SVG Sit-Down: Comcast SportsNet Chicago’s Philip Bedella on Covering Four Pro Teams at Once

With both the Bulls and Blackhawks in the playoffs and Cubs and White Sox baseball in full swing, this is among the busiest time of year for Comcast SportsNet Chicago. It all came to a head on April 23, when CSN Chicago produced four games in a single day for the first time in network history. In addition to covering live games for four franchises, CSN Chicago continues to build its studio programming and original programming slates with shows like Sports Talk Live, hosted by David Kaplan, and original documentaries. 

SVG sat down with CSN Chicago VP/GM Philip J. Bedella to discuss how his team is keeping up with the demanding spring programming schedule, how the Blackhawks have grown their brand over the past decade in Chicago, and how he has seen the RSN market evolve dramatically over the years.

Can you tell me a bit about the experience of producing four games in one day on April 23?
Since the Blackhawks and Bulls became perennial playoff teams, April has become busy like this for us every year.

bedellaWe’ve had similar situations before with three games, but that was the first time we had four games in one day — a day game and then three games in the evening. Now, with our relationship with NBC, being part of the [Comcast’s NBCUniversal] family, NBC was kind enough to allow us to use COZI TV, which is their digital plus channel here in Chicago, for the third night game, while the other two were on [CSN Chicago and CSN Chicago Plus]. It’s not HD, but at least it’s 16×9 and it gets ratings. In the past we’d find a local community access channel, where it would be 4×3 and had no ratings, so having that relationship with NBC has helped.

In terms of production, one of the major challenges is we have multiple studio sets but we only have one control room here. We have a pre- and post- set, a news set, and a SportsTalk Live set, but we only have one control room. So in this scenario we set up the trucks to do the pregame and postgame for the baseball games directly from the stadiums. Typically when we have two games, if we have a home game, the home game pre/post will be here [and] the road game we’ll do from the truck, and that’s what we did. So that wasn’t an issue. But for the [Blackhawks and Bulls], we had to figure out the dynamics of how to cover those equally important games with as large a presence as possible. That was a challenge since we didn’t have the stadium setup for either one of them. We have a studio set right in the United Center concourse, which is awesome because you can do pregame live and you’ve got this big crowd behind you in the concourse for Hawks and for Bulls. And not having that, what do you do? So we partnered with a bar here in town called Joe’s on Weed Street, which is a really large sports bar, and we did our SportsTalk Live show directly from there. We brought in a sat truck and then we did Bulls pregame live. And that helped us bring that live feel to the playoff game when only one can operate out of the control room here.

We have a great partnership with NEP, which is our truck provider. They understand our April, they prepare for that, and we didn’t have any issues getting trucks for everything we needed. So I don’t think from equipment standpoint it’s an issue. It really becomes a control room issue and where you’re going to host your pregame or your postgame shows. Then just trying to educate the audience on where you can find every single game.

These days, fans expect the quality of RSN telecasts to be on par with national-level productions. What challenges does this present on your end, and how does CSN Chicago try to live up to those expectations?
I think one of the things that was a game changer was the arrival of HD. Prior to HD, creating this level A broadcast took a lot of equipment. You would have an 8-12 camera shot for the national shows — they would be coming in three days in advance and doing two prep days. HD really was a game changer because it brought that unbelievable clarity of picture to our level, so we could then compete with the national networks in that sense. We still didn’t have the 10 or 12 camera shots for baseball or basketball, but because you brought that clarity to the picture, it made it feel like a higher-level [telecast].

The other piece that we’ve noticed over the last five years is the technology has advanced so much, and you’ve seen it now with the arrival of GoPros and things like that. You can now capture unique aspects and angles of games for a fraction of the cost of what it would have been five or 10 years ago. So the [cost] difference in producing a game broadcast with all of those bells and whistles five years ago would have been massive. But when that technology advancement happens, we can take advantage of these more cost-effective introductions into the market in terms of technology. The margin has shrunk dramatically, to the point that now for NBC Sports Network hockey games, occasionally, rather than have their national guys come in and produce the game, NBC will have their regional produce it for them.

