Restart Of Sports Brings Uncertainty to Broadcast Industry

    • Facing unique circumstances, leagues are restarting while using “world feed” broadcasts - which will likely last only as long as the pandemic.
    • Alongside a consolidation among regional sports networks, it's unclear if TV production staff will be able to return to their jobs.

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On a typical summer day, Kurt Farmer would be running a robotic camera at a Washington Nationals or Baltimore Orioles game. 

Instead, he’s maintaining his newly installed garden and a tiki bar at his suburban DC home as one of the 3,500 sports TV crew workers sidelined by the pandemic-forced shutdown of sports. 

“I am doing any project I can so I don’t lose my mind,” Farmer joked.

Farmer, 52, typically works more than 200 game broadcasts per year across the games for the Washington Capitals, Wizards, DC United, and in college sports. He’ll be lucky to make it to about half that this year – and he’s not certain he’ll have a job once ‘normal’ TV sports production resumes after the pandemic passes.

“Everyone is worried,” Farmer said. “I think this may reshape the industry in the future. Basketball and hockey are going to one feed, which eliminates 45 people’s jobs right there in every ballpark and arena in the country. Are [some regional sports networks] going to be happy with that setup going forward?”

The short answer from executives for Fox Sports Networks and NBC Sports Regional Sports Network – the two major players in the regional sports network game – is this “world feed” concept will likely last only as long as the pandemic.

“There’s value to having your own announcers being on the road with the team,” said NBC Regional Sports Network President & Group Leader Ted Griggs. “You learn things when you’re on the road with the team, even if you don’t overtly talk about them in a broadcast. You see a player limping getting off the plane. That’s something trainers don’t want to be made public, especially in hockey where injuries are guarded like state secrets. It can be used to give background later.”

Executives at Fox Sports Networks have told one union that represents workers that Sinclair “didn’t buy a bunch of regionals so they can get world feeds,” according to a memo obtained by Front Office Sports. Sinclair completed its $9.6 billion purchase of 21 RSNs last August from Disney, which was required to divest the RSNs after the acquisition of Twenty-First Century Fox.  

“I can’t predict what’s going to happen since things like technology can change,” Mike Connelly, senior vice president and executive producer of FOX Sports Networks, told Front Office Sports. “We want to maintain the quality of the broadcasts and protect employees.”

World Feed Breakdown

The NBA, NHL, and MLB will each have a version of a “world feed” – a staple of Formula One, World Cup, and some Olympic broadcasts for years – for the rest of 2020. One production crew captures and broadcasts the video, while regional announcers in a studio provide their voice over the footage live. The offsite team stamps it with the proper logos and graphics. This format was favored since it limits the number of people in a stadium or arena and, in turn, limits the potential spread of the coronavirus.

The NBA has the most detailed plan made public so far. It will use Walt Disney World in Florida as a “bubble” that sets out testing standards and who has access to the facility, which 22 teams will use when play is scheduled to resume July 30. ESPN and Turner Sports – which are expected to use at least some cameras controlled remotely – will produce the world feed for RSNs until the playoffs. There’s been talk that even the first few rounds of the playoffs will be called remotely with ESPN and TNT talent.

The NHL will use two “hub” cities that have yet to be announced when play is set to resume on July 30. MLB is expected to play its 60-game regular-season schedule and the playoffs at each home team’s respective stadiums when the 2020 season is scheduled to start on July 23 or 24.

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At least for baseball, there’s a system in place to make sure the crew producing the home field doesn’t favor the home team. The home club is tasked with producing a neutral feed that will be used by the road team’s broadcast and, if the broadcast appears to be skewed, the road club could go so far as to submit a complaint to the commissioner’s office, Front Office Sports has learned.

“The leagues have been fantastic,” Connelly said “We’re working in tandem with them, having weekly calls, to ensure we are able to deliver the best possible product. 

“We are having those conversations about playing the broadcasts right down the middle. There are going to be some instances where the visiting broadcaster will ask the home team to ‘do this’ with the camera. Twenty-five years ago, that was the norm. A lot of home feeds were picked up by the road teams. Before Fox jumped into [the RSN business] in 1996, one of every four of 5 road games used the home feed,” he said.

Zoom Here to Stay?

While it is the intention to bring back the two production truck setups, there are other quirks of sports broadcasts that concern those involved in the production. The NHL, NBA, and MLB have limited interviews of coaches and athletes, meaning networks will rely on Zoom and other video conferencing platforms, which has become the norm during the pandemic. Each sport has set up liaisons – in most cases, team PR employees – to facilitate interviews.

“I’ve been doing this 30 years and that entire time you’ve had to get a guy into the studio, make the lighting perfect and make sure you have the shot perfect,” Griggs said “We’ve learned from our customers that they don’t care about all those things as much as people in the industry do. They feel raw. Maybe the less-than-perfect video is more authentic, and they like to see what Bryce Harper’s living room looks like.” 

If such setups are used post-pandemic, it could potentially come at the cost of video and audio production staff who set up the shots. 

“I think we will probably see more of it than we had pre-pandemic,” said Fran O’Hern, co-director, broadcast department at IATSE, a union representing about 2,700 sports broadcast production workers. “I think producers, directors, and, frankly, the team owners are going to want a more personal touch than you get with a Zoom call. I think when it’s possible to do so, that you will see a return to face-to-face interviews.”

Networks have played with other technologies in recent years, including taking advantage of high-speed internet to shift some on-site production work handled in a truck to a studio, a move that could save networks thousands in travel-related costs.

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“The one thing that the pandemic has allowed for is faster adoption of technology,” Robert Carzoli, CEO/chairman of Program Productions, a leading crew fulfillment company. 

MobileTV Group – one of the top providers for live sport and concert broadcasts – has led the way with its Cloud Control system. 

“You look at Mobile TV Group and what it can do,” Carzoli said. “I don’t think there’s any question that the days of a full-blown broadcast crew for home and visitor shows for every NHL, NBA, and MLS game are over. … It won’t reduce the number of workers, necessarily. It will reduce the number of crew people on location.”

Carzoli said he expects the smaller-market RSNs would be the ones most willing to shift to a more cloud-based system. 

“At the end of the day, every one of these sports networks is a business,” Carzoli said. “The pandemic is a multi, multi-million dollar hit for the leagues, teams, and broadcasters. If you can get a similar broadcast that you had before all this while spending $4 instead of $5, the one dollar makes a big difference. 

Challenges for Workers

NBC Sports Regional Sports Network paid production workers for games they were scheduled to staff through the end of the NBA and NHL regular seasons. FSN offered a $2,500 loan in March and a payment of $2,500 with benefit contributions in June to core regional production staffers. O’Hern said the production crew members who drew most of their salaries from sports production have subsisted on unemployment benefits via the CARES Act that includes an additional $600 per week, a provision that ends at the end of July. 

“I would expect the majority of people to come back once we get back to something resembling normalcy,” O’Hern said. “What Congress does as far as supplemental unemployment could determine whether some will try to hold on. If that doesn’t get extended, I think many will have no choice but figure out another way to make ends meet.”

Regional networks have already begun informing workers that MLB has cut the number of technicians by about a third over COVID-19 concerns. It’s unclear currently what positions on the crew would be impacted. 

Farmer has worked in sports TV production for 26 years and has seen tech change. His current expertise, for example, of running robotic cameras didn’t exist for regional broadcasts when he started as a cameraman. 

“I’m hoping I’ll be needed,” Farmer said. “Robotics are a nice perk, but it’s not a necessity. It will come down to the economics of it. If they cut down on cameras, robotic cameras would probably be one of the first they’d cut.”