For Bassmaster Classic, ESPN Returns To Production Roots
By Carolyn Braff
In the age of digital, high-tech, latest-and-greatest sports productions, this weekend’s Bassmaster Classic on ESPN serves as a refreshing change. The Super Bowl of bass fishing takes place Feb. 20-22 on the Red River out of Shreveport-Bossier City, LA, and will feature multiplatform coverage on ESPN2, ESPN360.com, and ESPN Classic. “This show is really about old-fashioned television production and hustle,” explains Jerry Vaillancourt, producer for ESPN Outdoors. “It really mirrors the way TV was done before there was so much wireless connectivity. Essentially we are working on a very, very large ENG project, which is then quickly assembled for a fast turnaround to air that night.”
Within hours after the tape” yes, tape” is shot it is transferred to a production compound located at the boat launch on the Red River. Three tape formats are used, Sony Digital Beta, Beta SP, and Panasonic DVCPRO, as well as one tapeless format, Sony XDCAM. Operators then put together the day’s show using an Avid Unity server tied to eight individual EVS edit bays housed in NEP Supershooter 22, production staffers work tirelessly to quickly cut the content and get it to Crawford Communications’ uplink facilities in time for primetime network broadcasts.
The 10 cameras out on the water with the anglers are not RF-equipped, so all of the angler activity is recorded on videotape. “Even if we had a reliable RF signal for every camera, we’d need to be recording all of those tapes in our broadcast center anyway,” Vaillancourt says. “We can’t escape the tape environment.”
In order to get the content from the cameras on the river into that tape environment, an elaborate relay system is put in place.
“Runner boats meet up with the anglers’ boats, and the photographer will physically hand the tapes to the runners on the boats,” Vaillancourt explains. “The boats then go to pre-designated pickup spots along the river, where the tapes are put into cars, then driven to our compound on the river.”
This year’s Bassmaster Classic takes place on a river, not a lake, which means the anglers have total access to 100 miles of water. With that amount of distance separating the tapes from the compound, helicopters are sometimes added to the relay system to expedite the process.
An airplane also provides aerial coverage of the event, which is aired entirely in standard definition across ESPN’s networks.
Fixed on-boat cameras will also provide online footage that can be seen on Bassmaster.com, ESPN Outdoors.com, and for the first time, ESPN360.com, which will host the daily live weigh-ins from the CenturyTel Center, an event Vaillancourt describes as “quite a show” unto itself. Each angler also wears a wireless microphone for additional audio coverage.
Graphically, the Bassmaster Classic requires a slate of customized graphics that help viewers understand where on the river each angler is at any given time.
“For every event we have to create new maps to highlight what the whole area looks like,” Vaillancourt says. “When your playing field is very thin and 100 miles long, it makes it a challenge to come up with a good looking graphic that explains everything. To highlight things like dams with locks on the river is a challenge for our graphic artists, but the look is always good.”
For ESPN and its partner production company, JM Associates, it is also important to ensure that the entire presentation is accessible to the general public, not just hardcore fans of bass fishing.
“This is a very, very wide audience, maybe watching the only tournament they’ll see all year because it airs in such a good time slot, after a NASCAR event on Saturday and a drag racing event on Sunday,” Vaillancourt explains. “A lot of people are not familiar with the sport of tournament bass fishing, so we make it accessible to them by explaining the various tackle and techniques that the anglers will be using. It’s really all about telling a compelling story for our audience, especially the audience that doesn’t understand the nuances of the sport.”
A staff of nearly 150 people is on site to track the 51 anglers in their pursuit of the $1.2 million payout, and the idea of competing for cash is something any sports fan can relate to.
“It’s a real kick to do this show because we know we’re doing it in very unconventional ways,” Vaillancourt says. “It’s really the only sport that we carry on ESPN in which the object of the game” the bass” is not seen.”