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TV-sports boom keeps trucks moving

Demand for mobile production units rises, but rates stay flat 12/02/2001 07:00:00 PM Eastern

Americans love television sports, and broadcast and cable providers are giving it to them in ever increasing amounts. That's good news for the mobile production companies that supply the trucks that help bring the events into homes around the globe. Companies like National Mobile Television (NMT), NEP Supershooters, SWTV Production Services and others report being busier than ever.

To meet this growing demand, mobile companies have begun rolling out a new generation of serial digital trucks, which they say they must do if they want to stay in business. Today's sports events are being produced in both standard- (SD) and high-definition (HD) digital video, even though the latter is costly and being used by only a handful of sports programmers.

Phoenix-based SWTV Production Services Inc. (a division of Core Digital Technologies) will introduce a truck in January that will be used by CBS for its HD college football games. SWTV owns and operates the HD truck that CBS is currently using as well.

"For a time, there was a shortage of digital trucks," says Larry Meyers, CEO of SWTV. "What we're seeing now is new digital trucks being brought on line to meet the demand."

In August, NMT, the largest mobile production company in the U.S., added a new 53-foot mobile digital production truck, DX11, to its fleet of 42 trucks in sizes from 40 to 53 feet. The New York-based company (with a sister division in the UK) produces more than 6,000 sports and entertainment events a year, including all of ABC's remote sports programming. It also does a considerable amount of work for Fox Sports.

Even the smaller production companies are putting new trucks on the road. Juntunen Mobile Television, based in Minneapolis, will roll out its third mobile truck in January. It produces live coverage of Minnesota Twins and Milwaukee Brewers Major League Baseball for Fox Sports Net, as well as all sporting events from the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin.

In addition to baseball, the company holds contracts with the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves and the NHL's Minnesota Wild. The new 53-foot-long digital truck will have Sony digital cameras and Fujinon lenses, including the XA87.93ESM lens for extreme closeups.

NEP Supershooters, headquartered in Pittsburgh, isn't introducing a truck anytime soon but continues to be busy with SD sports projects for ABC, CBS, NBC and ESPN. A company representative says it will meet sales projections this year, which will be "slightly higher" than 2000.

Making Ends Meet

Working with limited budgets, broadcast and cable sports producers continue to shop for the best price while trying to keep their "trademark" production values high. It has created a challenge for mobile-truck vendors to remain profitable while continuing to upgrade their fleets.

Jerry Gepner, president of NMT, says the cost of the DX11 truck was approximately $6 million, an almost 100% increase over what it would have cost 12 years ago. But the production rates the company charges its clients have not changed in that time.

"We're trying to raise prices, but it's hard in the current economy," explains Gepner. "Producers want an experienced crew with the latest digital gear, but they also want to pay as little as possible. It's a challenge to stay in business because the [profit] margins have dropped to virtually nothing."

Compounding the problem is that network sports divisions are pinching pennies in light of decreased ad dollars. Since the 1999 season, Fox Sports Television Group has contracted with Sportvision—the company that developed and operates the "1st & Ten" virtual first-down marker seen on ABC and ESPN telecasts—to have the system included in the two Fox football telecasts that are seen nationally every week.

At the end of September, however, Fox stopped using the effect (and stopped paying Sportvision, even though it had a contract for the entire season) because it cost $25,000 per game. After a media outcry and some negative fan reaction, the computer-generated effect was reinstated five weeks later when Fox got Intel Corp. to sponsor it.

"Necessity is the mother of invention, and we're fortunate that, in these trying economic times, we could find a sponsor to help return the '1st & Ten' line to NFL on Fox coverage," David Hill, chairman, Fox Sports Television Group, said at the time.

Meanwhile, Sportvision continues to invent new sport technologies, such as the "Virtual Caddy," used during golf coverage on CNBC and Pax, and the "RACEfx" in-car monitoring system for Fox, NBC and TNT. The networks have also experimented with new virtual sports technologies from Be Here Corp., Kewazinga and Princeton Video Image.

There is no denying that there are more sports on TV than ever. Yet, while the number of sports events each major sports outlet televised last year (about 300) has increased, the amount of equipment procured for each project has decreased. Cable sports producers are making do with less gear, especially at the regional level.

Phil Garvin, owner of two SD-only mobile production companies, Mountain Mobile Television and Lone Star Mobile Television, affirmed this trend. He says that he has been noticing that network sports departments are using fewer trucks and fewer pieces of equipment whenever possible.

"In the past, if a network was using two trucks to feed different regions of the country, it would use two completely separate crews and cameras," he says. "Now there's an effort by the networks to save money by only duplicating the things that distinguish one show from another."

