Op-Ed: Remote Production – the Smarter Way to Get Sports Back on the Air as Lockdown Eases

There is without a doubt a huge amount of pent-up demand for live sports building in living rooms around the globe. In the face of social distancing and lockdowns, what was set to be a banner year for live sports – featuring everything from the most competitive NBA season in years, to some great NFL quarterback narratives, to a Tokyo Olympic Games set to showcase breakthrough TV technology advancements – is on pause.

Instead, sports documentaries such as Netflix and ESPN’s acclaimed The Last Dance series, rebroadcasts of classic games and more esports than ever are filling the void on TV screens, but these only go so far in replacing fans’ hunger for genuine live physical events. The good news is leagues around the world are doggedly looking at ways to get live sports back on air as soon as possible – from the NBA pondering whether to bring back teams to play in a “bubble” in time for playoffs to Germany’s Bundesliga announcing that it will resume its soccer season in empty stadiums on May 15.

What has become obvious, however, is that even when restrictions are lifted, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will be with us for some time. International travel and large gatherings – such as full sports venues – are not going to return overnight. Instead, broadcasters and sports leagues will, rightly, have to put the welfare of staff, players and fans first. The most likely scenario as the pandemic starts to diminish, is that we will see a “behind closed doors” halfway house begin to emerge. Live sporting events that would once have drawn tens of thousands of fans will switch to just key participants in attendance.

Coming into its own when needed most
This is where remote production may truly come into its own. Broadcasters, production companies and leagues are going to have to look for new ways to deliver the type of compelling live sports content that fans demand, leveraging pared down production crews – and possibly even remote controlled cameras – at the live venue. Remote production (REMI)  is a practical, deliverable and proven option that makes producing live sports less crowded and more relaxed at a time when this type of approach is crucial and social distancing guidelines can easily be met.

While a typical on-site live broadcast requires large trucks and huge amounts of gear, remote production eliminates the need for mobile units at the venue with fewer staff required on site. This delivers cost savings and substantially reduces the carbon footprint of a live broadcast – plus, in a relaxed lockdown world, it offers an easier route to more quickly give  leagues, rights holders and fans what they want most: live sports back on air.

By tapping remote capabilities, broadcasters and leagues can centralize production at their home studios or at a dedicated third-party location, such as one of The Switch’s remote production facilities in Burbank or New York, with only minimal crews on location. This remote production model involves broadcasters transmitting camera feeds, audio and equipment control over a telecom infrastructure, at low latency, to a central facility – from here, operators have the capability to remotely configure cameras and other equipment at the event site. This approach, pioneered over the past few years by The Switch and other innovators, now makes more sense than ever. The advantages are clear, especially when a partner that understands live sports and has the technical expertise to support seamless remote production is involved.

Clear benefits will have knock-on effects
Employing remote production has advantages that will take rights holders beyond the ability to require fewer crew and less equipment on location in the wake of lockdown. The average cost savings – up to 25-35 percent – means broadcasters can improve efficiency and even broaden their focus to include delivering services in new and diverse ways, including online streaming and social media.

While linear TV has traditionally been the bedrock of live sports consumption, this is changing.  The lockdown is also accelerating consumer take-up of streaming. Fans under strict stay-at-home restrictions are streaming more content than ever, with online streaming platforms witnessing a 43 percent jump in viewership in the week starting March 29, according to analytics firm Stream Hatchet. Meanwhile, esports streaming service Twitch recorded a 60 percent jump in viewership in March this year.

Centralizing production also brings the advantage of greater flexibility and the ability to cover multiple events in a day, with all the necessary resources remaining in once place. This ready-to-go solution has already been leveraged by major sports networks and rights owners, such as NFL Network, which leveraged The Switch’s remote production capabilities to produce and deliver a 10-game Conference USA football schedule in 2019.

The other critical point about remote production of sports is not just that it makes economic sense, but it can offer the potential for higher quality production, with the ability to have more camera feeds and specialty equipment, such as SkyCam and RF cameras.  What’s  more, having a core group of experienced technicians covering a series of games for the same league is of huge value to broadcasters. The crew knows what to expect, what to do and, critically, having worked together on a number of high-level broadcasts they will have established great communication.

The time is now
At a time when worrying about wellbeing, safety and letting people tend to their families are of paramount importance, remote production makes more sense than ever. By centrally locating production crews and eliminating the amount of travel needed, the impact on work-life balance can also be transformed, making careers more sustainable – and in the process team members happier, less stressed and doubtless more productive. It also means the pool of talent widens, as skilled people unable or unwilling to constantly travel – especially in light of coronavirus – will want to work in the sector. And these are considerations that will likely be in play even after the worst of the coronavirus crisis recedes.

For an industry that was already facing cost pressures and elevated consumer expectations, remote production provides many of the answers that broadcasters and content producers need to bring live sports back on air as soon as possible – offering a real chance to hit the ground running and salvage what is left of the sporting year. In what could be the beginning of the ‘new normal’ for live sports, remote production offers a win-win solution for all.

The Switch’s Unlocking the Smarter Remote Production Opportunity paper appears in the Spring 2020 issue of SVG SportsTech Journal. This is an Op-ed article and the opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.