David Neal Aims To Buck PBR Into Next Level

There is a new sheriff in town for the 2011 Professional Bull Riders season, and, while he may be new to the world of bull riding, 30-time Emmy-winner David Neal is far from a newbie when it comes to sports-television production. PBR has brought in the long-time NBC Sports producer and his newly formed David Neal Productions to handle the 30-plus telecasts on the 2010 Built For Tough Series (BFTS) schedule, which will air on Versus and NBC.

“This sports is so TV-friendly and has so much potential,” he says. “I learned from my long-time boss Dick Ebersol that our job as producers is to take our viewers on a magic-carpet ride of sorts, and that is my driving philosophy behind any production — whether it is Olympics or football or now PBR. Take them out of their easy chair and get them down to the field of play. Let them experience it: feel, hear, and see exactly what it’s like.”

In an effort to accomplish just that, Neal has entirely revamped the PBR production design, beginning with this weekend’s season opener from Madison Square Garden, which will air on Versus on Saturday and NBC on Sunday.

A View From the Shark Cage
At MSG this weekend, Neal will roll out a total of 15 cameras, including a jib above each of the four chutes where the riders start out, several low angles focused on the arena, and a variety of handhelds covering the action in the dirt, in the stands, and behind the scenes in the hallways. Also new this year will be an X-Mo high-speed camera in the middle of the arena, housed in what Neal refers to as The Shark Cage.

“[The X-Mo] is a low ground-level position dead center,” he explains. “You get a pretty terrific angle from there. [The X-Mo] was on one or two late-season events last year, but it will be a consistent component for us every week throughout this season.”

The Furious Sound of the Chutes
Neal’s biggest initiative this year will be a renewed emphasis on audio and natural sound. He hopes to intimately capture the action on the dirt in the chutes, much the way coverage of NASCAR races offers audio from the drivers and the pit crews.

As part of this audio strategy, 12 of the 40 riders in each round of competition will be outfitted with wireless mics. In addition, Neal plans to deploy an arsenal of shotgun mics around the ring and has even experimented with the use of parabolic microphones.

“One of the things that makes this sport really lend itself to television is the audio component,” he says. “Just standing above the chutes, I’ve been struck by how much chatter goes on before each ride. The rider is talking to the handlers and judges. And the bulls are making plenty of noise too. It’s all so arresting. I’m really going to try to maximize the sound in our coverage of that. There are moments when we will be able to actually listen to what’s going on down there.”

Once the bull is let loose out of the chute, the X-Mo and wireless mics will be relied on to provide authentic replays of the most dangerous eight seconds in sport.

“I envision full-speed replays where we go back and listen to the rider,” Neal says. “We’ll play the ride full speed with no commentary; you’ll just hear the general calamity that goes on out there on the dirt. Eight seconds doesn’t seem a very long time, but, when you see someone trying to hang on [to a bull] for eight seconds, that can seem like an eternity. I want to really maximize the natural sound of that because it’s quite a furious experience.”

In the Booth
Play-by-play man Craig Hummer will return for his fifth season calling PBR. He will be joined on most weekends by nine-time World Champion and PBR co-founder Ty Murray, who will have a new toy of his own: a telestrator. Although the telestrator has become ubiquitous in many other sports telecasts, this will essentially serve as its debut in bull riding.

“Ty Murray is the Michael Jordan of bull riding,” Neal says. “He is the best there’s ever been, and, in listening to his passion and technical expertise in explaining this sport, the light bulb went off in my head. Much of the nuance that makes the difference between a successful ride and an unsuccessful ride has to do with small little details. Particularly with the X-Mo slowing things down, Ty can use the telestrator to make those points. To me, it’s an ideal extension of the storytelling that we want to do.”

A Huge Cast of Characters
As Neal learned during a long tenure with NBC Olympics, non-mainstream sports like bull riding require a significant amount of character development so that viewers care about the athletes involved. He hopes to accomplish this with a profusion of profiles each week — on both the riders and the bulls — as well as the “Truth Booth,” where riders will watch the replay of their ride and describe what went right and what went wrong.

“I’m taking a page from my Olympics book here: it’s all about personalizing the athletes,” he says. “We’re doing profiles and expanding the storytelling because it’s all about giving viewers a reason to care. There are two sets of stars, the riders and the bulls. These bulls each have personalities. Each show, we have a cast of characters of 80, 40 two-legged and 40 four-legged.”