Finally, Syracuse Takes Students Behind the Scenes In Sports Production
By Carolyn Braff
Syracuse University is renowned for graduating top-notch play-by-play announcers from its Newhouse School of Communications, but most of its now-famous graduates practiced their skills on radio broadcasts, not television. Four years ago, Andy Robinson, a 26-year veteran of sports broadcasting, joined the staff at Syracuse and began to change that.
“Because of my television-sports experience, I felt like I could expand the opportunities for students here, not only as broadcasters but as behind-the-scenes people,” explains Robinson, who has worked as a freelance cameraman, videotape replay operator, and director since 1982. “That’s really where my strength lies, in behind-the-scenes work.”
As general manager of Syracuse’s internal 24-hour cable station, the Orange Television Network, Robinson designed the technical infrastructure his 15-student staff uses to produce up to six sports events each semester. As there is currently no room in the budget for a production truck, Robinson enlisted the engineering expertise of a friend, who happens to be the production manager at Time Warner Sports Channel, to marry existing equipment from the television, radio, and film department with some new purchases to build a creative — and effective — flypack operation.
“I built a producers’ station for monitors and the ClearCom intercom station, and the director uses those monitors to call the game,” Robinson says. “We do live-to-tape so there’s no editing. We use the Robinson family minivan for transportation.”
The network runs on three Panasonic DVX-100 cameras, a Sony Anycast production switcher, Mackie 16-input audio board, Chyron Duet for graphics, Sports Buf for replay, a Sony DSR-25 DVCam VTR for master record, and Sennheiser Sportscaster headsets for the talent.
The network’s budget comes from the student technology fee assessed to students living in the dorms, so a transition to high-definition — which is in the plans for next year — may not include sports production.
“I’ve got some things already invested in standard-def, and to retool for sports might be a little bit more money than I have,” Robinson explains. “My ultimate goal is to get a truck of some kind. That has to be the goal to take this to the next level, so that we’re doing it the way the industry does it. I want the students to get a real-world experience.”
That real-world experience involves teaching the students to use the equipment Robinson has worked with in his years in production trucks, but learning to operate the gear, he says, is the easy part.
“It’s one thing to be able to show somebody how to use a replay machine; quite frankly, that’s not that hard,” he observes. “It’s the creation of the production that’s an ongoing process, the ideas of creating a story, how these various replay, graphics, cameras, announcer elements get pulled together. That is a pretty daunting task.”
The sports productions are a team effort of the Orange Television Network and Citrus TV, an entirely student-run operation that, before Robinson arrived on campus, distributed its content exclusively over the Internet.
“I felt sports production was such a large undertaking that I wouldn’t be able to manage that through Orange Television alone, so I enlisted the help of students from Citrus TV,” Robinson explains, noting that Citrus TV had experience in putting together sports studio shows but not live sports productions. “What we have is a co-production. They basically supply the manpower, strategy, producing, directing, vision, and so forth. I provide the technical and educational support as well as a channel through which the product can be seen.”
On tap for Orange Television Network in the coming months is a slate of women’s-basketball, women’s-ice-hockey, and women’s-lacrosse games, a schedule with a noticeable bent towards women’s and Olympic sports. Because Syracuse is a Division I-A school and a member of the Big East Conference, many of the athletic events on campus are already tied into rights contracts for television and Internet streaming, so Robinson knows to focus on the sports whose production rights are not spoken for.
“When I approached the athletic department about this endeavor, they were enthusiastic about supporting us,” Robinson explains. “My hope — and I think the athletic department is thinking the same way — Is that our productions would show up on the SU Athletics Website. There are some contractual issues with the Big East and ESPN, but, if we focus on the women’s sports and Olympic sports, we’ll definitely get some of our work online.”
In the meantime, Robinson continues to work towards taking his team’s productions to the next level, with the pressure of the Newhouse School’s reputation both fueling and fortifying his efforts.