facilitates centralized scheduling and booking for network clients, providing national sales for roughly 50 trucks.

“Television has improved immensely, and we’re close to being back at the levels we were at before the recession,” says Alliance GM Craig Farrell. “The HD market has picked up and continues to grow, while the SD market is falling off.”

Two years ago, Alliance’s business was probably 50/50 between HD and SD. Now, out of 20 shows in a month, perhaps only four are SD, says Farrell. Some of them have been shot in 16:9 widescreen and upconverted to HD.

“We’ve probably done more of that in the last quarter than before,” says Farrell. “That’s not by choice. There just is no availability of HD trucks. So clients who are not locked into HD trucks in November, particularly weekends in November, are finding themselves having to do widescreen 16:9 — because the HD assets are all taken up.”

Lake Bluff, IL-based Corplex has seen increased production in the 16:9 SD format over the past couple of years, says President Scott West, with ESPN Regional Television doing it in some cases as well as the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League. Some clients are upconverting 16:9 SD to HD, which is keeping Corplex’s two SD trucks, Sterling and Copper, “fairly busy.”

“We’re seeing more HD trucks being built and out on the road, but, during the peak season in the fall, there still tend to be shortages,” says West. “We are finding value on SD 16:9 broadcasts, where we can slide in and do the next-best thing, which is 16:9 upconverted. Especially for some of the smallest broadcasters that don’t have the budget, they can do upconverted at no additional charge over an SD show. That is finding some success, and there is still some life left in those units for that purpose.”

Although there are special times in the year when the demand for HD trucks outstrips the supply, overall, there is enough HD inventory to service the industry, says Phil Garvin, owner/GM of Mobile Television Video Group. MTVG’s business caters almost exclusively to regional sports networks (RSNs), including handling the mobile-production needs for the majority of Fox’s RSNs, two DirecTV RSNs, Altitude Sports, and Big Ten Network.

“If you’re talking about a football weekend in the fall or the overlap of the NBA, MLB, and NHL that you get in April, there’s a shortage,” says Garvin. “But, the rest of the year, there is no shortage. Is there greater demand than supply sometimes? Yes. But is there enough demand [for more trucks] the rest of the year? No.”

MTVG operates 22 HD trucks and three SD units. The SD trucks are used for smaller, local productions, such as high school and smaller-college sports or sports talk shows, or to provide foreign-language feeds from major events. But, overall, what SD production remains is rapidly being phased out. Garvin says almost no pro sports are produced in SD and very little college football.

“One of the things we’re doing is, while we’re building second-generation hi-def trucks now, instead of retiring the older ones, we’re making them available on weekends in the fall and during the playoffs, to give us excess capacity,” he adds. “Those trucks are six years old, which is not that old for a truck, but the technology is six years old. By doing that, we’re taking care of the peaks in the same way we used to take care of them in the SD days, where some SD trucks would sit around and, then on fall weekends, they would be busy. We can take care of a greater number of clients that way.”

(Continues in Part II)