For example, Garvin explains, a game might still have separate announcers for the home and away feeds, and one or two cameras could be dedicated to one telecast or the other. But everything else, production truck and crew, is now shared whenever possible.

"As long as the quality and integrity of the on-air broadcast is not compromised, saving money on redundant items makes sense," says NBC Sports spokesman Cameron Blanchard.

Going HD

Garvin is also co-founder (with entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban) and general manager of HDNet, a new HD sports and entertainment network that's currently available via DirecTV 16 hours a day.

HDNet is risking everything to make HD sports on TV commonplace. "Maybe we will be responsible for selling a few DTV sets along the way," Garvin says.

The company has two identical 40-foot HD trucks that include both the production gear (Snell & Wilcox HD switcher, Canon lenses, and Sony HDCAM cameras and decks, and the MAV-555 HD disk recorder for slow-motion) and an HD satellite uplink system to send games back to HDNet's broadcast center in Denver.

Next year, HDNet is committed to broadcasting 65 NHL games, 80 MLB games, 20 lacrosse games, 12 Ivy League basketball games and several USOC Olympic events in HD. Garvin says the goal is to produce up to five live HD sports events a week and 300 HD events total.

Although NMT has produced some sports events in HD with its two all-digital HD trucks, Gepner says his entertainment clients are starting to see the added value of acquiring in high resolution. NMT has done several Broadway shows and musical concerts in the 1080i HD format this year, with the event captured and later sold as a CD/ DVD at retail.

Gepner cites the cost of the HD gear as a reason that HD sports is not more in evidence. The difference between producing an SD and an HDTV event is almost a factor of two-to-one, he says, yet sports producers will not pay twice the rate to use his trucks.

"At this point, sports broadcasters have only one revenue stream [on-air advertising]," Gepner says. "The entertainment community potentially has several more, such as DVD, so there's more justification there for the use of HD production facilities."

He adds that many executives in the sports community are waiting for more digital TV sets to be sold before committing to more sports in HD.

Action Sports and Entertainment Mobile Television (ASEM), owned by entrepreneur Paul Allen, televises the Portland Trail Blazers and entertainment projects such as musical concerts in widescreen HDTV. The company introduced a new digital truck in July, built by Sony Electronics' Systems Integration Center.

ASEM has been contracted to do the Tournament of Roses parade in Pasadena, Calif., in January before heading to Salt Lake City in February for the Winter Olympic Games on NBC.

Dick Vardanega, vice president of broadcasting and production for the Portland Trail Blazers, the Oregon Arena Corp. and ASEM, also oversees the Trail Blazers' Post-Up Productions editing facilities located in Portland's Rose Garden arena. When the truck is busy on another project, the Post-Up facility is used for game coverage.

Vardanega says that HD is still "in the embryonic stage," but, like HDNet's Garvin, he feels it's critical to get HD programming out in the market in order to stimulate consumers to buy DTV sets.

"There are people like Paul Allen and [HDNet's] Mark Cuban that are really pushing the envelope and are not waiting until there's a clearly defined revenue stream from this," he says. "That is what it is going to take to get significant set penetration."

In addition to Actions Sports' own cable network, the HD games are seen over the air on NBC affiliate KGW-TV Portland, Ore. Vardanega says his company has made arrangements with two local sports bars to show the HD games there and hopes to increase that number next year.

Another major HD sports proponent is CBS. Thanks to sponsors Samsung and Sears, the network is in the process of televising its entire 2001-02 college football season in HDTV. It is using one set of announcers and seven Ikegami HL-790 multiformat cameras that output both an SD and an HD signal simultaneously.

A 53-foot digital truck from SWTV produces the SD show, which is converted to analog NTSC while a second unit handles the HD signal.

Cutting Cost

Mobile companies and the networks are looking at a number of ways to reduce on-site setup time and improve efficiency in an effort to save money. By using one crew for two shows, for example, CBS is saving on production costs.

"We're doing [HD production] not as an experiment but because we had a client that wanted to pay for it," says Ken Aagaard, CBS Sports VP of technology. "CBS is in the business to make money, not lose it. We're also in the business of figuring out how to get multiple revenue streams. [HD sports production] gives CBS some leverage that the other networks don't have right now."

HDNet's Garvin also is trying to keep the cost of HD production down. For coverage of NHL hockey, he has made an exclusive arrangement with Fox Sports Net to "piggyback" the Fox SD truck's audio, graphics, announcers and effects while adding five of his company's own cameras and HD replays.

"Mark Cuban and I agreed that, if I could bring the cost of HD production down dramatically and he was willing to risk a long-term investment, then we could make sports in HD a success. That's what we plan to do."

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