NBA Returns: Turner Sports Teams With League, ESPN on Made-for-TV Season

With REMI MLB effort at home, the broadcaster opts for onsite NBA production

As Turner Sports heads into week two of the continuation of the 2020 NBA season at Disney’s Wide World of Sports (WWos) facility in Orlando, Turner Sports EVP/Chief Content Officer Craig Barry is happy with the on-air product to date.

“I think it has been really solid and probably surpassed a lot of expectations as a made-for-TV event,” he says. “We’ve only done two national days, but it’s only going to continue to get better.”

The NBA, Turner, and ESPN have embraced the made-for-TV aspect of the production in a number of ways, he notes: “It comes through with the additional camera angles. And the audio comes through really well as there is a lot going on with the ambient PA; the DJ; court mics, of which are three or four times as many as usual; and the fan noise, which is driven in real time. It’s the best-case scenario under the circumstances.”

A massive, 28-ft. desk allows (from left) Shaquille O’Neal, Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, and Charles Barkley to maintain social distance.

The NBA, Turner Sports, and ESPN share a 200,000-sq.-ft. compound connected to three venues: The Arena, where the main nationally televised games are held as well as the conference finals and finals; the HP Field House, for the regular season and into the second round of playoffs; and Visa Athletic Center, which hosts games broadcast primarily by a regional sports network. More than 436 miles of fiber ties everything together.

In an unusual partnership, Barry says, the NBA and ESPN have collaborated on everything from camera locations to innovations around audio and presentation. Everybody was flexible and listened to ideas, and then extensive rehearsals helped get the production baseline audio mix to a good place.

“The philosophy is to have a good baseline mix before adding the announcers,” he says of the audio efforts. “And then there is the opportunity to take the audio streams independently and mix them up or down.”

A railcam captures NBA games from a unique angle.

Turner Sports is producing its games out of NEP Supershooter 8 at The Arena, NEP TS2 at the HP Field House, and M14 at the Visa Center. The A and B units are being deployed to allow greater social distancing, and the compound features six mobile-unit cover tents, two catering tents, two field-shop tents, and multiple cooling stations.

The tents are important because they can lower the temperature of the roof skin by 20 degrees.

“Tents would not make sense over a weekend,” explains Chris Brown, VP, operation and technology, Turner Sports, “but we will be at WWoS for three months, and that makes efficiency of AC super-important. Those are the types of things that everyone is being thoughtful about, like having extra pallets to get things off the ground in case of a hurricane.”

Turner Sports is keeping as much of the production onsite as possible, given that it is deploying REMI production for MLB coverage at the Turner Broadcasting Techwood campus in Atlanta.

Robotic cameras play a big role in NBA coverage at the Wide World of Sports in Orlando.

“The trickle-down effect would have impacted capacity in the TOC and then the studio and studio operations,” says Brown. “With baseball, we have no choice but to do REMI, and the potential collisions on a Sunday if NBA was REMI as well got us to have production teams in Orlando with trucks.”

One of the challenges in Orlando is observing COVID protocols and having dedicated personnel working in one of three zones: red, yellow, and green.

“The team that would put the mics in under the court had to have a chance to meet the team doing the crowd mixes and go over things at the court before the production team would go into quarantine,” says Brown. “And then, while the floor A2s were in quarantine, a different group would lay the cables. Once the court is declared a green zone, [personnel dedicated to] the yellow zone [are] no longer allowed on the court. So there is a lot of knowledge-sharing going on.”

The Turner Sports team is not only covering the game action but also working to make the most of the media availability of coaches and players. LTN and Make.TV have created a system where upwards of 50 robotic cameras and Zoom teleconferencing systems are used to deliver interviews to a cloud-based dashboard.

“From there,” says Brown, “we can route them to 12 decoders, and we can take them live, send them to an EVS replay server, or [make them] available as files for postproduction and delivery via NBA.com, the NBA app, or sound bites for the studio show.

“That’s one of the small things we’re pretty excited about,” he continues. “The NBA had three weeks to get it installed and configured. It was turning out content last week and adds to the storytelling.”

Preparations in Techwood

While the team in Orlando juggled different zones and courts, the team at Techwood was ramping up to ensure that studio infrastructure and operations were ready for Inside the NBA to return to the air. One of the most well-respected sports shows on the air, the show brings together Ernie Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, Kenny Smith, and Charles Barkley every Thursday for an entertaining and informative night of discussion and analysis.

Explains Barry, “We wanted to walk before we ran so the first thing was to get the studio infrastructure up and figure out how many people we could safely have onsite, how many control rooms would we need, and to make sure we had the right amount of distance to meet safety and health guidelines. The first four shows were done with the talent remotely, but, when we knew we could get the [talent] to come in for the show, we had to adhere to the guidelines not only for the company but for the guys.”

The first issue was one that every sports network is confronting when it comes to talent: how do you bring them together when social distancing tells them to be apart by at least 6 ft.? The answer was a massive desk 28 ft. across with 2 ft. of platform on each side for a total of 32 ft.

“Our in-house scenic shot built an extension for the regular desk,” says Barry. With 6 ft. of distance plus plexiglass, the talent has ample space to feel safe.

“Everyone handles a situation like this differently,” he notes. “Some are more sensitive to it than others, but we wanted to be safe for all the talent.”

Precautions in the studio include using robotic cameras as well as spreading the production team across multiple control rooms and having people like graphics operators working from home.

“I couldn’t be prouder of the team,” Brown says. “They put in a lot of work and spun this up fast as we had loosely planned it, and then it was greenlight go. Dan Nabors is new to our team as our remote operations engineering manager, and he has been working with ESPN and the NBA to get us where we are today. The health and safety team has done a monumental job getting one protocol to fit for two networks plus a league. It took all three entities rowing in the same direction.”

Producing Baseball as Well

The restart of the NBA season isn’t the only big effort Turner Sports has undertaken. As it was preparing for the NBA season, it was also gearing up for the return of Major League Baseball, and Brown describes the dual effort as divide and conquer.

“Baseball has a different model: it will be REMI, and we will use the smaller NEP Dakota trailer,” he explains. “It has conditioned power for the encoding and climate control to keep the racks at a reasonable temperature.”

Turner will get the camera signals and clean feed (plus a dirty feed for emergencies) from the RSN as well as two unilateral cameras.

“DTAGS is working with us on transmission,” says Brown, “and we have only seven people onsite: an A2, EIC, tech manager, two camera people, and an AD. We can produce a show that looks and feels like a TBS telecast with pictures and replays that mesh with what the announcers are talking about.”

With both the NBA and MLB seasons striving to stay on track amidst a pandemic, there is little that is truly under anyone’s control. But, for the Turner Sports team and many others getting back to the work of live sports production, plus the millions of viewers around the globe, it’s a chance to do something that feels normal.