Block Party: Turner Sports Celebrates NBA’s Return From NYC’s Flatiron Square
Steve Fiorello loves a challenge.
So, when the NBA returned with the opening night of its regular season on Tuesday, Turner Sports threw a bonafide block party in the heart of Manhattan to celebrate.
“We don’t do anything easy,” the Turner Sports coordinating director laughs, as a pair of yellow taxis jostling for position scream by. “Our whole goal is, let’s make it look as good as it can look. We come up with the idea and the coolest concept we can and say, Can we make this happen?.”
The NBA on TNT’s prime studio show Inside the NBA, which typically airs from the safe confines of the Turner Studios campus in Atlanta set up shop in New York City’s Flatiron Square, directly across the street from the historic Flatiron Building and nestled between two of the busiest streets in America: Broadway and Fifth Avenue.
The whole production made for a unique set of production challenges but also gave Turner a glitzy, eye-grabbing site from which to kick off its 2013-14 NBA campaign.
“We envisioned opening night as a big event for the NBA, and we wanted to put together a sort of celebration to start the season,” says Fiorello. “What better place to do that than New York City? There’s a huge NBA fan base here. It’s the bright lights, the big city.”
On Our Own
Perhaps the most unique aspect of the entire production was that the live studio show was not accompanying a game broadcast in the same location. TNT’s doubleheader that night featured games in Miami and Los Angeles.
“We typically do lean on the game for a lot of technical support, and so being standalone with a show this size takes the saying ‘it’s just a studio show’ and makes it a misnomer,” says Chris Brown, Turner’s director of technical operations for NBATV and NBA Digital. “For these guys working this, this is more than just a studio show. Not having the game support of another cast of 60-70 crew people all with varying skill sets there to help troubleshoot in certain cases — that’s very different. Typically, we’re right next to the game truck. At that point, we share a lot of resources.”
The production included a main studio set, a jib, three handheld cameras — two on the deck and one to rove around — an airplane to provide live aerial shots of the city, and more than 100 technical and production staffers.
There was, however, no RF used.
“We don’t need it, I believe,” says Brown. “It’s one of those nice-to-haves, but ,with all of the foot traffic here and everything that’s going on on the set, we really wanted to simplify things and focus on the show. Let’s not let the technology drive the show. Let’s be smart about it. We’ve got enough things going against us to make this happen cleanly.”
Working in a narrow triangle-shaped block of only just over 12,000 sq. ft. under various city legal restraints, Turner’s production was the ultimate case study in making the most of what you’ve got.
The main set was erected on the southern half of the block, positioned to have the cameras pointing directly at 23rd Street and the front of the Flatiron Building behind the set.
Included in the footprint were numerous fan-activation stations, including a half basketball court and various ad kiosks for such sponsors as 2K Sports and Samsung.
“When nothing is in there and we’re just surveying it, it always looks like a big space, but, once we started filling it up, it gets really small,” says Fiorello. “Having done shows like this many times, I knew this was going to be tight, but it’s actually kind of cool because, with tight quarters, [the fans] are going to be wrapped right around the set, wrapped around the activation. So being tight is a good thing, sometimes.”
The northernmost tip of the block was secured off to house various production facilities for the Turner team. However, the primary production truck — Game Creek’s Justice — was parked across Fifth Avenue along 24th Street. Connecting the trucks with the studio set required building a truss to extend fiber over Fifth Avenue above the traffic.
According to Brown, all of the cabling had to be fiber because New York City does not allow power lines to be extended over auto traffic.
“Fortunately, having done [NBA] All-Star [broadcasts] in places like L.A. and Orlando, we’ve had a lot of experience doing much, much larger shows on nothing but fiber,” he says. “To put this studio entirely on fiber wasn’t much of a stretch.”
Typically, Turner sets up two paths — a primary and a backup — with the primary as fiber and the backup as satellite uplink. Brown and his team implemented numerous backups in this case.
There was one home run of SMPTE fiber to the set to protect against any catastrophic failure. That guaranteed that at least one camera and microphone would work regardless of any other power or connectivity issues at the compound. A Calhoun Satellite Communications truck was also parked on the main production footprint in case the team wasn’t able to get a fiber circuit; Turner worked with friends from The Switch HTN to obtain fiber connectivity from the basement of a nearby restaurant.
That left the satellite uplink truck and its C-band and Ku-band uplinks, which were ultimately used by CNN Headline News to broadcast some spots from the set.
The small size of the set made for a very intimate setting with fans and general city foot traffic, which made for a great atmosphere but also stressed the necessity to make the production setup as clean and safe as possible.
To meet those demands, Turner deployed a Bexel trailer to house all the fiber boxes and demarcs. The trailer was a failsafe in case of bad weather and a safe haven for technicians, who could work in peace, rather than out among the masses of fans and commuters.
“It’s a nice little warehouse to be able to sit all of our fiber gear so the techs can come in there and work,” says Brown. “It’s a nice clean environment where they can actually troubleshoot fiber.”
The original plans called for the fan-activation area and the studio set to be in separate locations. However, Fiorello devised a strategy to combine the two, working with Turner Sports’ event marketing and production expert Mark Horsburgh.
According to Fiorello, planning for the production began two months ago, and members of the production team made multiple trips to scout the site.
Much of the programming plans required working around city sound ordinances. New York City officials wanted the party to end no later than 10 p.m., but Turner was able to get away with airing live until 11 by bringing down much of the public lighting and the public-address system and programming a more toned-down live hit.
NBA on TNT produced a live pregame show (beginning at 7 p.m. ET) and a live halftime show at halftime of the first game of the network’s season-opening doubleheader that began with defending champion Miami Heat’s win over the Chicago Bulls.
Managing Editor Jason Dachman contributed to this report.