SES 2011: Studio Shows No Longer Play Second Fiddle

Sports-based studio shows have grown into truly independent productions that often border on full-blown entertainment spectacles. The simple days of a pair of hosts on a soundstage are long gone, forcing producers to rethink the traditional pre-and post-game philosophy. At SVG’s Sports Entertainment Summit in Los Angeles on Tuesday, broadcasters and vendors took the stage to discuss the rapidly changing studio-show format.

Big Games Call for Big Pre-game Shows
No single event highlights the rapidly blurring line between sports and entertainment production than the Super Bowl. In addition to Fox, which will carry the crown jewel of sports programming this year, a host of networks will descend on Cowboys Stadium in Dallas to produce live Super Bowl-related programming.

“We’re about to take our studio show on the road to the NFC Championship. Then, we will take it all apart and go right to Dallas to do the Super Bowl. Then, we take it all apart again, and we go to the Daytona 500,” said Jerry Steinberg, SVP, Field Operations, Fox Sports. “Right after that, they’re going to put me in a [retirement] home.”

Steinberg jokes, but his assessment of the Super Bowl chaos is spot-on, nonetheless. Today’s studio show for high-profile sports events is a maddening production that, in many ways, transcends the game itself. And, in addition to on-site studio shows, events like the Super Bowl also feature red-carpet specials and a host of pre-game concerts.

“The [Super Bowl red-carpet show] is extremely tough mostly because you don’t know when the celebrities are going to be there,” said Fox Sports producer Bill Richards.  “We’re trying to get the red-carpet stuff done at least an hour before game time so that we can concentrate on the game leading up to it. But that clashes with the celebrities’ desire to get there as late as possible. It’s not easy, to say the least.”

Michael Dempsey has seen the crossover between sports and entertainment in Super Bowls past, with equally complicated predicaments. This year, his company, Dempsey Productions, will once again produce the Pepsi Super Bowl Fan Jam for VH1. The concert will take place the Thursday before the game, at the Verizon Center near Cowboys Stadium. The following day, the venue will put on Univision’s Super Bowl concert followed by CMT’s pre-game concert on Saturday, creating a severe traffic jam for Dempsey and his crew.

“[Verizon Center is] not just dealing with me; they’re also dealing with two other shows,” Dempsey pointed out. “So it’s really about communication and not asking for anything over the top that’s going to affect the other shows. You have to be sensible but also make sure they know exactly what you need.”

Buddy-Buddy With Venues
The venue-producer relationship is integral to the success of any remote studio show. In the case of the upcoming Super Bowl, Steinberg has found this relationship to be particularly smooth.

“When it comes to the venues, it’s all about planning and relationships,” he said. “For [the Super Bowl], the people in Dallas at Cowboys Stadium are unusually wonderful. When we say we need to do something, their response is ‘how can we help.’ That is not always the case. At a lot of [venues], the first answer from them to any question is ‘no’ before you even get the question out of your mouth.”

In addition, the venue-vendor relationship also must be amicable, as seen during the US Open tennis tournament in August. USTA Director of Broadcast Operations Steve Gorsuch needed to accommodate a growing number of U.S. and international broadcasters with on-site studio space at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

Gorsuch pinpointed several unconventional locations around the sprawling venue, including the Tennis Channel’s 17-ft.-high stage above the players’ kitchen at Arthur Ashe Stadium and Sky Sports’ lofted stage above the practice courts. To implement the logistics of these complicated sets, Gorsuch brought in Northern Lights Productions.

“I give credit to Steve for coming up with all these different positions,” says Northern Lights President Patrick Santini. “Then, he leaned on us to make those sets actually happen.  Steve was able to search out unconventional broadcast space for the different locations. Then, we helped to come up with broadcast-friendly solutions to some of these abstract locations.”

Happy Crew = Quality Production
Every speaker on the studio-show panel agreed on one aspect: morale is the key to any long-term production.

“Morale is a big issue on the road,” said Chris Long, SVP, Entertainment, DirecTV. “When you’re on the Super Bowl, you’re out for two weeks. So you have to keep morale going for two weeks and keep everyone fresh so, when the event does actually arrive, [team members] are not tuckered out.”

Steinberg seconds that notion: “The real key is team building. Our NFL A-game crew has been together for several years, and they love what they do. When we take a pre-game on the road, it’s essentially the same thing. We put together a team that is comfortable with each other and knows how to produce a quality show.”