Remote Sports Production Executive Roundtable: Booming Business, Tight Budgets, Part 2

As the value of sports-media rights continues to rise dramatically, broadcasters and content owners are seeking cheaper, more efficient ways to produce live sports telecasts. HD trucks have just about edged out SD units, as the potential of 4K makes itself felt. And the industry continues to consolidate.

HD Migration Officially Complete
The industry fleet of HD mobile units continues to grow rapidly, with more than two dozen new trucks hitting the road over the past two years — and plenty more on the way during first half 2014. On the opposite end, the market for SD trucks looks to have finally dried up; even the lowest-end sports shows are demanding HD quality.

Although a handful of SD trucks remain on the road, usually producing upconverted 16:9 SD shows for streaming and local broadcasters, even these units are expected to be gone by the end of this year.

“There is an SD market for much smaller shows — churches or corporate-type events — but, for sports production, our members are totally in an HD world now,” says Alliance Productions President Craig Farrell. “Guys in our group that still have SD trucks thought that those trucks had a another year or so in them, but that has disappeared. It’s now much easier to build a low-budget HD truck than it was two years ago, and those are the trucks that have taken over for the SD trucks.”

Industry Consolidation Continues — With a Difference
The truck market has seen its share of acquisitions over the past two years, with NEP buying Corplex and Trio Video (following earlier deals for NCP and Sweetwater) and Dome Productions’ acquisition of CAMERON PACE Group’s trucks in the wake of the collapse of the North American live-3D-production market. Although consolidation is not new to the industry (for example, National Mobile Television’s acquisition binge in the 1990s, which resulted in the company’s eventual closing in 2009), NEP’s series of acquisitions are quickly changing the dynamic of the truck business as a whole.

“Consolidation had a negative impact in the ’90s, when National Mobile Television was on a consolidation binge and dropped pricing to assure volume. The ultimate result was poorly maintained production facilities that lost their attraction to producers,” says Game Creek President Pat Sullivan. “The recent consolidation undertaken by NEP is not the same. NEP has maintained its well-deserved reputation for outstanding design and maintenance while integrating the acquisitions. The recent consolidation has had no negative impact on the industry.”

Mike Werteen, SVP, sales and client services, NEP Broadcasting, adds that NEP’s acquisitions are about much more than adding to its truck fleet: “Not every acquisition is built the same. You have to look at each one independently, because they can’t all be painted with the same brush. The one thing I will say, though, is that these [deals] are more about the personnel than [about the facilities]. They are at the forefront of why these acquisitions have a positive impact.”

4K Replay Has Arrived in HD Ecosystem
Nearly all truck providers agree that the arrival of a 4K-capable mobile unit is still a long way off. Says Mobile TV Group GM/co-owner Phil Garvin, “We are nowhere near close to being ready.”

However, while a full live-4K-production workflow is likely still years away, the integration of 4K cameras and replay systems into the HD ecosystem is quickly becoming commonplace on high-profile sports events like the Super Bowl and World Series.

Earlier this year, Mobile TV Group became the first truck provider to install a 4K-capable Evertz Dreamcatcher replay system, slating it for MLB coverage by its Los Angles-based 33HDX mobile unit. Although the system is not being used during the NBA and NHL seasons, Garvin says there is plenty of promise in using 4K solutions within the HD ecosystem.

“It’s cool, it’s easy, and it’s not terribly expensive, but we have not gotten as much demand for it as I thought there would be,” he says. “The feeling is that it is still primarily for major events. It is certainly something that could come on in the future, but I don’t think it will have the usage that super-slo-mos and ultra-slo-mos have had.”

With next-generation formats like 4K on the horizon, today’s truck vendors remain focused on how to provide the same high-quality HD facilities at a lower price. The cornucopia of exorbitant media-rights deals in recent years have forced many content owners to pinch a few more pennies on the production side, but suppliers of HD production trucks find themselves as busy as ever, with no slowdown in sight.

“Although we see our customers asking for more features, capabilities, and equipment, those high rights fees are putting downward pressure on what they will pay for the truck,” says Garvin. “There are always ebbs and flows in any industry, and, right now, we have greater technical expectations from the client with greater pressure to pay less. It’s a tough scenario for any business, but I absolutely believe that we are up to the challenge.”

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