DIRECTV, AT&T Launch ROOT Sports Southwest on the Fly in Houston

The long, sordid affair of Comcast SportsNet Houston is finally over, and from its ashes has arisen ROOT Sports Southwest. The relaunched regional sports network officially went live at 6 a.m. CT on Monday under the new ownership of DIRECTV Sports Networks and AT&T. Counting DIRECTV and AT&T U-verse subscribers, Rockets and Astros games are now available to more the 4 million viewers in the Houston area — up from fewer than 1 million during the teams’ past two seasons because of CSN Houston’s failure to ink widespread carriage deals.

Although the launch of an RSN represents a monumental challenge in any scenario, DIRECTV Sports Networks’ challenge was compounded by the fact that there was no fixed launch date, thanks to CSN Houston’s prolonged Chapter 11 bankruptcy-court proceedings.

“To our knowledge, nothing like this has been done before on the fly,” says DIRECTV Sports Network VP of Content Bill Roberts. “We did not know exactly when it would be done, given some of the complexities of getting the deal finalized and ultimately signed off. So that was a major wild card playing into all this.”

The CSN Houston soap opera came to an end on Oct. 30, when a reorganization plan to transfer the RSN’s ownership to AT&T and DIRECTV Sports Networks was approved by a bankruptcy-court judge, paving the way for the long-awaited ROOT Sports launch.

“Originally, we thought the launch date would be early October, but it was all based on the court proceedings, so that window kept changing, and it was a very fluid situation,” says DIRECTV Sports Networks President Patrick Crumb. “We have been here before in 2008, when we acquired the three RSNs from Fox, but, in that case, we had a willing buyer and seller with a transitional services agreement; we could transition our systems over at our leisure. But this was a true hot-swap so we did not have that luxury.”

Launching a Network on the Fly
According to Roberts, DIRECTV had approximately five months to accomplish its three primary objectives in launching the network: producing live Rockets games (and eventually Astros) from the Toyota Center, ramping up studio production operations at the CSN Houston downtown facility, and day-to-day business operations for the remainder of the staff. In addition, the ROOT creative team began designing a new graphics package early on in the process. All these objectives were complicated by the lack of an official launch date.

“Those were the three big action items,” says Roberts. “We also knew we could buy some time on the studio-operations side if it ended up taking longer than we thought, given that some of the command-and-control operations were held elsewhere [at Altitude’s Denver facility] and we were taking over on the fly. So we were less worried about the studio operations because we knew we could produce our game from onsite until we could get the studio operation fully into gear.”

In terms of staffing, about 50 employees, primarily CSN Houston veterans, worked with DIRECTV Sports Network’s corporate group during the relaunch process. The task was even more complex because the new network would instantly quadruple its subscriber base upon launch.

“The last 24 hours [during the hot swap] have been a byproduct of five months of planning that, for many, has been a round-the-clock task,” says Roberts. “If we didn’t have that planning in place, it never would have happened. It has required a lot of dedication, and our team has rolled up their sleeves and done their due diligence in advance to know what all the variables are and control as many of them as possible.”

Game Creek Stays on Board
In terms of Rockets and Astros game productions, ROOT Sports Southwest will continue to deploy Game Creek Video’s Apollo (A unit for home feed) and Gemini (B unit for visitors show) as its primary mobile units, as was the case for CSN Houston.

“Our first and most pressing priority was really just to fully produce a game from site and get that transmitted out to viewers,” says Roberts. “Without even knowing exactly when the switchover would happen, we needed to build our graphics and train the Houston folks on the new package and everything else. They are an extremely competent group and were ready from the word go.”

Flipping the Switch and Working With Altitude
DIRECTV opted to move ROOT Sports Houston transmission operations entirely over to The Switch’s fiber network (CSN used The Switch partially, but the company now serves as sole provider).

Master-control and satellite-uplink services will continue to operate out of fellow RSN Altitude’s ANOC (Altitude Network Operations Center) in Denver, as was also the case with CSN Houston.

“We worked with Altitude to make sure that, the moment we received the go-ahead, we would be ready for a seamless transition,” says Roberts.

Enhancing Production Quality, Programming
After two years of CSN Houston’s carriage struggles, ROOT Sports Southwest is primed to make a name for itself in the Houston market with the DIRECTV and AT&T U-Verse sub bases.

“I think the DIRECTV-AT&T distribution is obviously a big part of this because we can launch carrying enough subs to make it a real factor in this market following [Comcast’s] struggles with distribution,” says Crumb. “So my group is very excited about having a fourth RSN.”

According to Roberts, the ROOT Southwest will soon have several of the production elements that have become game-coverage staples for ROOT Sports Northwest, Rocky Mountain, and Pittsburgh, including an RF camera in the stands, a duo of super-slo-mo cameras on the field, PitchFX pitch-tracking graphics, and cine-style footage for openers, bumpers, and other promotional materials (using Canon EOS C-300 and EOS 5D, a Sony NEX-FS700, and Zeiss cinema prime lenses).

“We continue to look for new opportunities within our existing footprints,” says Crumb. “Three of our four RSNs have very large footprints geographically, where we are looking for new programming, including collegiate product. We have been anxiously looking for an opportunity to expand our footprint, so this is a huge win for us.”

ROOT Sports Southwest is now available to AT&T U-verse subscribers on channels 758 in SD/1758 in HD and to DIRECTV customers on channel 674. Local Comcast cable customers will see ROOT Sports Southwest in place of CSN Houston on channels 39 in SD/639 in HD.

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