NBA In-Season Tournament: League, ESPN, TNT Sports Team Up To Roll Out NBA Finals-esque Production for Semis, Championship
RailCam, SkyCam, drones, PylonCams, dual onsite studios are part of the show in Vegas
It isn’t often that the annual U.S. sports calendar gets a new tentpole event on par with a major championship, but that’s exactly what the NBA In-Season Tournament Semifinal and Championship games are shaping up to be this week in Las Vegas. With that in mind, the league, ESPN, and TNT Sports have combined their efforts to create productions that rival those of NBA Finals and NBA All-Star Game broadcasts.
“The competitiveness of these games has set the stage for everything we do,” says Paul Benedict, SVP, broadcast content management, NBA. “So, shout-out to the players, the coaches, the teams for bringing this to life. That has led us here to Vegas on the cusp of an awesome network crossover with WBD and ESPN that’s going to kick off the In-Season Tournament Semifinals in Vegas.”
In addition to the two networks’ side-by-side studio sets outside T-Mobile Arena, the game productions will feature numerous production technologies, including RailCam, Skycam, drones, and even PylonCams.
The Big Crossover: ESPN, TNT Collaborate in Front of, Behind the Camera
The action kicks off tonight during the semifinals with ESPN and TNT each airing one game and producing a studio show live from T-Mobile Arena. TNT’s Inside the NBA team will appear on ESPN’s NBA Countdown for an extended pregame segment, and ESPN’s crew will return the favor by appearing on TNT’s NBA Tip-Off later in the evening.
“We’re excited for what’s to come,” says Benedict. “The integrated studio segments, the talent crossovers, Reggie (Miller) and Doc (Rivers) flipping, and a host of enhanced elements and activations for Thursday will take us across an entire night of NBA basketball across TNT and ESPN.”
The networks’ studio sets are located in Toshiba Plaza, the goal being to put both shows in the middle of the fray outside the arena to help showcase the energy created by the fans in Vegas.
“That’s the true innovation: the collective integration,” says Craig Barry, EVP/chief content officer, TNT Sports. “The idea is having dual sets that are operating individually but are together at the same time; being able to jump from set to set; being able to share talent — with Reggie and Doc, specifically; and, I would say, a seamless experience regardless of whether you’re on ESPN or TNT. Hopefully, if it works the way it’s supposed to, you’ll float right from ESPN to TNT, and it will feel like a completely linear broadcast. For us, that’s the true innovation, that’s where we come together [to create] what’s best for the fan.”
TNT’s Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley, and Shaquille O’Neal will appear on ESPN’s NBA Countdown for an extended segment within the 4 p.m. ET pregame show. NBA Countdown’s host Malika Andrews, Stephen A. Smith, Michael Wilbon, Bob Myers, and Adrian Wojnarowski will appear on TNT’s Inside the NBA pregame show for an extended segment in the 7:30 p.m. telecast.
“I think the most interesting part, aside from the technology and all the innovative cameras [like the] RailCam, is the big-time personalities on the court and in the studios outside,” says David Roberts, head of event and studio production, ESPN. “When you have Charles Barkley, Shaq, Stephen A., Wilbon, Bob Myers, Kenny Smith, Ernie, Malika being able to interact, the curiosity factor is going to have a nice, appealing impact for the fans.”
Benedict adds that viewers can expect plenty of pomp and circumstance for the red-carpet coverage on Thursday and Saturday.
“We’re taking it to a new level in terms of what we’ve done in the past,” he says. “I don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s going to be very picturesque. We’ll have Richard Jefferson and Allie LaForce grabbing some players and celebrities for interviews, and that will be a great pregame element.”
Kitchen Sink of Cameras: RailCam, Skycam, Drones, PylonCams, and More
A RailCam will be used in an NBA game for the first time since the pandemic-related 2020 NBA Bubble in Orlando. Working with Fletcher (an NEP company), the league and its broadcasters were able to extend the ground-level system to run the entire length of the court.
“We didn’t quite have that [full-court length] in the Bubble,” notes Benedict. “This is going to provide some tremendous pictures and moments for [viewers].”
The NBA, ESPN, and TNT Sports worked closely with Fletcher to design a camera-system housing that was approved by both the league’s game-operations team and the NBAPA.
