Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame 2019: Jerry Gepner, A Visionary Who Transformed the Industry
SVG is profiling this year’s 10 Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame inductees in the weeks leading up to the ceremony on Dec. 17 at the New York Hilton. For more information, CLICK HERE.
For many Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famers, the key to success is a strong understanding of what they wanted to do. Often, it is a drive to do one thing extremely well, and their HOF status was a result of their being able to do that one thing better than anyone else.
Jerry Gepner is a bit different. His story begins like many Hall of Famers’: he was hooked by broadcast technology — in his case at the University of South Carolina. After graduating in 1978, he had the chance to, as he says, “live a dream and play with things that made sounds and pictures, all stuff that really excited me” at South Carolina Public Television. Where his career zigs, however, is in a love for accruing new skills, meeting people, and being part of the bigger world.
“I have always been fascinated by learning new things; it has an overpowering appeal to me,” he says. “I’m also not afraid of getting it wrong. I don’t like failure, but I recognize that it is even odds that, if you try something new, it won’t work at first.”
That fascination with the new gives him a résumé that boasts titles like EIC, tech manager, VP of field operations, president, and CEO and companies like Fox Sports, CBS, NMT, F&F Productions, Bexel, Vitec Group, Sportvision, and, way back when, Continental Color Recording (CCR).
“In 1979, I had a chance to work at CCR,” says Gepner. “It was headquartered on Lexington Avenue [in Manhattan] and had four or five trucks, which made it a big company back then. They really were the best in the business as we did Monday Night Football and other big events like the Grammys, Oscars, Olympics, and Live From Lincoln Center.”
Leaving CCR, he joined MTI in Manhattan, taking a chance to get off the road and work as a studio TD. But a meeting with Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer Tom Shelbourn led him to join a new venture called NCP.
“They needed an EIC, and I was ready to get back on the road,” he says. “I spent several years in trucks and learned a lot about diagnosing and fixing things.”
It was also a time when it was a big deal to be part of the circus that rolled into town to produce an event.
“It was cool, and the people I worked with were more than willing to share their knowledge to help the shows come off well,” says Gepner. “Live sports TV is as much a team sport as anything that is played on the field.”
An opportunity to own his own truck popped up a couple of years later, and Gepner jumped at the chance. After hitting hard times, though, he decided to move to Florida and join F&F Productions, where he was eventually promoted to EIC and had a chance to work on GTX1, the company’s premier network-level truck.
“It was my first real exposure to life on the road with a production team that would live together for weeks at a time,” he says.
He was approached by CBS in 1988, and saying no to the Tiffany Network and the big city was not an option.
“While there, I had a chance to work for Jim Harrington, who was probably the most influential person in my career,” says Gepner. “He was so damn smart and hired a lot of legendary talent. He was thoughtful, patient, and really cared about people. I could not have done better in terms of a role model.”
And then, as he says, a thing called Fox happened. CBS Sports lost some key rights and some key executives, including Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer Ed Goren. Goren was at the Super Bowl and called from the suite, asking Gepner to talk to Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer David Hill and answer a couple of technical questions concerning studio equipment.
“We spoke for 90 seconds as he asked me what kind of switcher to buy,” says Gepner. “I didn’t know it, but it was a job interview.”
Gepner would join Fox in April 1994 as VP of field operations and engineering.
“It was a weird band of brothers where everything was new, there was chaos, and we wanted to reinvent everything,” he recalls. “But it was quality people with top talent, and the energy was pure adrenaline. David was the general, there were true war-room meetings, and I learned a lot about getting things done in a short time.”
Among the innovations that Gepner was involved with at that time were the concept of a B unit; creating software to manage crew, travel, and more; and even the use of colored bibs on the NFL sideline to identify TV-crew members.
Key among his accomplishments at Fox was implementing the on-screen clock and score. In the early 1990s. stadium scoreboards didn’t have today’s external data connections. “We got used to the look of terror on a stadium manager’s face when we started soldering and cutting wires in his million-dollar scoreboard,” he recalls.
The challenge was exacerbated because stadium scoreboards weren’t all the same, Goren explains. “I think we were literally still wiring AFC stadiums after the season had started.”
Adds Hill, “He took on my very cavalier request that we give viewers live data from each NFL scoreboard, giving Fox Sports viewers live, up-to-the-second scores for the first time to feed the then-mocked Fox Box.”
In 1995, Gepner worked with Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer and News Corp. CTO Stan Honey on the (now infamous) FoxTrax Glowing Puck for NHL on Fox games. The pair created the first augmented-reality television system from scratch in about four months.
Recalls Honey, “When David Hill asked me to develop the FoxTrax system to track and highlight the hockey puck in 1994, I figured out that I could build a team that could track the puck and compute the graphic overlay. But we didn’t know anything about working in TV production or working with the field production system. When I mentioned that enormous gap to Hilly, he introduced me to Gep, who was then head of Fox Sports field operations.
“Gep taught us all that we needed to know about building a system that would work with TV field operations,” he continues. “Gep had the unusual combination of huge practical field experience [and] interest in technology. That was the perfect match for our needs.”
After several months working to get other broadcasters to embrace the FoxTrax technology, Gepner, Honey, and News Corp. attorney Bill Squadron decided to strike out on their own, forming Sportvision in 1998. The new company’s first product was an ill-fated system designed to measure the height of a basketball player’s jump, but its signature technology, the 1st & Ten virtual first-down line, debuted on ESPN in September 1998. “The vision for 1st & Ten came from David Hill and John Madden at Fox, but it took the creation of Sportvision to aggregate the resources and make it a reality. And it took the commitment of Jed Drake at ESPN to get it on the air.”
Adds Goren, “As often was the case, John Madden asked if there was a way for him to use his telestrator to indicate how far a team had to go for a first down. Obviously, that couldn’t work as a graphic through the telestrator, but I asked Jerry to see what could be done. A year later and after Jerry had left Fox, he asked me if I was still interested in that first-down marker. Of course, I said yes, but then he told me the cost. We were in the middle of recession doing six games a week so we had to pass. A year later, the economy had bounced back a bit, and the rest is history.”
In 2001, Gepner left Sportvision to tackle another challenge: being president of National Mobile Television (NMT), which was, at the time, the largest mobile-production company in the world.
“We built the first multiformat HD truck in the world,” says Gepner, “incorporating a lot of innovations, like using new materials and construction techniques to reduce weight and being the first to use LCD monitors and multiviewers as opposed to CRTs.”
In 2005, Gepner was recruited to join the manufacturing side. He was named chief technology officer of The Vitec Group, which offered a wide range of production technologies and services. He was promoted to division CEO in 2009, overseeing Bexel and a group of other companies involved in manufacturing products for live event coverage, an opportunity that helped him refine his management and financial skills.
“I had to learn fast,” he recalls, “but I had a bunch of people willing to teach me how to measure success financially and commercially. It was like drinking from a firehose at first.”
In 2014, he joined Tekserve as CEO. The company was one of the original Apple retail and repair centers in the U.S. and the largest Apple reseller in the country. Gepner lead the transition from pure retail to media IT VAR services and consulting and ultimately rebranded the company as T2 Computing.
“I was an Apple fan boy,” he says. “To run the biggest Apple reseller in the country was a tremendous thrill.”
Gepner’s current role is as COO of CP Communications, a leading provider of wireless audio, video, and communications systems for the broadcast industry.
“We’ve been introducing new wireless technologies to add to our core services,” he says. “But we are also looking to become a bigger part of streaming and OTT production and want to be a service provider to that marketplace.”
Gepner is as active as ever, and Hill says that is something the industry needs.
“What I always loved about Jerry Gepner was that he has a mind that is not scared of the new, the unexplored, the dangerous,” says Hill. “Right now, I believe that televised sports needs more innovation than at any time in its past because of the way society’s media consumption is changing so rapidly.
“It would be great to clone the Gepner mind,” he continues, “because it’s that innovative way of thinking that I believe is required more in our industry than at any time in the past.”
For Gepner, the exciting times continue because, for him, the exciting times are all about change.
“Some people like the security and get a lot of satisfaction out of working for one company for their entire career,” he says. “In my 30s, I learned that doors will open, and, if you choose, you can walk through them. And I’ve been blessed to have a wife, Bonnie, and three children (Elizabeth, Daniel, and Mitchell) who let me do that. Bonnie was the bedrock who, wherever we were, made it home for me and the kids. I could never have had the career I have enjoyed without her.”