Sports Entertainment Summit: Elite Producers Address the Balance of Storytelling, Technology

Even with the wealth of technology and cutting-edge production tools at the fingertips of today’s live-sports producers and directors, creating a top-rate sports telecast still boils down to one principle: telling the best story possible. A quintet of high-profile sports producers took the stage last week at the SVG/Variety Sports Entertainment Summit to discuss how best to juggle storytelling with technology.

“You have to use the technology as a tool for storytelling, first and foremost,” said David Neal, executive producer of FIFA World Cup/coordinating producer of Super Bowl XLVIII, Fox Sports. “Don’t let the equipment get in front of you, but, instead, use it as a powerful tool to be a better storyteller.”

Portability Is Key to Storytelling in Modern World
Neal referenced Fox Sports’ freestanding features unit at the Gold Cup last month, which was commissioned to produce two dozen pieces on the different teams and players participating in the soccer tournament. Given today’s highly transportable camcorders and mobile-transmission technology, Fox was able to send a one-man band to follow the Belize national team — composed primarily of everyday joes who had no little or no professional experience — around their everyday lives. Largely because of this piece, the team ended up becoming one of the biggest and most compelling stories of the tournament.

“Because he was so mobile, he was able to ride buses with these Belize players as they took 1- to 2-hour bus rides everyday just to go to practice,” Neal explained. “You can capture that kind of story because the equipment lets you do it.”

Time Warner SportsNet faced a similar situation in producing 32 30-minute episodes of its behind-the-scenes Backstage: Lakers program. The production team was essentially embedded with the Lakers seven days a week for the entire season. The TW SportsNet camera operators wanted to be unobtrusive — even invisible — to the team, so the network used digital SLR cameras and other miniature solutions to capture the story while not inadvertently becoming a part of it.

“We had a very small footprint,” said Larry Meyers, VP, content/executive producer, Time Warner Cable Sports. “We had maybe one person on the plane, in practice, in the locker room. By the end of the season, they knew we were there, but, [our] doing it in such a small way — no lights, booms, wires — really made a difference in terms of the amount of access we were able to capture and turn around every week.”

The NBC Olympics Method
Perhaps nowhere is technology more integral to a sports production than in NBC’s Olympic Games coverage, when millions of viewers tune in to competitions in which they often barely understand the rules. However, over the years, NBC has cultivated the use of graphics and pinpoint explanation to draw viewers in.

Last year, in London, a prime example of this philosophy manifested itself in the form of elements like NBC’s Splashometer graphic during diving events and comparison matrix during gymnastics events. The Splashometer illustrated the actual splash (or water displacement) of each diver to demonstrate to viewers why one dive received a better score than another; the comparison matrix allowed viewers to see gymnasts’ performances overlaid over one another.

“From the Olympics standpoint, we are dealing with sports that most people aren’t as familiar with. We work with our partners at Olympic Broadcasting Services to see what we can do to evolve,” said Jim Bell, executive producer, NBC Olympics. “So we came up with these toys and tricks. I think we have to try to push the envelope. If you look at the London Olympics versus just a few years ago, the evolution is real, and it’s great stuff that makes you wonder what’s next.”

The Fan’s Not-So-Short Attention Span
ESPN’s E:60 was originally conceived as a one-hour TV newsmagazine comprising eight to 10 ultra-short video segments aimed at the short attention span of today’s sports fan. However, that all changed when the network’s acclaimed 30 for 30 series of documentaries arrived a year after E:60’s debut. The success of 30 for 30 proved to ESPN that average sports fans do, in fact, enjoy in-depth, long-form stories, inspiring a drastic rethinking of the E:60 format.

“We actually completely redeveloped our philosophy on the show,” said E:60 Executive Producer Andy Tennant. “Whereas we were producing six- to eight-minute pieces five years ago, we are now going more in depth, and we are in the 12- to 14-minute range per story and having much more success with it. But, when it comes down to it, a good story is a good story, and it starts with that: something with heart, soul, and drama.”

Knowing When To Go to the Bucket
One of the all-time greats along the front bench, long-time Fox Sports (and previously CBS Sports) producer Bob Stenner knows as much as anyone about how to tell the story as a game plays out on the field. He worked with legendary broadcast team Pat Summerall and John Madden in the booth — a pair who always knew how to create a compelling story for an NFL telecast, whether the game was a blowout or a nail biter.

“There is always a story as long as you did your preparation. John and Pat had the curiosity of children and did the research to, as we used to call it, fill their bucket. But you don’t have to empty your bucket every time. You always hope that the [dramatic] game is there, but there are games where you do have to empty your bucket, and you’re only able to do that through preparation.”