MLB Returns: AT&T SportsNet RSNs Use Mix of Studio, Mobile Facilities for World Feed, In-Market Productions

AT&T’s Colorado, Houston, Pittsburgh, and Seattle networks are back in action with MLB

In an effort to reduce production crew and facilities onsite for safety this MLB season, regional sports networks have been tasked with producing a neutral world feed for all MLB teams home games to be distributed to the away-team RSNs and national broadcasters. SVG is delving into how each RSN group is handling this new production model as part of its MLB Returns series to open the 2020 season.

It has been a long wait for AT&T SportsNet Northwest, Pittsburgh, Rocky Mountain, and Southwest RSNs — which were all set to begin the MLB season just as the sports world came to standstill in March. With Opening Day finally here, the RSN group is ready to bring live baseball to home-team fans.

“During this crisis,” says Bill Roberts, VP, content, AT&T Sports Networks, “we’ve had to focus on the health-and-safety aspect of our business like never before. We’re obviously not experts, but we’ve worked extremely hard to keep everyone safe. And I think a part of that is the mental health of everybody — whether it’s players, viewers, or production folks. Playing sports, watching sports, and producing sports is a great conduit to boosting morale and getting people focused on what’s possible. We’re excited to be a part of that.”

A Mix of Studio and Remote Facilities

AT&T SportsNet Pittsburgh will incorporate its 15- x 20-ft. “The Hub” LED wall into its MLB game coverage for away games.

AT&T SportsNet RSNs are using a mix of studio facilities and mobile units to produce world feeds for their home games and integrate their in-market telecasts. In the case of AT&T SportsNet Pittsburgh, which launched a brand-new studio in November, it will use its truck at PNC Park to produce the world feed for home games and the new studio for road games.

“It worked out that we had just opened this amazing new studio just before [the pandemic lockdown],” says Doug Johnson, VP/executive producer, AT&T SportsNet Pittsburgh. “It’s going to allow us to do things that we never had the ability to do before, This is obviously not the most ideal setup [with the world feed], but, if we have to do it, let’s have fun with it and really put our stamp on it. We are owning the fact that we’re in our studio for road games and going to show off the studio as much as we can.”

The sprawling AT&T SportsNet Pittsburgh studio features a 15- x 20-ft. LED wall — the largest of any RSN in the country as of its launch – that the network refers to as The Hub. Johnson and company plan to integrate this into live game coverage with telestration and highlights content playing out.

A series of monitors has been provided for Pittsburgh’s on-air talent (who will be socially distanced in the studio when calling away games) displaying a program feed, the “all-9” angle of the entire field, a quad split showing bullpen cameras and other POVs, the iso camera dedicated to the away feed, and routable feed to play out replays and other packages.

AT&T SportsNet Pittsburgh announcers will call away games from the its new studio and home games from PNC Park.

“We’re trying to create the best possible setup so our play-by-play and analysts can call the game remotely,” says Johnson. “I think we’re in a really good spot with it.”

At the PNC Park, Mobile TV Group has provided its VMU (visitor mobile unit) even though the away RSN isn’t onsite, allowing AT&T Pittsburgh’s crew to socially distance

“Whether it’s Pittsburgh and Rocky Mountain with Mobile TV Group, Game Creek Video in the Southwest, or NEP in the Northwest, all our truck partners have been extremely proactive in understanding and helping us deal with this challenge. They’ve worked hard to make sure that there’s plenty of social distancing, and each of them have developed some really solid health and safety protocols that we are using. Those relationships have been great for us across the board.”

The Fan Element: Heavy Integration of Zoom Recordings, Social Media

Like all RSNs this year, AT&T SportsNet will look to integrate fans remotely since they will be absent in the ballpark.

AT&T SportsNet instituted strict safety regulations both at its studios and in its trucks in advance of the MLB season.

“I think getting the voice of the fan into these games is the most crucial element that we’re trying to do,” says Roberts. “It just doesn’t work if the [viewer] doesn’t feel connected to the broadcast.”

Pittsburgh plans to playout prerecorded Zoom calls with season-ticket holders on The Hub LED board for the Pirates’ season opener, home opener, and every Sunday road game. Northwest will be producing similar segment with season-ticket holders in its demo area.

In addition, all AT&T SportsNet telecasts will feature a graphic in the bottom-left corner of the screen, dubbed “The Lowdown,” that will constantly tap into social-media conversations about the game.

“We started [The Lowdown] a couple of years ago,” says Roberts, “but we’ll be using that more aggressively as a means get the chatter and energy back onto the broadcast when we’re not hearing it in the stands.”

Camera Coverage: RF Plays Big Role, as Low-Angle Positions Shift to Robos

In terms of camera coverage, according to Roberts, certain low positions have been moved or converted to robos in order to protect the players on the field, but, for the most part, the four RSNs’ deploying their usual camera complements.

AT&T SportsNet Pittsburgh has moved all of its studio-production crew from the control room to what was previously an upstairs office area and built a monitor wall and stations to ensure social distancing.

In Pittsburgh, Johnson says his team was able to work with the Pirates to keep low-angle cameras as manned positions (although plexiglass has been installed around them to shield the operators from the players). AT&T SportsNet Pittsburgh is also exploring moving several of its existing hard cameras around to create new angles that wouldn’t be possible with fans in the stands. In addition, he sees the roving RF camera as a key storytelling device for game coverage this year.

“Our first thought was, do we need the RF if there are no fans?,” he says. “But it has actually turned out to be one of our more crucial cameras because it can move anywhere in the park now. A good operator can make an RF camera feel like you’re adding five cameras to the show. That camera’s going to be moving around to different parts of the park.”

Odds and Ends: Crowd Noise, Miking Players, Remote Production

Roberts on the simulated crowd noise being played out in ballparks: “We largely advocated for taking the crowd noise [as nat sound]. We felt like we shouldn’t be in the business of editorializing the broadcast with crowd noise, so we wanted the teams to handle pumping it into the stadium with their personnel. We felt like that was a more authentic way to produce the telecast, and I think that really gives the broadcast some life.”

Johnson on miking players: “You really have to baby-step on a lot of those [production enhancements] because you have to make sure you can execute it in a COVID world. We’ve been experimenting with the idea of miking a player in Spring Training with an IFB and talking to us over multiple innings while they’re playing the field. But the issue now is not being able to even get near that player, so we have to work with the team to execute that without our technicians getting near them. That has been the biggest challenge.”

Roberts on the rise of remote and distributed production: “We’re continuing to run a lot of our production gear remotely with people working from home. It’s interesting how COVID is starting to hasten this distributed production model. It will be interesting to see how that continues or not after the crisis is over. But I think it’s another interesting aspect what we’re having to do technologically to adapt to these times: literally figuring out how people can edit, run graphics, and do monitoring from home.”

Check out all of SVG’s ‘MLB Returns’ coverage: