Legends Behind the Lens: Deb Honkus
The iconic CEO crafted NEP Broadcasting into a global remote production superpower
The story of American sports television is engrained in the history of this nation, rising on the achievements of countless incredible men and women who never once appeared on our screens. During this pause in live sports, SVG is proud to present a celebration of this great industry. Legends Behind the Lens is a look at how we got here seen through the people who willed it to be. Each weekday, we will share with you the story of a person whose impact on the sports-television industry is indelible.
Legends Behind the Lens is presented in association with the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame and the SVG Sports Broadcasting Fund. In these trying times — with so many video-production professionals out of work — we hope that you will consider (if you are able) donating to the Sports Broadcasting Fund. Do so by visiting sportsbroadcastfund.org.
By Karen Hogan Ketchum
Former NEP Broadcasting CEO Deb Honkus has grown up alongside her remote-production trucks. In more than 30 years, she has built compelling client relationships that make her more a friend than a service provider. Her mobile units have supported every major sports event in the country, and her influence is felt among clients, colleagues, and friends around the world.
“Deb has steered NEP to its position as the gold standard in the remote-facility business,” says Howard Katz, SVP of broadcasting and media operations for the NFL. “She has been a pioneer both as a woman in the field and in the field itself. As the television networks made the decision to get out of the truck business because of the capital-intensive nature of it, she and her colleagues had a vision to fill that void and the fortitude to step into it. Her success has been remarkable.”
She Wore Many Hats
A native of Pittsburgh, Honkus began her career with Total Communications Systems (TCS) in 1978. With just one truck in the company’s arsenal, Honkus’s first job was covering Penn State football games, but a single title could not define her role.
“She grew up with the remote business,” says John Roché, senior technical manager for NEP. “At TCS, she was running the business, taking orders, doing sales. She knew the remote television industry from its inception. Between her, Tommy Shelburne, and George Wensel, they are the reason why this industry succeeded.”
In 1986, TCS merged with NEP, and Honkus became the general manager of the newly formed NEP. Renowned for being tough but fair and transparent in all of her interactions, she rose to vice president, president, and now CEO.
“She was one of the original employees, and she’s worn many hats, from owner to CEO, to operations manager, to visionary,” says Dave Mazza, SVP of engineering for NBC Olympics. “With all of her clients, she’s considered a good friend to the people to whom she delivers services, and she is compassionate with her employees such that they always feel they have a shoulder to cry on. Her relationships in this industry are unique.”
At the Helm
As she manages the day-to-day operations of the nation’s largest television-production-services company, Honkus prioritizes the human capital of her company. For her, communication and teamwork have been as important to NEP’s success as engineering and operations.
“Debbie is concerned about people, first and foremost,” says Eric Thomas, technical manager for NEP. “She can be tough in a negotiation session, but she’s concerned about the people involved in this business. She works us hard but always makes sure that we have time to see our mothers on Mother’s Day.”
With a “communicate, communicate, follow up, follow up” mantra and a philosophy of treating everyone at NEP like family, it is no surprise that Honkus’s relationships run deep not only within her company but throughout the sports-broadcasting industry.
“Deb is a brilliant strategist ,and she knows exactly what our clients want,” explains NEP CTO George Hoover. “She has the pulse of the industry. She knows everybody, talks to everybody, has relationships with everybody. From a camera guy on Monday Night Football to top executives at networks and leagues, Deb knows them all.”
Taking NEP to a New Level
Those relationships have helped NEP obtain some of the biggest jobs in sports production, broadcast over every major sports network, including Super Bowls, Olympic Games, Monday Night Football, Sunday Night Football, PGA Tours, NASCAR, and U.S. golf and tennis opens.
“Especially after her partner George Wensel died in 1995, Deb took NEP and moved it to a different level,” explains Ken Aagaard, EVP of Operations, Production, and Engineering for CBS Sports. “She’s been able to do that because she has such a dynamic personality. She’s a good listener, and you know that she’s going to put you in a win-win situation as it relates to facilities and people. At almost every big event, you’ll find some piece of NEP, and that says a lot.”
Adds Tom McCracken, director of corporate development for NEP, “A lot of the reason the company took off after George passed was her hard work and her dedication to the company and to the families of the employees. She always wants to move the company forward, but she is a very giving person.”
People Are Her Priority
Among Honkus’s accomplishments are serving as host broadcaster for the 1987 Pan Am Games, delivering support for multiple Olympic Games, and supporting back-to-back America’s Cup events in 1993-94. Despite the multiple awards and accolades she has earned, she defers her success to the people with whom she works.
“My priority has always been to worry about people, making sure that we as a group are doing what is right for the staff and the client,” Honkus says. “We always want to make sure that we are working for everybody individually, as customers, clients, and people.”
As the dynamic CEO of a company that works with the biggest names in sports, Honkus is privy to a great deal of sensitive information. From calling a client the minute a problem arises to keeping proprietary information private, she has built her career on her ability to always tell the truth, while being discreet when necessary.
“One of the reasons people trust Deb is, she is very open with them,” Hoover explains. “They know what her passions are and know about her family and friends. She does not take advantage of those personal relationships; she’s not a person who’s going to kiss and tell, and that’s really important in taking a relationship to the next level.”
Dedicated to the Industry
While she stands fiercely behind her company’s product, Honkus always wants what is best for the industry, even if that means losing out on a job every once in a while.
“If NEP doesn’t get the work but somebody else does and that makes the client happier, I think Debbie’s fine with that,” says freelance producer/director Steve Beim. “She cares about the industry more than she cares about NEP’s getting a particular job. There is not a more unique person that we deal with in this business.”
As one of few women executives in sports, breaking down barriers is nothing new to Honkus. Still, the Mother of Remote Sports Production is recognized in the industry not as a woman who is good at her job but as an executive who is the best in the business.
“[She’s] one of the only women that high in the industry. You have to admire her aggressiveness and her pride in what she does,” says Michael Meehan, SVP of sports operations for NBC Sports. “Her legacy is her leadership of a service company that cares as much about the product and the TV show as the broadcasters that she represents.”
Adds Terence Brady, VP of human resources for NEP, “She really is a trailblazer. She has a knack for understanding how sales, operations, engineering, and logistics fit together. She’s proven that it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman; if you can get it done, that’s all that matters.”
The video in this profile was originally produced in 2011. For more on the life and career of this industry legend, visit their profile at the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame.