NBA 2020 Tipoff: Turner Sports Opts for ‘At-Home’ Production Until MLK Day
Coverage during the four-week stretch will be generated from Techwood in Atlanta
Nearly 2½ months after the conclusion of the NBA bubble, another 72-game effort starts tonight with an NBA on TNT double feature: the Golden State Warriors against the Kevin Durant-led Brooklyn Nets and a Los Angeles-themed clash between the Clippers and Lakers. As the first broadcaster for the season, Turner Sports will set the tone with the first of nine consecutive remote productions until a tripleheader on Jan. 18.
“Right now, we are not going to be onsite at all before Martin Luther King Jr. Day,” says Chris Brown, VP, operations and technology, Turner Sports. “Our hope is that we will be able to minimize our onsite footprint onsite even after Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The goal for us is to continue to put safety first and at the forefront of all the decisions that we make.”
Nine-Game Gauntlet: From Multiple Control Rooms at a Packed Techwood
The decision may be a sign of the current times, but relying on fully remote productions for nine straight games, including five in the first week of the season, shows the confidence that Turner has in its system. The facility at Techwood will be buzzing with a crew slated to have a minimum of 35-50 staffers for any given game, but, in an era when COVID-19 is still a threat, multiple control rooms will be in use to enforce social distancing. Since these control rooms weren’t originally designed with additional space, Brown and the operations team will have to get creative with layout.
“We’ve asked our team to come up with very unconventional methods of placements for people,” he explains. “The COVID guidelines are very strict with respect to how many people are allowed in control rooms, and they’re not necessarily able to support this type of an environment. In a non-COVID world, we would staff some with four or five people, but now we can put only one or two people in there.”
To pull off this feat, the team is relying on other groups at Techwood to transform the traditional spaces into a full-fledged setup that would normally be housed in an onsite production truck. This includes production of a two-hour edition of NBA Tip-Off before the pair of games and Inside the NBA after the contest. The A team of Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal, and Kenny Smith will be back at their 28-ft.-long desk.
Although the crew will operate from Techwood, the announce team will be remotely calling the game from offsite locations. Similar to what other networks have done throughout the pandemic, on-air talent will use a mix of cloud-based technologies and video-conferencing applications to call the action. Marv Albert and Chris Weber will call the first matchup; Kevin Harlan and Reggie Miller will be behind the mic for the nightcap.
“We’ll have our announcers from their homes or from local studios to call our games,” says Brown. “We’re working closely with NEP to bring these announcers, the feeds that they need to see, and their cameras back into our studio.”
This guy is impressive! 3rd game in 3 days on 3 networks, and the first broadcast from… the basement! Haha my family always revolves around sports and TV, but having him upstairs for dinner then go downstairs for tip off was a new one! @Kevinharlan pic.twitter.com/dYdUqMGJcL
— Olivia Harlan Dekker (@OliviaDekker) December 16, 2020
Besides trusting in the plan, the team wants to exercise caution and use patience before making any decisions. After the first slate of games, Turner will have answers and solutions for the latter half of the 66-game regular season.
“We’re going to use Martin Luther King Jr. Day as an opportunity for us to step back and reassess where we’re at,” Brown points out. “We’ll be able to evaluate what our next steps will be but also take a look back at how successful we have or haven’t been with our productions.”
Extra Flavor: Five Isolated Cameras To Improve ‘Enhanced World Feed’
Onsite productions were the name of the game inside the NBA bubble in Orlando, but, with teams now playing in their home arenas, Turner Sports will resort to an “enhanced world feed” that fans became used to during the 2020 MLB regular season. In this production model, Turner will work alongside the local regional sports network to piece together an engaging broadcast. The RSN will provide neutral and more-generic shots of the floor, but, in each venue under Turner’s watch, the broadcaster will be placing and controlling five isolated cameras to improve the game.
“Two cameras will service our digital products and serve as back-channel records for our linear show as well as three additional cameras that our production team will get to control,” says Brown. “The main game camera will cover the game from a neutral standpoint. That will allow us to cut around our cameras safely and keep the world feed as a backup in case we get into a [tough] spot. Since we’ll be able to bring all of these camera feeds back to Techwood, our production team will be able to tell the stories they want to tell with the replays that they want to show.”
Although tonight’s doubleheader will be the first regular-season games where this method will be used, the team was able to experiment with two separate RSNs — NBC Sports Philadelphia for Celtics-76ers and NBC Sports California for Warriors-Kings — during two preseason games on Dec 15. These trial runs gave Brown and his staff a chance to get familiar with the workflow and find spots where the supplemental cameras can be deployed.
“There is still a lot to be worked out as we get better and everybody becomes more comfortable,” he adds. “It was a very different workflow for our production and technical teams, but we felt reasonably successful.”
These games will be produced with remote workflows, but a handful of tech managers and operators will be onsite to operate the designated cameras.
Bubble Novelties: Courtside Audio, Referee Cam To Return to the Spotlight
The bubble at the Wide World of Sports Complex hopefully will be a one-off, but Turner will be using a handful of production techniques that debuted in this unique setting.
At the top of the list, courtside audio will continue to be a staple for all linear broadcasts. The league and its partners were bullish and bold with microphone placement in the bubble, and Turner is looking to double down in the new season.
“We’ll have the ability to bring the sounds of the game a little bit closer,” says Brown. “You’re not going to hear only the shoe squeaks or the basketball going around the rim but also the voices of the players.”
Along with the authentic squeaks of sneakers and clattering of rims, NBA on TNT broadcasts will be augmented by fabricated crowd noise pumped through each venue’s sound system. Some teams will be playing with fans in the stands, but, when the seats are empty, this soundtrack will be heard on the linear broadcast.
Also making a comeback in the regular season will be the referee cam focused on the lead official and his announcements at the scorers’ table. In the bubble, it was necessary since not only did plexiglass dividers separate the official and others at the table but the broadcast team needed to hear the call from their positions up near the building’s rafters.
“It was one of the really big takeaways that we learned from the bubble,” says Brown. “It was definitely a compelling part of the story that we were trying to tell.”
Overall, Turner will look to capture the same excitement caught when cameras were able to get right up to the sideline. Without fans in the stands, the broadcaster will be able to play around with camera placement to bring stunning shots of the court to viewers at home.
“As long as arenas are not bringing fans into the building or sightlines for spectators aren’t an issue,” notes Brown, “we’re going to continue to work with the NBA to be aggressive with our cameras.”
Broadcasting Key: Turner Leans on Collaboration With League, Other Networks
The two preseason games in Philadelphia and Sacramento exemplify how the league and its broadcast partners will navigate the challenges of the upcoming season. Collaboration not only has become critical to the process but has also allowed constant improvement of a product that will hit the air every night from buildings across the country.
“We’re trying to present the game for the fans in a way that they like to consume it, and, for us to do that, we have to work closely with [the league] because guidelines vary from building to building and state to state,” Brown explains. “[For example], we’ll collaborate with TD Garden and the Boston Celtics for our next game, on Dec. 23. We’ll also talk with ESPN since they will be there on Christmas Day. All groups will be talking to each other to work through [any issues] and present the game the way that it needs to be presented and the way the fans deserve to see it.”
During the season in the bubble, communication was essential to broadcast survival. On the outside, the same mentality will mark the effort until another champion is crowned.
To learn more about Turner Sports’ preparations for the 2020-21 season, register at thesvgsummit.com to watch the “Inside the NBA 2020” panel.