LTS 2011: Network Execs Discuss the Future of Sports Production

Technology continues to evolve at a blistering pace, be it within the home or in the production truck. At SVG’s sixth-annual League Technology Summit on Tuesday, some of sports television’s heavy hitters gathered to discuss the biggest challenges facing sports networks and their live-event outfits. The theme was universal: you can’t stop the future from coming.

CBS Sports EVP of Operations, Productions, and Engineering Ken Aagaard

“What we really have to think of as broadcasters,” said Ken Aagaard, EVP of operations, production, and engineering at CBS Sports, “is that there are going to be changes and we’re going to have to address how [to deal with them], especially financially. So I think what we’ve got to start to think about as a group is, how do we have a natural progression of being able to move on to the next thing and make it work.”

If yesterday’s NFL-rights–deal announcement proved anything, it’s that sports broadcasters have to approach technology with an eye on the future. Other members of the panel agreed that it’s time go tapeless in trucks and leave behind many of the “legacy formats” still found in some mobile units.

“If I never saw another tape machine on a truck, I wouldn’t feel bad,” joked Jerry Steinberg, SVP of field operations at Fox Sports. “If most of the legacy stuff can be taken from the studio on drives, you don’t need another tape machine. Our world is a tapeless world, and we just need to embrace it.”

Tom Sahara, VP of operations and technology at Turner Sports, concurred, adding that universal technical standards in the industry would be invaluable. “If we get tape in from an ENG crew that’s shooting DVCPro and 720,” he noted, “I have to make sure I have a DVCPro machine in that truck so I can then get it off the tape and into an EVS. Little things like that always seem to be the stumbling blocks, so, hopefully, technology will advance to the point where we can be very file-friendly and not have to deal with physical media and physical tape. That’s something that I think we really need to push onto our vendors and manufacturers.”

Fox Sports SVP of Field Operations Jerry Steinberg speaks as Michael Connelly (left), SVP/Executive Producer at Fox Sports Net looks on.

As the number of sports networks and live television events continue to skyrocket, broadcasters face the challenge of appeasing cable distributors and viewers looking for not only elite coverage of the biggest events but also access to a wealth of smaller, local games.

“Everyone, it seems, is looking to televise every sporting event ever played,” said Michael Connelly, SVP/executive producer at Fox Sports Net, which produces a mass of games per year at the local level. “Now we’re looking at how we can do everything cheaper, smaller, and quicker — almost like guerilla television. The technology is also going to have to evolve and find a way to improve distribution for cable operators who want more VOD; they want every local event televised as well as the big events. Whoever can create that economic method, equipment, truck, or Tricaster is going to be a very successful business because, right now, everyone thinks they can do TV.”

Another request of the panel was improvement of audio features to help raise the quality of surround-sound productions.

Dave Mazza (left), SVP of Engineering with NBC Olympics speaks to the crowd alongside ESPN SVP of Technology Kevin Stolworthy.

“I’d like to get to the point where there’s eight channels of audio distribution to and from all sources within the truck, be it by hybrid routing or layers of routing,” said Dave Mazza, SVP of engineering with NBC Olympics. “We need eight channels to do full productions of surround.”

The panel also universally agreed that the “second screen” and various digital offerings are here to stay.

“I think the second screen really enhances the experience and it’s driven by what kind of content you push to the tablet,” opined Steinberg, whose new NFL deal at Fox contains digital-broadcast rights beginning in 2014. “It’s all about attracting the next generation of viewers, because it’s mostly younger viewers where that is their viewing habits.”

Mazza emphasized that not only should broadcasters welcome the second screen but digital platforms need to be considered in all production decisions.

“I don’t think we can put the genie back in the bottle on letting people see what they want to watch when they want to watch it,” he said. “I think the cultural change has been difficult for us, and we’ve learned to not treat the digital guys who are making these second- and third-screen experiences as an afterthought. Make it part of the main production workflow; it can’t be an appendage.”

Click here for SVG’s comprehensive coverage of the 2011 League Technology Summit!

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