MLB Returns: NBC Sports Regional Networks Seeks Balance Between World Feed and Serving In-Market Fans

Teamwork and collaboration throughout the RSN ecosystem are essential

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.

Like all other RSNs this baseball season, NBC Sports Regional Networks (NBCSRN) is looking to find the right balance between delivering a world feed for MLB’s broadcast partners and serving hometown fans in the teams’ respective markets.

“The trick of a world feed is protecting that world feed at all costs to make sure you’re not putting the people that don’t have their hands on the controls at a disadvantage, but still delivering to your audience the show that they expect,” says Jon Slobotkin, SVP, content and live programming, NBCSRN. “And that can be incredibly tricky.”

NBC Sports Chicago’s truck will produce the world feed for White Sox home games at Guaranteed Rate Field. Photo: Greg Bowman, NBC Sports Chicago

To achieve both goals — the world feed and the in-market telecast — Slobotkin believes, the entire RSN ecosystem will have to work together and collaborate as a unit.

“For me,” he explains, “the most important piece to making these telecasts a success is [maintaining] the delicate balance of the RSN production ecosystem. One of the hallmarks of an RSN production is immersing your fans in a world dedicated to their team. While that is absolutely still what we intend to do, the method by which we do it now depends on an outside entity: another network. Thankfully, there has been a genuine spirit of cooperation between all the RSN [groups] over the past several months that I think has paved the way for us all to succeed.”

NBCSRN Teams Lean on Trucks, Announcers at the Ballpark

For the most part, NBCSRN is producing world feeds for its teams’ home games using the usual mobile units at the ballpark. Announcers are also located primarily at the ballpark, calling the action from socially distanced booth positions for both home and away games.

Slobotkin says NBCSRN crews have expanded outside of the primary mobile unit to ensure social distancing. In some cases, mobile-unit vendors NEP and Game Creek have provided B units, and other RSNs have deployed personnel in ancillary areas around the ballpark (depending on layout and configuration).

In addition to producing home games from the truck at the ballpark, during the course of the 30-game road season, NBC’s RSNs will also experiment with integrating feeds in its control rooms.

“We want to test that from a health and safety standpoint, to see how we can [use] nontraditional areas in our own facilities to serve as production locations,” says Slobotkin. “At this time of exploration, we are trying to find new and different ways to do everything.”

Getting Creative With Cameras

NBC Sports Chicago’s team reporter location at Guaranteed Rate Field. Photo: Greg Bowman, NBC Sports Chicago

With no crowds in the stands, the RSNs are deploying cameras in locations not usually available, creating new angles for viewers watching at home. In addition, since several low-angle cameras have been converted from manned to robotic positions to ensure player safety, production teams suddenly find themselves with extra broadcast cameras to deploy in these new locations.

“Replacing some of the traditional low cameras with robotics has given us the opportunity to deploy those big cameras in other places,” says Slobotkin. “We are actually enhancing the world feed with some different angles that we haven’t had before. So that has been exciting, and it has given our directors a chance to see some things from different points of view. It has been an opportunity that we’ve embraced and have taken advantage of, and we’ve been very happy with some of the different angles we’ve seen so far.”

Bringing in the Fan Element With Video Clips and Social Media

While fans won’t be in attendance at the ballpark, NBC has made integrating its fanbases into MLB telecasts a top priority this season, with two major initiatives out of the gate.

First will be a series of fan videos prerecorded via Zoom and other video-conferencing platforms that showcase fan excitement and will have such themes as “Welcome back, baseball” and “Thank you to our first responders and frontline workers.”

“We’ve asked fans to join us in groups to record videos of them reacting to exciting moments,” says Slobotkin. “There will be opportunities to use those clips not only as bumpers and to dress up the telecast but also for replay sequences and pump-up sequences. All of our RSNs have been working feverishly to connect with our fans to create those pieces. We’re going with some prerecorded elements first, but we have intention to bring in live opportunities that will mimic in a live environment what we’re doing in prerecord.”

Second, NBCSRN production teams will integrate more social-media content into telecasts than ever before, in an effort to better incorporate fans’ voices in the telecast during big moments.

“We’re excited to bring the fans into the game,” says Slobotkin. “Even though they can’t physically be there, we want to make sure they feel like they’re part of the experience.”

Beyond the Telecast: Ramping Up Digital Content, New Studios Galore

Says Slobotkin, “When live games stopped, our content did not.”

Since the pandemic shut down live sports in mid March, the NBCSRN digital-content team has been continuing to create and distribute content 24/7 through NBC Sports’ websites, the MyTeams by NBC Sports app, and social-media channels.

“While you can replace linear programming with prerecorded content, classic games that people love, and simulated videogames — and we did that all really creatively — you can’t do that for digital. So we completely immersed ourselves in creating new and different kinds of content. That gave us a good sense of what we’re capable of. If we can be connected to our audience at a time when there are no live games by being creative and listening to the things that are on their minds, we are so incredibly excited to be able to do that in an environment with live games coming back.”

In addition to the digital effort, NBCSRN has seen total transformation in its studios with faculties launching over the past year in Philadelphia, the Bay Area, and, just last week, Chicago. “Having those facilities at our disposal will also extend the fan experience well beyond the game,” says Slobotkin.

Odds and Ends: Crowd Noise, Virtual Signage, Miking Players, New Studios

Slobotkin on the simulated crowd noise being played out in ballparks: “We’re continuing to experiment, and we’ve discussed options of putting it into the

mix vs. just using it as nat sound. I do think that is helpful to have it, though, because no audio is conspicuous by its absence.”

On miking players in-game: “We will absolutely look to put mics on players when the opportunity presents itself to bring a different dimension to the telecast. That said, we will not prioritize it over the quality of the overall production or our other responsibilities.”

On virtual signage: “The majority of our clubs are using virtual signage, which will be interesting. We’ve worked with Major League Baseball and our clubs to come up with the right workflow, and it is still being tweaked. It will be a first for regular-season, non-national games, so we’re looking forward to seeing how it works out and see it as an opportunity.”

On getting crews back to work on live sports: “I can’t tell you how much I admire the people that have gone back to work, getting out there and doing it, and, with great effort, they’re making it look effortless. The people that we deploy to produce our live coverage are the best at what they do. Despite the circumstances, they have come in with total professionalism, zest, and intellectual curiosity to make things the best they can be. It has genuinely been heartwarming, and I’ve been so impressed and incredibly grateful.”

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