How important has the proliferation of high-speed cameras systems among RSN’s been to adding to the quality of your telecasts?
By becoming part of a larger NBC family, it’s allowed us to take advantage of the size and scope of our business when negotiating deals with vendors. And so, as a result, we have a tremendous partnership with NEP, and as part of that partnership, we get super slow-mo cameras with the truck for home games, which is great for us. It’s a tremendous view from first base, and we really use it to capture those close plays at first when the runner’s running and you can see the foot and you can see the ball coming. It’s great. But five, ten years ago, that was an add-on that you had to pay for and the cost was pretty significant per game. It was tough to actually break even. So it’s really come a long way in terms of the technology that’s allowed or afforded with the truck piece.

CSN Chicago’s Blackhawks has seen significant ratings increases over the past few years and broken several ratings marks. What do you attribute this to?
Most of that credit is really due to the teams, and it isn’t just the performance on the field or on the ice or on the basketball court. It’s really about the approach that they are taking in the community with their brand building. In the last 10 years, the Blackhawks really transformed their approach in terms of marketing, branding, and their connection with the community. It’s unheard of to have one of the best players in hockey, Jonathan Toews, going to youth hockey rinks and playing hockey in full uniform and skates with nine and ten year-old boys. And they are doing these kinds of things not once a year but multiple times a year. We were just blown away at the way they were trying to connect with the community. They have a bar program in which they take the ice girls and Tommy Hawk and they do two on-premise establishments per road game, and they go there and turn it into a Blackhawks watch party. They really invest in making these bars part of the family. But it’s worked, because in the last 10 years, you go to a bar now and I am just blown away at the amount of people watching Blackhawks hockey at these establishments. So I really think the team has done an amazing job of building the brand and the marketplace, and getting, in particular, that young 18-34 demo to embrace hockey.

How do you try to build an audience beyond your bread-and-butter live game programming?
Initially we built our shoulder programming around pre-games, post-games, and news. We do news at 6:00 a.m., noon, 6:30 p.m., 10 p.m., 10:30 p.m., and midnight everyday. So [there’s] a lot of local and regional news covering our teams here, and then also covering the national news that’s going on. We introduced a sports talk show in 2004 that is now called Sports Talk Live, hosted by David Kaplan and airs from 5:30-6:30 every day. It has become, I think, our signature program outside of news and pre-post and we get a really strong audience for the show. We’ve taken the show on the road to the Bears Draft party, the NASCAR race track down in Joliet, the United Center, from Wrigley, US Cellular Field, and Soldier Field. That’s become a staple for us Monday-Friday.

We’ve also introduced new partnerships, including a new relationship with the Illinois High School Association. We televise all the state championship games: basketball, football, volleyball, you name it. As part of that we created a Friday show called Friday Night High School Lights. That show has really picked up a following on Friday nights. Because of the advancements in technology now, instead of us having to roll out these big productions, we now have these smaller, inexpensive cameras. Instead of having three guys with ENG cameras covering football highlights on Friday night, we send out 12 or 13 [ENG teams] and every one shoots two games, so now you’ve got highlights from 26 games. And you bring that all back and you do a football highlights show or, in the winter, a basketball highlights show.

The other big piece is we created an original content department in our news department back in 2012. We created a couple documentaries, the biggest of which was called Five Outs. It was a 90-minute documentary that took a look back on the 2003 Chicago Cubs who were five outs away from going to the World Series – the Bartman incident, all of those things. It was amazing. This year, we did another called Believe, which one chronicled the 2005 Chicago White Sox run to the World Series championship. We also have a partnership with the Chicago Bears, and as part of that partnership we do documentaries called Bears Classics. So that original content group has really started to become a focal point for us. We drive revenue with it and we create originally programming that can live beyond just one run.