BTN NOW Attracts Students to Behind-the-Camera Training, Helps Fill Tech-Ops Jobs

Mark Hulsey loved what he saw. The Big Ten Network SVP, production/executive producer opened the door to a control room in the network’s Chicago studios last month and couldn’t help smiling.

A women’s soccer match between Indiana and Michigan State was live on the air, and the entire production was being run by recent Big Ten graduates who had gone through the BTN NOW (Network Operations Workshop) program. From the producer to the director to the graphics operator and the A1: all home-grown talent.

A crew of BTN NOW graduates produced a women's soccer match that aired live on Big Ten Network on Oct. 25.

A crew of BTN NOW graduates produced a women’s soccer match that aired live on Big Ten Network on Oct. 25.

“That felt really terrific,” smiles Hulsey. “It was a night that made us all very proud.”

BTN NOW, an eight-week program for recent graduates, is designed to connect young talent with technical-operations positions on live sports productions. In its second year, the program selects 15 candidates, through a rigorous application process, for training that gives them first-hand experience on nearly every aspect of the network’s operation, including graphics, cameras, audio, and engineering. Participants also get the chance to produce their own mock studio shows and game productions on a weekly basis throughout the summer.

Hulsey explains, “We looked at those critical positions where we needed to add depth — primarily TDs, A1s, and graphics operators — and decided we needed to create opportunities for Big Ten graduates. These are smart, ambitious, tech-savvy students, and we needed to give them an avenue to enter into the work field.”

The program has been a rousing success. In the two years of its existence, more than 75% of BTN NOW participants have gone on to accept jobs at BTN or other major broadcast networks. Hulsey acknowledges that it’s a win for both sides as the program helps BTN add talent to crew the hundreds of the events the network is called on to produce each year.

“There are so many live sporting events being produced right now, and the demand for skilled technicians has simply out-weighed the supply,” he says. “We needed to find a way to get more events on the air that wouldn’t normally be televised. All these networks are trying to add more and more events because that’s the oxygen to all of these sports networks: live events. It’s something that we felt as the highest priority.”

BTN NOW is hardly the network’s first effort to help train the next generation of sports-video production and operations professionals. In fact, a vast majority of the young men and women accepted into the program are graduates that have come through BTN’s Student U initiative.

Started in 2009, Student U organizes student-run productions on Big Ten campuses that bring more than 500 live Olympic sports to the network’s BTN2Go live-streaming service. Some productions even re-air on tape delay on BTN’s air. Currently, nearly 500 students at the 14 Big Ten schools are involved in Student U and handle all positions on a live show, including on-air talent, camera ops, producing, and directing. In fact, last night, BTN aired its B1G Volleyball Extravaganza, which features three hours of live look-ins at seven conference matches. Student U crews produced the entire show.

Programs like these, Hulsey believes, have stimulated college students’ interest in sports-video production.

“In years past, most people wanted to be on the air,” he notes. “I’ve been finding more and more that people also want to work behind the scenes.

“When I was in college,” he continues, “I didn’t know how to go about it. Now we give students these opportunities because we have equipment on campus and we have some schools that have [Student U] as part of their curriculum. All of this [draws] students toward these positions. If I have 100 people apply to me every month to be on the air, 25% want to be behind the camera, and that was not that way five years ago. It’s greatly increased the percentage of people who want to be behind the camera.”