MLB Returns: RSNs Take Over World Feed for All MLB Broadcasts, Customize for In-Market Fans

Home RSNs will produce a feed to serve all MLB broadcasters this year

Fox Sports Kansas City is using two trucks for one crew in order to socially distance its crew for Royals productions.

It’s a whole new world for Major League Baseball broadcast operations this season: regional sports networks are taking the lead for live-game productions. To limit the number of people and facilities onsite, the league has opted to have the home-team RSN in each market produce a neutral/clean world feed of each game to distribute to the away-team RSN and, when necessary, the national broadcaster. At least for now, the days of two, three, and sometimes even four separate mobile units rolling in for a single game are on hold.

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. See below for an overview of the workflow and check out our in-depth stories on Fox Sports Regional Networks, NBC Sports Regional Networks, AT&T SportsNets, NESN, and MASN, with more to come next week.

How It Works: A Clean World-Feed Model

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

Under the model set up by the league, the home RSN’s production team is responsible for a producing a clean world-feed broadcast that presents a “50/50” (equal on-air–time), unbiased narrative of the game for both teams. This feed is delivered to the away RSN (and/or national broadcaster), which adds its own graphics, commentary, studio/shoulder content, and commercials. In addition to this clean feed, the away RSN is provided with one dedicated iso camera, which the director can weave in team-specific shots to help customize the telecast.

Nearly all RSNs are deploying their regular mobile units at the ballpark to produce these world feeds for home games. Many away RSNs are still using their truck at the venue, although several have opted to integrate their telecasts from control rooms in their studio.

The Announcers: Largely Located at the Ballpark, Some in the Studio

NESN’s Jerry Remy (left), Dennis Eckersley (center), and Dave O’Brien are calling Red Sox games remotely from the studio.

The majority of RSNs will position in-game announcers in the booth at the ballpark (albeit socially-distanced and sometimes is separate booths altogether) for home games. For calling away games, there is a more even split between the studio and the ballpark. Notably, NESN has opted to have its announcers call the action from the studio for both home and away games.

Away announcers will be tasked with calling games off-tube at their home ballpark or studio. The monitors feature a variety of live game feeds: program feed, “all-9” angle of the entire field, dedicated iso camera feed, and quad multiviewer feed (provided by MLB Network) showing various ballpark POV cams of the bullpens, the scoreboard, dugouts, and so on.

The Audio: Simulated Crowd Noise and Mics on Players

A Fox Sports Florida robo operator is located in the stands at Tropicana Field for a Tampa Bay Rays Summer Camp game.

The league has provided all teams with simulated crowd noise to play during games (derived from Sony Interactive Entertainment’s MLB The Show videogame), and RSNs have been given the option to incorporate this audio into the broadcast mix. However, at least to begin the season, the overwhelming majority of RSNs have opted to take the crowd noise as part of the nat sound from the ballpark rather than mix it directly into the telecast. CLICK HERE for more on MLB’s plans for simulated crowd noise.

With broadcasters looking to make up for fanless ballparks anyway they can, many are exploring miking and interacting with players during the game. Although this remains a case-by-case decision subject to MLB and MLBPA approval, most RSNs expect miked-up in-game interviews to play a major role in their coverage this season.

The Cameras: New Locations for Usual Gear, Robotics for Safety

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

While camera complements have remained largely the same overall, the bulk of the low positions have been moved farther from the field, quarantined with plexiglass to separate them from the players, or converted to unmanned robos.

In addition, the empty stands have provided broadcasters with more leeway in experimenting with new camera positions. By replacing some of the traditional low cameras with robotics, RSNs now can deploy those broadcast cameras with big lenses in other places throughout the field.

Many RSNs expect wireless RF cameras, typically focused on fans in the stands, to play a key role in providing a feel and ambiance for the ballpark without fans in the stands.

Virtual Signage: Home RSNs Get Boost With Virtual Advertising

The majority of MLB teams have opted to institute virtual advertising as part of the home RSN telecasts, although some have elected to use the real estate for physical ads. Unlike the NBA and NHL models, where both home and away teams will have virtual-advertising opportunities, only the home RSN has access to virtual-ad inventory for MLB games. This marks the first time that virtual signage is being used for regular-season, non-national MLB games.

For the most part, virtual-signage elements are being inserted into the broadcast downstream at the network operations center rather than onsite.

The In-Market Telecasts: Customizing for Home-Team Fans

Although all RSNs production execs SVG spoke with said that creating a high-quality world feed is their top priority, the networks are still looking to customize the telecasts presented to in-market fans when possible.

Inside the Fox Sports Arizona truck with (from left) Diamondbacks producer Jeff Gowen, director Brian Maas, and TD Joel Blosser.

NESN, in particular, is looking to differentiate its coverage by “Red Sox-izing” telecasts for fans in the New England market, producing a separate customized feedback at its studios in addition to creating the world feed from its mobile unit at Fenway Park.

Other networks are using the world feed primarily for in-market telecasts but are often adding fan-centric content, such as social-media chatter and prerecorded Zoom interviews with fans.

Safety Measures: Keeping Crew Safe In the Studio, in the Truck

The health and safety of the crew remains paramount across all regional sports networks. Each group has instituted strict safety protocols at its studios and has worked with mobile-facilities providers to create protocols for the truck and the compound.

In addition, the majority of truck-based RSN home productions are using a B unit or VMU (visitor mobile unit) even though the away RSN’s production team is not onsite. This is to allow the home RSN to socially distance its production team across two trucks. On the studio side, many editors and graphics crew continue to work remotely from home, and broadcasters have transformed their office facilities into secondary production areas to more easily spread out the staff.

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