Venue Q&A: NEP’s George Hoover
By Rick Price, president, moeBAM! Venue Media Services, and director, SVG Venue Technology Committee
As NEP’s chief technology officer, George Hoover provides both NEP and its clients with long-term strategic planning and guidance.
Over the past 20 years, he has led the modernization and diversification of NEP’s fleet and studios from SD to HD to 3D and has made sure that, as NEP’s involvement in sports and entertainment events across the U.S. and around the world grows, so does its reputation for excellence. He has been with NEP since 1993, rising through the ranks from director of engineering to SVP of engineering and assuming his current senior leadership role in 2007.
Hoover’s career began in Florida, where he attended Florida State University. After tenure at RCA, he co-founded Video East, a mobile-production company that covered events for the then-new ESPN. Immediately prior to joining NEP, he was GM of the Public Broadcasting Authority of the State of New Jersey.
In 2011, he was inducted into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame.
Tell us a little about your early career days and starting your own mobile-production company, Video East, and working with the launch of ESPN.
I was working at RCA in Camden, NJ, partly just as a way to begin to work my way north to New York City, and I met my wife while working at RCA. Quite honestly, we both realized that working at the same place was probably not a good idea. I had been working with the local UHF independent television station, as we used to call them back then. They were doing Phillies baseball and what was then WWF wrestling [as well as] a number of Big Five and other sports in the Philadelphia area.
The television station had just lost the rights to the Phillies and had decided to get out of the truck business. The production manager at the television station, Henry Briggs, decided to leverage our respective knowledge and pocketbooks to get into the truck business, so we started out with the WWF contract and some baseball and Big Five and other work in Philadelphia, but the real game-changer for us was the launch of ESPN. They wound up taking one of the TV trucks up to Bristol to launch the studio, and then the TV truck that we were in the process of building for WWF could do remotes in the field. Then we acquired another truck so we ultimately had three trucks out working, predominantly doing work for ESPN. [We] did a great deal of ESPN’s work in the first four or five years, much of it based up in Connecticut.
Following that, you had a rewarding dozen years or so in public television. Was that stepping away from live sports production?
I was spending about 300 days on the road and, at that point, had a 1-year-old child and did some priority reevaluations and said, you know, being home more often would be pretty cool. So I sold my half of the company to my partner. Several other former Video East-ers had gone to work for New Jersey Public Television about the same time and for a similar reason, so it was a great family move and a good career move. We totally rebuilt their transmission plan, multiple studios, probably about $150,000 million in capital reinvestment over that period of time with significant productions in overhead, and we got to the point that we were producing roughly 60% of our program content locally, so it was a great place to be.
Tell us about your transition from public television back into mobile production with NEP?
[Essentially,] the reason I was hired to go to work in New Jersey was to rebuild and modernize the plant. [It] took a little bit longer than they thought, and, along the way, I wound up being the general manager of the network and having not only engineering but programming and production — according to me. Once the plant rebuild was done, it was really a career question — to say, OK, here’s the fork in the road: do I want to be involved in engineering or more of an overall general-management role? At that point, George Wensel — who had been at New Jersey Public Television literally up until the day I got there, as director of operations — left NJN to go to HBO and subsequently went to NEP. I happened to reach out to George because we had kept in touch over time, and I said, Hey, if you happen to hear of anything come up in the next six months or a year, if you come across an interesting job. And about nine months later, he said, Well, why don’t you come to work here? Unbeknownst to me, at the time, they were very close to taking over the NBC Sports facilities; NBC Sports was very close to taking the Olympics away from ABC.
So it sounds like there was a passion that fueled your career path. What might that passion be?
Making, more than anything, live entertainment, whether it’s live theater, live television, live sports. That, and I guess a little bit of the adrenaline that goes with, you’re on live and anything can happen.
After nearly 20 years with NEP, you have been a part of quite a bit of sports-broadcasting history. What have been the best things about your role there?
One of the great things is being there at the opening of the door when NEP went from a little company into a national player with acquisition of the NBC Sports assets and also with the launch of Fox Sports, which really wasn’t in existence prior to the mid ’90s, as well as the launch of the Golf Channel. All of us at NEP are proud to have helped make those transitions and launched those networks, as well as having been involved with ESPN’s foray into primetime NFL.
[I’m a] big fan of the Julie Barnathan-and-all/Roone Arledge/ABC Sports approach to television. It was a pretty amazing experience to take on the New York City Marathon, which they had done so well for almost 20 years before we took it over. Similar to working with Jerry Gepner and the guys launching NFL on Fox and doing their first Super Bowl; again, after the ABC guys had done that and the CBS and NBC guys for many years really well, nobody thought it would work, and we actually made that happen.
What excites you now in your role and in the industry?
