Fuel MediaLab Gets Big-Net Results Without a Big-Net Budget

The era of the regional sports network is upon us: broadcast entities with far fewer resources than those of the major networks can produce major-league–level programming. But numerous producers have been doing exactly that for years, incorporating a combination of new technologies and variations on techniques that the big networks apply to sports shows, minus their big budgets.

A perfect example of that is Fuel MediaLab, the Toronto-area company that handles NASCAR’s shows in Canada. Each year, Fuel MediaLab broadcasts two live races and packages about a dozen more into 60- and 90-minute shows.

The NASCAR Canadian Tire Series (NCATS) races, similar in level to NASCAR’s K&N Pro series races, are held at oval tracks ranging from ⅓ to 1 mile in length and on two road courses, 1.53 and 2.45 miles long, respectively. Most races are standalone events, but three race weekends are combined with the NASCAR Sprint Cup series, and Fuel MediaLab does them as lead-ins to the Cup race, all broadcast on Canada’s TSN network.

The NCATS races have much the same sound elements as NASCAR’s: plenty of track and in-car effects, as well as color and play-by-play voiceovers. However, Fuel MediaLab accomplishes that with far fewer assets than the big nets deploy. It fields a crew of seven or eight technicians — camera operators, A1s, A2s — versus the small army of five times that working a Fox Sports or ESPN race show.

Fuel MediaLab owner Joel Robinson jokes that, with the Canadian population at about a tenth that of the U.S., his crews are appropriately scaled, but the reality is that the nature of the racetracks allows him to operate with smaller crews.

“Instead of one job per person, everyone is doing two or three jobs,” he says, noting that he acts as director and producer and, if necessary, can also run a camera. The tracks are also smaller — the largest NCATS courses are about the size of the smallest NASCAR Cup and Nationwide tracks — allowing them to be covered by as few as five cameras, each loaded with a shotgun microphone.

“That way,” he explains, “we’re still getting the speed shots and all the other key angles for a stock-car race, but the smaller oval means we can do that with fewer cameras and mics.”

Another way that fewer people can do the work of many is to apply a production-process template to each race. Robinson says his teams have developed a series of seven or eight specific hand signals that act as a semaphoric crew playbook for the races. These are especially useful since they reduce the need for intercoms and allow the work to continue even under extremely loud conditions.

“Especially when the track is in a valley, the noise levels can be horrendous,” he says. “We’re not using as many microphones so what we do use are often open all the time.”

Robinson relies on certain microphones, such as a Sennheiser MD40 handheld mic, with extremely high off-axis rejection, for on-field talent. “Basically you’re telling the talent that you have to ‘eat the mic’ in order for them to be heard,” he says.

He also puts a 10-dB pad on the condenser microphones used with the in-car cameras, to reduce the input overload on the mic preamps. Other effects sources include recording the RF scanner to pick up driver-crew chief communications.

The tape-delayed shows are produced on a very tight schedule, so audio tends to have a rigid routing assignment: talent is always on track 1, effects on track 2, and so on. This makes it easier for Fuel MediaLab’s editors to cut the show quickly in postproduction. Announce-audio and music tracks for those packaged shows are dubbed in during post, while the effects come from the races themselves. The night the race ends, an audio overdub session is booked for 7 to 9 p.m., with mix and layback taking ’til about 2 a.m., for delivery and airing later that afternoon.

More Affordable Tools
Regional sports producers are looking at a growing range of tools to make low- and mid-budget productions look as good as those on the major networks. These range from a new class of cost-effective shotgun microphones from such manufacturers as Shure and Sennheiser to DSLR video cameras, which can offer an HD picture for a fraction of the cost of an Ikegami.

But Robinson recently began taking advantage of one more new tool that combines all of that and more. A helicopter rental and camera operator might add a key dimension to race shows but, at more than $7,000 for a couple of hours, is well beyond Fuel MediaLab’s and TSN’s budget. However, Robinson contracted with the operator of a six-propeller drone helicopter, which he saw being used to take aerial photography of local golf courses, and fitted it with a remotely operated DSLR camera and shotgun microphone. That solution cost only about $2,000 and added a third dimension to the race show.

When the aerial audio turned out to be unusable because of wind and rotor noise, actual helicopter sound effects were dubbed in post and blended into the actual race effects and underscore.

In another technical sleight of hand, Robinson emulates the car-position ticker used on network NASCAR shows by building one from graphics in postproduction, using input from the manual lap-by-lap scoring sheet kept during each race.

By the time Fuel MediaLab is done, it has a high-end production that can stand up as a lead-in to a U.S. network-produced show costing 10 times as much. There are trade-offs: the sound is in stereo, and Robinson has to depend on his freelancers to provide certain key pieces of gear, including cameras. But the end product suggests that the big networks are going to be looking at some seriously competitive content in the very near future.

“We say, don’t take on a job that you can’t do right, because your name is on it,” says Robinson. “But the kinds of tools we have out there now let us do more than we ever could before.”

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