Live From Men’s Final Four: CBS Sports, WBD Sports Continue to Innovate With Big Show in Houston
A drone, two-headed RailCam, and a compound loaded with mobile unit firepower highlight at NRG Stadium
The NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four is an annual breeding ground for technology and sports broadcast innovation, and while that’s true again here in Houston in 2023, this year’s show is, seemingly more than ever, about the production’s people.
A last Final Four in the storied career of Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame play-by-play man Jim Nantz is also the first in the 40-year career of lead director Mark Grant. The long-standing relationships between the teams at CBS Sports and Warner Bros. Discovery Sports is also driving innovation in new and unique ways as a Final Four featuring three schools who have never been to this event before takes shape.
Among some of the key production and operations highlights here is the debut of a live drone flying inside NRG Stadium, the rollout of a new version of the RailCam system that sports two cameras instead of one, the move to Game Creek Video’s Encore mobile production unit as the main game truck, and a more comprehensive arsenal of super slow-mos and robotic camera systems.
“The [WBD Sports] team and our team at CBS, started really good, healthy discussions as early as September to talk about, not just the Final Four, but quite frankly all of March Madness,” says Jason Cohen, VP, Remote Technical Operations for CBS Sports. “It’s one giant event, as far as we’re concerned. So mapping out everything from mobile units for each round in each city to the technology that goes into each game – the number of cameras, super slow motions, EVSs, robotics, Steadicams, power providers, and so on – it’s all a part of the plan and we just transition to what we have here at the Final Four.”
There are north of 60 cameras inside NRG Stadium between the game production and studio shows. Many of those resources get shared by both sides. The game show has access to a whopping 16 super slow-motion cameras – including at standard hard camera and handheld positions, as well as on robos above the rims (4K, two-times cutout), ones shooting at 6x above the backboards, and on Pico cameras buried in the basket stanchion.
There are also three cameras in the arsenal shooting in shallow depth-of-field: A Steadicam (from AVS) carrying a Sony FX9, a Sony 4800 outfitted with a FUJINON 25-1000mm PL lens on a pedolly (from Chapman/Leonard Studio Equipment) at one of the corners of the court, and one of two cameras – a Sony P43 (shooting 6x) riding along on a new, two-headed RailCam.
More From Men’s Final Four: Double-Headed RailCam Debuts For CBS Sports, WBD Sports
Another star of the camera arsenal is a drone, which has been approved to fly inside NRG Stadium and capture live images for the broadcast. It marks the first time that a drone has been allowed to fly inside the stadium during Final Four and National Championship Games. Last year, then-Turner Sports was able to add a drone to its lineup in New Orleans but it was only permitted to fly outside the Caesars Superdome for exterior scenics.
More From Men’s Final Four: A Live Drone Flies Inside NRG Stadium For Game Coverage
The drone being used this year is a product of the CNN Aerial Imagery and Reporting (CNN AIR) division which if, of course, in the Warner Bros. Discovery family.
It’s a wide breadth of toys to play with the front bench which, this year, has a new face. Producer Mark Wolf will work alongside veteran director Mark Grant, who takes the reigns from the retired Bob Fishman, who directed the Final Four for CBS Sports (and Turner Sports) each year dating back to 1982 (the only year he missed was 1990 when he was undergoing cancer treatment).
More From Men’s Final Four: CBS Sports Director Mark Grant Gets His Shot In the Chair After 40+ Years In The Industry
For the operations team, it’s been a fun process enjoying a new creative take from the director’s chair.
“I think Mark did a tremendous job of embracing a lot of the architecture that was built by [former director] Bob Fishman and appreciating a lot of the foundation of what we’ve done that’s worked from a coverage perspective for a major event like this,” says Cohen. “While respecting all of that tradition, he was able to really, in a unique way, add some flair of his own and his own twist. There hasn’t been an idea that we’ve brought to him that he has been against. If anything, he’s been pushing us to push the envelope even more. Push the drone to different boundaries. What else can the RailCam do? What is great about [Mark] is that he’s not going to rest on the laurels of what something can do. He’s going to, like any great director should, turn to Chris and I and say, ‘what else can it do? Can we do this?’ I think the fruits of his creativity will be seen on air this weekend.”
One example of those contributions is that operations, per Grant’s request, put a Marshall camera that shoots a 220-degree wide image on top of the big jib. Neither Grant or operations are certain what its going to give them – if anything – but it was a no-risk gamble to maybe acquire an image that’s fresh and appealing.
Operations personnel from both sides of CBS and WBD have come together again to pull off a massive show. From CBS, EVP, Operations and Engineering Patty Power is leading the way alongside the engineering team of Mike Francis, Evelyn Jackson, and Jeff Millet, as well as the Remote Operations squad of Tom McShane, Jeff Korotkin, Lori Migliaro, Taj Lewis, Greg Frias, Phil Demaddalena, Jill Calandra, Allan Barnett, Marc Magnotta, Chad Granieri, and Anna Preston.
Also supporting the big production compound outside NRG Stadium is the Remote Technical Operations group of Jenna McKeon, DJ Driscoll, David Husney, Mike Aagaard, Brian Irizarry, and Kevin Manuel. Broadcast Operations stars Scott Davis, Alyssa Blake, George Dimotheris, and Chris Rahner, while Post Production is overseen by Ed Coleman. Health and Safety is managed by Rodney North.
Warnes Bros. Discovery Sports, meanwhile, has brought its top-flight behind-the-scenes talent of EVP and Chief Content Officer Craig Barry, Senior Director of Production Management Sarah Phillips, Director of Engineering Dan Nabors, Director of Technical Operations Lee Estroff, Production Manager Stephy Leon, Technical Operations Managers Jimmy Bligh and Jennifer Vanderbilt, Tech Manager Jordan Keen, and Crewing Manager Rich McClelland.
A big change in the compound this year is that the main game production on CBS will be anchored in Game Creek Video’s Encore A, B, and C units. Game Creek’s 79 – which served in that role last year – is still here and supporting ESPN’s International (“World Feed”) production. Cohen noted that some adjustments to the production plans at The Masters next weekend in Augusta allowed for some additional top-end trucks to be utilized here in Houston. Those trucks, teamed up with a collection of units from NEP Group – including WBD Sports’ brand new SS7, make for an absolutely loaded compound at this year’s Final Four.
“Out of the years that I’ve been doing [the Final Four], this year has felt like we have had the most robust firepower from a mobile unit perspective,” says Cohen.
Chris Brown, VP, Production Operations and Technology for WBD Sports agreed, adding, “I think that’s true for the entire event as a whole. The entire tournament.”
CBS Sports and Warner Bros. Discovery Sports will provide exclusive coverage of the 2023 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship from Houston, Texas. CBS will televise the NCAA Final Four National Semifinals on Saturday and the National Championship on Monday, April 3. Saturday’s Men’s Final Four features Florida Atlantic taking on San Diego State at 6:09 p.m. ET on CBS, followed by Connecticut vs. Miami approximately 40 minutes after the completion of the first game.