RIT Powers SportsZone Live With Panasonic Gear

Western New York winters can get awfully cold and dreary, but nearly 100 students at the Rochester Institute of Technology have found a way to keep busy throughout the winter months. For the past two years, students have had access to a fully equipped 24-ft. HD production trailer and a battalion of Panasonic P2 HD camcorders to produce live RIT sporting events and a biweekly half-hour roundup show dubbed SportsZone.

“We have 80-100 students right now in the whole program. They do pretty much everything: shooting, directing, editing, running cable, marketing, graphics work, whatever,” says Mark Fragale, assistant director of ETC production services at The Wallace Center. “The way we look at it, textbooks and classrooms can only get you so far. This is real-life experience for them, so as they are [graduating], they have a one-up on anyone else trying to get into the broadcast business.”

SportsZone Live covers about 30 total RIT games, primarily featuring men’s and women’s hockey. The live broadcasts, along with the SportsZone studio show, appear on regional sports network Time Warner Cable SportsNet and its partner stations around New York.

Live productions of hockey games are handled by a 25-person crew made up primarily of students (plus about 40% freelancers) and two professional announcers from the Rochester area, Gene Battaglia and John DiTullio.

Five Panasonic AG-HPX500 P2 HD shoulder-mount camcorders are used as main cameras, and an AG-HPX170 P2 HD handheld provides B-roll. Three HPX500s are set up in a full studio configuration around Ritter Arena, and two are used as handhelds at the end boards on each end of the ice.

RIT’s 24-ft. production trailer has two separate areas — an 8- x 17-ft. main production area and a separate 8- x 5-ft. audio area — and seats 10 people. The unit is stacked with Panasonic gear, including two Panasonic 50-in. plasma flat screens on the trailer’s front wall, four AJ-HPM110P P2 mobile recorder/players for slo-mo instant replay and field production, two AG-HPG20 P2 portable field recorders, an AJ-SD93 DVCPRO deck for backup tape recording, and a host of LCD broadcast monitors for engineering and camera shading.

“When we started the SportsZone [studio show] about seven years ago, we were really strapped with a lot of older, analog gear and needed to start making a transition into the digital realm, so we started looking at Panasonic gear,” says James Bober, assistant director of ETC engineering services at The Wallace Center. “The cameras and decks pretty much worked flawlessly for us. Then when it was time for us to start doing HD, Panasonic never gave us a reason to make a change. With this being an educational institution, we don’t have the luxury of an unlimited budget. So Panasonic really hit the mark for us.”

The trailer was built entirely in-house with Bober completing much of the design and construction work, along with two students, two co-op students, and a fellow staff member over a period of just four months in the summer and fall of 2008.

RIT does not have an official television-production academic program. As a result, the SportsZone team is made up primarily of film and animation students. Besides getting invaluable experience in a real-world production environment, they get an added benefit: a paycheck.

“It’s a paid position, so not only are our students getting experience, but they’re actually getting paid for it. They’re genuinely responsible for their work,” says Fragale. “They are not getting credit, they are getting a paycheck. I always say, ‘Look, this isn’t a class. You’re getting paid, so I expect you to get the job done, or you’re out.’ That’s the real-world experience: you can’t show up for a game for CBS late and expect to keep your job.”

Bober adds, “There have been a few that have had to learn that the hard way. We’re certainly not beyond saying, ‘You’re just not cut out for this if you’re not going to take it seriously.’”

When RIT students actually do hit the real world, they have reportedly been very well prepared to handle the intensity of professional sports production. Three SportsZone alumni currently serve at ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, CT.

“Some of our students have gone on to work at ESPN, and I hear reports back that they are well-prepared from their work here,” says Fragale. “SportsZone has been so successful in teaching our students about broadcasting.”

The SportsZone Live crew is gearing up for a potential men’s hockey postseason run, as the Tigers (15-10-1 overall, 15-4-1 conference) currently sit atop the Atlantic Hockey Association standings and are poised to make a deep trek into the conference tournament. An AHA title would push RIT into the NCAA Division I Ice Hockey Tournament for the first time in school history (RIT moved up to D1 in 2006).

“The success of [RIT Men’s Hockey] equates to a win/win for everyone involved,” says Bober. “SportsZone Live plans to be right alongside the team to broadcast [AHA Tournament] games for our fans.”

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