One of the things is, we at NEP have broadened our reach to not just be a sports company, while the rewarding parts of Denali (formerly Unitel Mobile Video) coming over is, that immediately put us in the forefront of not just sports but very high-end entertainment: Tonys, Oscars, Grammys, Emmys, Kennedy Center. Then our [studio] acquisitions in New York, we’re doing The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, and a number of New York-based international networks originate out of our facilities. Recently, [we’ve added] three more additions on the West Coast; we’re bringing The Tonight Show, Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O’Brien, and whole other set of award-show properties into the fold.
Live shows are pretty close to live theater in the sense of studio audiences and that kind of thing, so it’s a really nice diverse mix of media. I think the exciting part is, there’s just a huge diversity of application of electronic media to anyone, with a number of content streams. It’s exciting to deal with, and it helps shape the path of where the industry and the technology are going, moving forward.
Let’s talk about venues. What improvements in design or technology have you seen over the past five to 10 years that you feel have benefited the broadcasters and mobile-truck vendors?
I think, when I first started, television was almost an afterthought to most of the stadiums that were in existence, [from] how the cables [ran] to where the cameras were positioned. The press boxes were never designed to have a camera in them. I’ll always remember the camera positions at old Cleveland Browns Stadium, where the cameras were hanging on poles on the roof deck; guys had to climb ladders and hoist cameras up there. It’s really become much more of a partnership now between the rightsholders, the teams, and the stadiums. As much as we all get frustrated, facilities are so much better than they were.
One of things everybody has learned is, whatever technology you put into a stadium when it’s built, it’s going to change and evolve over time, so you need to put in the appropriate infrastructure to allow that to happen and, at the same time, not have the building — for lack of a better term — pretty well trashed. At some point, wire needs to get somewhere despite everybody’s good intention to make it perfect and flawless. I think we’ve learned a lot about not putting cable trays above drop ceilings.
There’s a much greater awareness, [thanks partly to] the fact that media has now become such a major part of the teams. Before, it was a little bit of an aggravation; now it’s really a significant aspect of what the stadiums are doing as well. From a technology perspective, certainly the slow but inevitable migration to fiber-optic cable and the ability to move signals around at a much higher quality and immunity from all of those electrical- and RF-interference problems that happen in stadiums, particularly when copper cable’s old and not well maintained.
Do you see any opportunity for even greater collaboration of technical resources between the broadcasters and the teams/venues and fan experience?
Certainly, there are instances where we probably don’t share as well as we could. Some of that is out of fear of what might happen; I mean, [in] most places, people are very willing to share camera feeds but there’s no interest whatsoever in letting anybody else into their servers or into their highlights. But I think the trend to share access to each other’s signal sources — cameras, microphones, whatever — will continue as a benefit to everybody. And it just has to evolve. A lot of times, it’s just very simple friendships between the people who are running the stadium facility and the regional sports broadcaster, who’s there everyday — the guys work together every day in the same place, and there’s a trust factor [when] you are there every day. It’s a little more daunting when it’s 47 TV trucks from the networks that show up and sort of rule the roost … I’m not sure that we’ll ever get that level of cooperation to be quite the same as it is between the [team and the] local cable or content provider.
What is your purpose for serving on the SVG Venue Technology Committee?
A great deal of interest in architecture and building practices, and [I’m] a member of the AIA (American Institute of Architects) and several other organizations that work in that arena. Nothing pains me more than when we move into a new stadium and here comes [someone] with a Sawzall and is cutting off all the railings in front of the camera positions because the camera can’t tilt down and the railings are fixed. It’s because nobody talked to anybody, and we’re spending more money to patch something than if we’d just gotten together and talked about what we needed and done it right in the first place.
For me, working together with the stadium owner, the team, the league, the architects, and the contractors to build the best possible facility that services the needs of all of us, including team media, at the most cost-effective and efficient way of doing it.
One of the things we’ve talked a lot about is, everybody works very long, very hard, very difficult days. Nobody’s getting any younger, even the younger kids. If we can figure out how to get productions done quicker and more efficiently and safer, it helps to reduce everybody’s cost, and it also, quite honestly, improves the quality of the product.
What do you feel is the objective or purpose for the SVG Venue Playbook?
I think the first thing is to create an awareness that there is a readily available set of recommended practices that address the most cost-effective, efficient, and productive means to interface media into a public venue. [If] recommended practices are at least studied and reviewed prior to putting the first sketch to paper, it can be done in a much more efficient and cost-effective manner than if it’s retrofitted in at some point along the process, hopefully at least before the building is complete. I always say that, in any role, you want to try and be part of the solution, not part of the problem. When we come in at the last minute and go, Hey, we need a ____, we’re a problem. If we can come in early on and say this is the kind of stuff that really helps and avoid the last-minute problems, then we’re becoming the solution.
Over your long career, what is your most memorable experience or accomplishment?
In sports television, I think it’s probably a tie between the first New York City Marathon in 1995 that NEP facilitated or the first Super Bowl we did for Fox. Both of those are pretty high on the list.