“A lot of people have to sign off on something that is right on the court like that,” explains Eddie Okuno, senior remote operations specialist, ESPN. “We all worked together to ensure it met the necessary standards. We also built a custom structure right behind it, where there is a full-court-length VIP section, as well as both the ESPN and TNT announce tables, and a spot for our center-court handheld camera.”
In addition to flying a Skycam as part of all three game productions at T-Mobile Arena, ESPN and TNT Sports will deploy drones both inside and outside the venue. ESPN has stationed a live outdoor drone on top of the Park MGM Las Vegas hotel similar to what the network deployed for coverage of the NHL All-Star Game at the arena in February. Both ESPN and Turner are deploying ENG drones to capture compelling content and B-roll that will be integrated into their respective broadcasts.
To capture extended foul-line angles, ESPN and TNT Sports have integrated a pair of new 1080p, 180-fps wireless PylonCams (provided by 3G Wireless) into the RailCam padding on each end of the court.
“It’s quite a large show, and we have a lot of shared resources,” notes Okuno. “There are plenty of new toys, and we’re looking to push the envelope. The main goal is to make it look different from any [NBA event] you’ve seen before. We have never been able to do anything like this at a neutral site during the regular season so we’re taking full advantage of the opportunity.”
The 39-camera shared complement includes a shallow–depth-of-field camera rig with a Sony Alpha 1 provided by AVS, as well as multiple Sony slo-mo systems and Fletcher robos. Three cameras — SkyCam, RailCam, and an outdoor drone — will be equipped for AR graphics.
“The volume of cameras is about the same as an NBA Finals,” says Okuno, “but we’ve reassigned some of the cameras to do different things. We have more coach and player microphones than we would typically have, so we have isolated cameras full-time on both coaches and multiple players. That’s the difference for this coverage: we’re trying to bring the game closer to the fans.”
Bunking Up in the Compound: ESPN, TNT Share the Tech Wealth
In addition to co-mingling on-air talent, ESPN and TNT Sports are sharing the production compound. NEP is providing Supershooter 24 for TNT’s game coverage and Supershooter 32 for Inside the NBA; Game Creek Video has rolled out its new Varsity mobile unit (fresh from its debut on ESPN’s brand-new college-football package) for game coverage and Apollo for ESPN’s NBA Countdown.
ESPN and TNT Sports are sharing numerous sources for their respective shows and worked together to install an additional fiber backbone to serve these needs. In addition, CP Communications is on hand to handle the ultra-complex RF frequency coordination, and Firehouse Productions is providing audio-coordination support.
For Chris Brown, VP, technical operations, TNT Sports, this week’s sprawling dual operation in Vegas would not have been possible if not for the chemistry and camaraderie developed among the NBA, TNT Sports, and ESPN teams in the 2020 NBA Bubble.
“I feel as though we were able to build a foundation and a solid roadmap during COVID,” he says. “Working through that primed all three parties to be able to tackle something like this so effortlessly. It allowed us an opportunity to refine the relationship and build something for production that does, in fact, take us to yet another level in the overall partnership. Just as in 2020, both networks are able to lean into our own styles of production while sharing the same space.”
Okuno seconds that sentiment: “We are picking up where we left off in Orlando but improving what we learned from the Bubble in terms of sharing and integrating resources to make the signal flow and video-format [exchange] more seamless.”
Adding to an already complex operation in Vegas is the fact that the Las Vegas Golden Knights had a home game on Dec. 4, leaving just 48 hours for setup for the semifinal games tonight. In addition, on Friday night, the venue is hosting a Nike high school basketball game, which is being broadcast by ESPNU. The game is being produced by an outside packager, which ESPN and TNT Sports are assisting to prevent disruption to the compound between Thursday and Saturday. To top it all off, following the Championship Game on Saturday, ESPN must be completely out of the building by 3 a.m. for a Knights home game on Monday night.
“It has been a real time-crunch,” says Okuno. “But we’ve been able to get it done, and a big reason has been our ability to share resources with one another. The cooperation and the teamwork with TNT Sports has been fantastic.”
Brown adds, “On the surface, it appears as if it’s a game-and-studio execution, but we know it means more than that to TNT Sports, ESPN, and the NBA. That it comes right in the middle of the first half of the season adds to the complexity, not only for Las Vegas but also as games were being decided as we approached Las Vegas. It’s just as it was advertised: a playoff at the beginning of the season.”