Pac-12 Networks Launch: Q&A With Head of Operations Leon Schweir
Leon Schweir’s 30-year broadcast-television career has taken him from Madison Square Garden Networks, Big Ten Network, and Comcast/NBCUniversal. His latest venture, however, is unlike anything he has ever done.
When he was hired in December as senior vice president of production and operations for Pac-12 Enterprises, he took on the challenge of getting seven linear networks and a digital platform prepared to hit air in just eight months.
Now, with launch day at hand, Schweir discusses the challenges and thrills of being a part of building the industry’s first completely college-conference-owned media company.
What’s it like in the building right now with launch under way? Are you feeling a sense of electricity?
Oh yes. We’ve brought on board probably 20 people in the last week and a half. Our studio has been up and running and taping since last Monday, and we’ll continue to do so all the way through to launch. You bring that stuff on in stages, so, you know, there are the people that are actually working on the studio programming and there are people getting ready for the next stage that we bring online or commission.
For you, personally, and your team, what have the last eight months been like? Has it been overwhelming at times trying to get this ready?
The nature of a launch is, you have milestones and each one of those milestones, as you get closer to the final one, gets tougher and tougher. There are more complex issues rising up with each one. Just keep on schedule. You know you’re always going to have a couple things happen that were not desired; it’s just the nature of it. It’s down to the wire, but we’re confident that we will launch successfully. It’s not eight-hour days at this point.
With your career having taken you to MSG Networks and the Big Ten Network, does this compare with anything you’ve done before?
There are two angles that make it different for me. One is the fact that it’s not one, single network; it’s seven networks, and, as such, there’s a complexity in programming, production, and even operations. The other is that this is being done by a conference. There is no big parent media company coming in at the last minute saying, “Hey, we’re going to send you 10 production guys to help you get over the hump.” Any hump we want to get over, we have to get over it ourselves. It’s on our resources.
How much of a benefit has it been for you to know that you are going digital from the get-go and being able to build up your entire infrastructure knowing that you’re all digital?
It’s been great. It’s allowed everyone on the production side to say “content is content” and not to think of it as Web/digital vs. linear. There’s no place that I’ve ever been that reached that level. One of the little joys that I get is having these conversations with the digital team and telling them what they will be getting. It’s “you’ll get that, too!” “We will?!” Digital has always kind of been where, if we want it, we have to go do it ourselves. Now that everything flows through us and can either go on the linear channel or go right to the digital channel or both — which it will — there’ve been some pleasant surprises.
How hard was it for you strike that balance between cost-effectiveness and having simply enough gear and facilities to meet the demand of the live-game and programming schedule that you guys have lined up?
Well, I think that’s what I got hired for, to figure that problem out. It’s a scale and it’s a spectrum that we’re going across. I’d like to think our football will be as entertaining as anybody else’s coverage, but, that being said, there’s a certain playbook you’re following there that has been well written. On the other end, we’re doing sports at venues that, in some instances, have never seen a multicamera event televised, ever.
So finding that balance all the way through has really been the crux of the mission. It’s a little like how NBC is doing the Olympics in shipping back all these feeds to 30 Rock. We in many ways will be setting up our own network where we can do multicam productions, flypack productions, and, of course, the traditional double-trailer football-game productions as well. Getting to the point where we have our own campus network is really key, I think, to the efficiency and the economic success of the network.
What are the rules in place for the Pac-12’s member schools in production? How much of the workflow is going to go through them?
We need that connectivity to each one of the venues that we plan to televise from. Again, since we’re tapping into and creating in partnership with them, this campus network, they have to help us weed our way through campus because they obviously have use for the network themselves.
The other part is, in many ways, we look to tap the campus assets. Many of these schools have very robust communications, television, and digital departments that have already been in the marketplace doing live events or coverage on that level. So, where we can, we would like to partner up with schools and use their assets and help them develop more assets.
One of the bottom-line things we have for anything we do, whether it’s a football game or a soccer or field-hockey game, is that we’re a network owned by a college conference and there should be a role for students on every one of our productions. That’s something we have had as a mission statement from Day 1.
Aside from size of trucks, what are some of the big differences between the big A games for television and broadcasts that may only be for the digital side?
We made the decision that we really need a mobile unit in particular for outside events just because you need bigger lenses, sturdier tripods, and longer cable runs. That’s why we focused on finding a group of small trucks that can do some of these events for us.
At the same time, we also know other events will be served by the flypacks. So, for each school, we are building an integrated flypack system, and we will use these for the indoor events, though they can be used for outdoor events as well.
We feel we can do it either as a fully integrated telecast from site or in a multicam transition mode where we send all the camera feeds back and do all the replays, graphics, and even announcing here in San Francisco. We have five or six different levels of productions that we refer to internally for events.