LTS 2010: Shanks Promotes a Return to Storytelling

Fox Sports President Eric Shanks kicked off the second day of SVG’s fifth-annual League Technology Summit with a rousing keynote address advocating a return to storytelling.

“I’m a guy who’s really interested in how technology helps storytelling,” he said in front of a  packed house at the New York Hilton on Tuesday. “There has been an explosion of data for us in this business. We can track and measure anything now. We don’t need more data in this business; we need better storytelling. We’re all guilty of using that ultra-shiny data tracker at the expense of letting the event shine through. I think we need to refocus our efforts on technology that helps tell a story rather than giving viewers an algebra lesson.”

Shanks suggested that the state of sports today has a new normal. The increasing number of sports networks has increased competition for rights, and yet sports is as valuable today as it has ever been. In fact, he said, 72% of the top-50–rated telecasts in 2010 were sporting events; in 2007, he noted, that number was just 14%.

“Sports is unmistakably the nation’s shared experience,” he said. “But there are a few things that aren’t readily available today that we could refocus our efforts on.”

Renewed Focus on Audio and Competition
Audio is one area that requires innovation, Shanks said. This season, Fox lost its main source of NFL broadcast audio when the league repositioned the umpire, who wears a microphone. As a result, Fox has been scrambling to re-create its big-game sound.

Shanks opened the second day of LTS with a rousing keynote.

“We’ve gone through the first 14 weeks of the season looking for microphones that can pick up the call at the 40-yard line from the quarterback,” he said. “That is the type of storytelling thing that I think this business really needs to start refocusing on.

“Competition in our business,” he continued, “is what drives innovation. We’re all nice to each other in this business; we let each other share trucks and announcers. At some point, it would be good to get a little competition back.”

Shanks discussed his foray into friendly network competition when Fox Sports chose to withhold from other broadcasters the network’s proprietary footage of the Minneapolis Metrodome roof collapse.

“We started driving people to, and we got 3 million views that day,” he said. “We ended up letting other people use it at 5 p.m. that day, and now it’s everywhere, so we’re helping drive their business. We’re competitive, which this industry needs more of.”

3D: Little Justification for Sports
When it comes to 3D production, Shanks believes that the content is valuable but, in sports, the investment is hard to rationalize.

“Sports is one of the last things you can justify producing in 3D,” he said. “It has a small audience, a short shelf life on the content, and to do it right means doing a completely separate production. I don’t envision us at Fox Sports being able to invest a significant amount in 3D until there’s a system that flows through all of the local affiliates that lets them insert local advertising and branding.”

The driving force for 3D in the home, he opined, will be videogames. When a new generation of gamers grows up with 3D, the stigma of glasses will be gone. Until then, however, 3D will be a work in progress.

‘Widescreen Heaven in 2011’
Shanks took Fox Sports to full 16:9 aspect ratio for all its sporting events in 2010, and he hopes more networks will follow suit next year, in line with his catchy New Year’s resolution, “widescreen heaven in 2011.”

“HD penetration is now way ahead of where we thought it was going to be,” he said. “For our NFL on Fox ratings, we get 66% of our ratings in HD. The screen is now 20% cleaner, and you get about 25% more football, so, rather than apologize for going letterbox for SD viewers, we promoted going 16:9 as a benefit. I hope that, throughout 2011, more people will go to 16:9.”

Huge Upside for Mobile
Also big in 2011, Shanks hopes, will be mobile sports content and addressable advertising.

“From a rights perspective, mobile has been a little bit murky,” he said. “Customers will pay for mobile sports. I think it’s really about making sure we have the best encoders and compression quality available.”

There is little value, he observed, in offering a mobile sports product that can be reliably accessed only through a WiFi hotspot. Instead, such applications must be offered using a quality signal that runs over a wireless telco network.

“In the next cycle of deals that come up, neither us nor the leagues can afford to keep bifurcating and selling the rights depending on which platform or end-user device is being used,” he said. “The rights absolutely have to flow with the main transmission signal, and that’s really on us.”

Addressable Advertising: More Than Ads
Likewise, addressable advertising has the potential to become the biggest innovation in broadcast ads since John Madden, Shanks said.

“With the penetration of DVR and on-demand devices in the home and their ability to do dynamic live ad insertion, you’re going to start to see really hyper-local ads, sometimes based on other potential attributes of the home,” he explained. “There is the potential to raise CPMs and generate additional revenue in the TV space that today is going to two-way Web-enabled devices. I think it’s still a number of years away, even though the cable and satellite guys will be deploying it next year.”

At Fox, the ability to do live ad insertion offers new opportunities to the promo department, because the network will no longer have to run promotions that list a full menu of games.

“We’ll be able to run promos that are specifically tailored to the market that is going to get that game and to use more home-team footage,” Shanks said. “There’s a ton of stuff outside of advertising that we’re going to be able to do with addressable advertising.”

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