NESN Keeps Its Eye on the 4K HDR Ball With Launch of New Studio
The 4K HDR-ready studio launches ahead of 4K HDR Red Sox game productions in 2021
When the Red Sox throw out the first pitch of their 2021 home opener, NESN will become the first regional sports network in the country to produce an entire season of home games in 4K HDR. In preparation for this technological leap, the New England-based RSN has launched a new 4K HDR-capable studio at its headquarters in Watertown, MA.
“In addition to wanting to upgrade the technology and overall look, the main impetus though for redoing the studio was the redesign of the network and launch of a new logo in October 2019 before the Bruins season,” says Rick Booth, director of creative services, NESN. “And the studio was really the only thing that remained that was a holdover from our previous logo and look. It was also eight years old and it felt a bit out of date because it didn’t have the same look feel of our overall aesthetic that was launched with the new logo. So we felt the time was right.”
Inside the Studio: A Flexible Setup to Go With a Modern Look
The 360-degree customizable “Studio A” space was designed in partnership with brand experience agency Jack Morton Worldwide (JMW), which managed the project. NESN also tapped AV Design Services (AVDS) for technology, New York City Lights for lighting, and Propmasters for scenic fabrication and installation.
The studio, which debuted on Jan. 14 during NESN’s Bruins pre-game show Bruins Face-Off Live ahead of Bruins’ season opener, includes six LED monitors, two of which are 20’x7’ and 14’x7’and span the width of the space on opposite ends. On one end is a straight 1.56mm LED wall manufactured by DesignLED and used primarily for interviews. On the opposite end, a curved LED wall (also 1.56mm and manufactured by DesignLED) serves as the main anchor wall. The studio also features robotic cameras throughout and a manned jib.
“We wanted to utilize technology as opposed to manpower in this new space, which is why there is so much LED,” says Booth. “In the past we’ve had a lot of hard set elements and props that we had to transition in and out of the space. We had a green monster wall for red sox and we had these Bruins lockers that had to be trucked in and out, which required manpower and time to transition. So we wanted to utilize this LED technology to replace that wherever possible.”
Aesthetically, the new studio aims to blend technology with real-world materials like steel, brick, and wood to create a more sleek and modern environment with layered integrations of the NESN logo.
“We’re going for this feeling of a modern industrial loft,” says Booth. “We definitely wanted to use those natural elements and textures like steel, brick and wood, so we could keep it from feeling cold and sterile.”
With studio shows for both the Bruins and Red Sox originating out of one studio, NESN was also looking to create a more flexible facility than it had previously. With the MLB and NHL seasons overlapping for longer than usual in 2020, NESN needed to ensure they could quickly transition between looks (NESN also uses its existing Studio B when Bruins and Sox conflict)
“Flexibility and variety was a big thing that we were going for with this studio,” says Booth. “We wanted to be able to be able to transition between our Bruins and red Sox products and create a real custom look for both of our pro teams. We also needed more of a 360 degree environment so that it didn’t just block us in to a few shots. We really wanted to take advantage of the entire space and be able to shoot a lot of angles and create a lot more depth.”
NESN VP of production and programming Rick Jaffe adds that the flexibility offered by the new studio’s design will allow NESN to evolve positions and elements in its programming. For example, NESN is looking to use the area in front of the curved monitors as a live demo area at some point.
“There are primary spots that we’ve set up for various show parts, but really nothing’s tied down so it really allows us to move around,” says Jaffe. “The desk moves, the monitors slide along the trusses and rails, so we really have a lot of options that we can shoot.”
And with sports betting legalization likely on the horizon in Massachusetts, NESN has added a sportsbook area consisting of two monitors that take in real-time data.
“We were planning all of this with the anticipation of betting already being legal here because most people thought it would be at this point,” says Jaffe. “It didn’t, but we know it’s coming and we will be ready.”
The Development: Navigating Challenges Amidst the Pandemic
NESN began the design and renovation plans on the 50’x50’ space in early 2020 to set the network up for a fully re-designed studio in 2021. While the pandemic complicated the development process it also gave NESN a chance to utilize the space during the sports shutdown of 2020.
“The pandemic gave us the opportunity – without pro product on the air – to be able to completely demo our existing space,” says Booth. “It gave us the time to evaluate what the installation and implementation of all the new technology would look like.”
However, while the pandemic made the studio more accessible, it also dramatically complicated just about every other aspect of the development process. By the time the project was fully green-lighted NESN and JMW had just three months to complete project so that it would be included in the 2020 budget. In addition, the pandemic cause major issues in the global supply chain for broadcast and studio-production equipment like the LED boards.
“We knew that would be very tough to do in three months so we were scrambling, but all the companies that we dealt with came through for us,” says Jaffe. “There were days where we didn’t think we were going to make it, but everything came together in the end.”
Booth adds: “The vendors that we worked with are some of the best companies out there. So being able to work with them and having their expertise was huge because we had to get it right the first time considering the short timeline that we had.”
4K HDR on The Horizon: Tech Upgrades in Watertown and at Fenway
In addition to the physical re-design, NESN recently upgraded its Master Control and transitioned its satellite distribution platform to high-performance hybrid fiber in preparation for shooting, producing, and distributing 4K HDR quality video.
While the studio is 4K HDR-capable already, shows will start being produced in 4K HDR when NESN starts producing Red Sox games in 4K HDR. On the back end, NESN’s Watertown facility is currently a mixture of old 1080i and new (1080p and UHD/HDR with the facility running on 2SI (two-sample interleave) Quad-Link HD-SDI and IP.
While Toronto Blue Jays home games have gotten the 4K-production treatment since 2017 courtesy of Rogers Sportsnet and Dome Productions, this marks the first time a U.S.-based RSN will produce a full slate of one of its team’s games in 4K HDR.
“We’re working with [our mobile unit provider] Game Creek Video right now to figure out the logistics for the Red Sox [4K HDR] shows,” says Jaffe. “They have already started upgrading their truck for us and we’ll know more in the coming weeks. We’ll be ready and we’re very excited to be the first.”
The Reaction: Kudos from Viewers, Management, and Talent
Jaffe says the response to the new studio from viewers, management, and the on-air talent has been overwhelmingly positive across the board.
It’s been great because it just looks so modern and we’ve gotten very favorable reaction to it,” he says. “So many people were involved with this from across the company – from engineering, creative services, sales, operations, it literally touched every department. It wasn’t just our group, it was the entire company coming together to make this happen. There was really no group within our company that wasn’t touched by this and I think in return they take a lot of pride in it.”