Careful Planning Is Key To Restarting Sports And Keeping Crews Safe

As live sports broadcasts resume in the U.S., the industry is grappling with how to keep its crews safe by following strict COVID-19 guidelines—established by the U.S. government and the industry itself—while maintaining the high production quality viewers expect. Safety precautions now being employed include keeping onsite crews to a minimum and sanitizing trucks before and after events.

This has added extra layers of preproduction planning time but everyone feels it’s the best way to keep crews protected.

On the positive side, it turns out that the industry’s continued migration to IP infrastructures and cloud-based delivery has paid big benefits, enabling social distancing and minimal crews to perform their traditional duties from a separate B unit on site or remotely from their home or studio facility.

Finding The Right Balance

Many are also looking to find the right balance between delivering a world feed for MLB’s broadcast partners and serving hometown fans in the teams’ respective markets. For example, in an effort to reduce production crew and facilities onsite for safety during the 2020 season, regional Major League Baseball (MLB) sports networks have been producing a neutral world feed for all MLB teams home games to be distributed to the away-team RSNs and national broadcasters.

For the most part, NBC’s regional sports networks is producing world feeds for its teams’ home games using the usual mobile units at the ballpark. Announcers will be located primarily at the ballpark, calling the action from socially distanced booth positions for both home and away games. To do this safely, crews have expanded outside of the primary mobile unit to ensure social distancing. In some cases, mobile-unit vendors like NEP and Game Creek have provided B units, and other RSNs have deployed personnel in ancillary areas around the ballpark (depending on layout and configuration). In addition to producing home games from the truck at the ballpark, during the course of the 30-game road season, NBC’s RSNs will also experiment with integrating feeds in its control rooms.

During coverage of a NASCAR race in May Fox Sports was successful in keeping its crews socially distanced and learned a few lessons it is now using throughout the 2020 season for all sports coverage.

During coverage of a NASCAR race in May Fox Sports was successful in keeping its crews socially distanced and learned a few lessons it is now using throughout the 2020 season for all sports coverage.

Keeping A Clean Working Environment

Game Creek Video completely sanitized all of its trucks several times since March, ensuring a safe work environment for its crews, according to Pat Sullivan, President of Game Creek Video. His company recently produced 15 games over a weekend for clients like the NESN, YES, and SNY network.

“It’s certainly been an interesting challenge to get back into baseball,” he said. “We’re not following teams around like we used to. Basically we’re keeping one truck parked at the home stadium for the entire season. We have enough trucks to do that. Those trucks are purpose built for those clients. There’s a lot of preplanning that needs to occur. There’s many steps you have to take before you can enter the compound. The compound has become a bubble itself and they are highly restricted and no one gets in unless they are a vital part of the production.”

Getting the industry to comply with safety regulations has significantly extended the time it takes to prepare and deploy mobile production trucks; as much as five times longer than it took previous to the pandemic, according to Mike Davies vice president, Technical and Field Operations for Fox Sports.

Speaking at an online gathering of sports production professionals during a Sports Video Group (SVG) webinar, Davies said that it now takes five-ten times longer to plan an event than it did last year. Even for smaller sized shows.

“You have to plan figuring out protocols, hotels, and all of the rest of it,” Davies said. “In a time of COVID, it all becomes much more difficult to do. It’s a massive amount of management and work, both on the logistical side and also on the management side.”

COVID Operations Guide

Taking input from some 80 sports production professionals, The Sports Video Group has put together a COVID-19 Operations Guide to help the industry figure out which protocols to put into place. In the area of Personnel Management, the guide suggests contacting the league/team/federation/organizer to discover any limits to the number of personnel allowed onsite. This also applies to off-venue studio locations, etc.

“Evaluate the size of the production (cameras, replay, support personnel).  Evaluate whether it is possible for people to work on the show from remote locations,” it reads.

At Dome Productions, in Canada, they consider all of their trucks to be a bubble into itself. They cover the NBA Raptors and MLB Blue Jays teams and will help support the NHL’s hub city of Toronto when the professional ice hockey season resumes later this year.

Working In A Bubble

“No unauthorized person goes into or out of that bubble unless it’s critically important to the success of the production,” said Mary Ellen Carlyle, senior vice president and general manager, Dome Productions. “The biggest thing that we found is that when someone brings a piece of equipment on site and making sure that is it has been thoroughly cleaned. As well as getting all of the equipment cleaned after a production to get it ready for the next job.”

She said production teams have to have a plan before they go into any production. There’s a lot of factors to consider.

“We had a lot of meetings and put as much into the truck so that we don’t have to do it on site,” she said. “We also had zoom calls with the crew to figure out exactly where they would be during the production. I don’t we have it all figured out right now, but I have enough trucks that I can support the events we need to on a daily basis. If we move a truck from one event to another, how do we clean it properly and make sure the crew is safe? That’s still a big question mark.”

Like all of its production trucks, TNDV’s “Lucie” gets sanitized each night and the air systems all have new hardware to ensure a safe working environment.

Like all of its production trucks, TNDV’s “Lucie” gets sanitized each night and the air systems all have new hardware to ensure a safe working environment.

A Time Of Creativity

Yet, it’s not all gloom and doom within the industry when it comes to the pandemic. Fox Sports’ Davies said “If you love doing TV and coming up with different and creative solutions, this is really your time to shine. The standard playbook’s been thrown out.”

Nic Dugger, vice president of Mobile Production at the Live Mobile Group, agrees that this has become the age of technical creativity in mobile production.

“We ask ourselves every day, ‘how can we do this? How can we get competitive events to the fans?,” he said. “How can we keep our crew and our client safe? How can we continue to produce Emmy winning television without putting our teams at risk?’ There’s lots of brainstorming, lots of conversations, but unfortunately very few solutions.”

Dugger said REMI/At-home style production is going to become more prevalent in the months ahead.

“Even universities are implementing this style of sports productions into their course work,” he said. “All EVS style replays will be done REMI style at Middle Tennessee State University this season. The reply operators will stay inside, not in the truck on the other side of campus. If colleges are training students for this model, it is clearly going to remain a big part of our life.”

Live Mobile Group has added plexiglass dividers in all of its trucks and hand sanitizer stations have been mounted on the walls. All crew are in masks all day. Each truck gets sanitized each night, and the air systems all have new hardware added to ensure safe working environments.

“We have also had an uptick on bookings for the larger trucks, not for their expanded capabilities, but for the additional seating and room to socially distance our crew,” he said.

It’s hard to socially distance inside a TV production truck but many are figuring out ways to minimize the on-site crew and keep people safe.

It’s hard to socially distance inside a TV production truck but many are figuring out ways to minimize the on-site crew and keep people safe.

Remote Operators Reduce Crew

Both Game Creek’s Sullivan and Fox Sports’ Davies said they will limit crews by making extensive use of EVS and graphics operators working off site. Sullivan said his company is trying to reduce movement of trucks, reduce airline travel and keep crews on the truck to a minimum; although even he admits it’s nearly impossible to socially distance inside mobile production truck.

“There’s no one size fits all solution for COVID,” Fox’s Davies said. “Crews can only be minimized to a certain extent. We could locate crew members in an extra B unit or in another location altogether, but many of our larger shows, like the NFL, will continue to have the same amount of technology they used before. We’re just adding new elements like pumping in crowd noise and generating augmented reality graphics to replace the lack of audience members in the stadium or arena.

We’re In This Together

“It’s important to realize that despite all of this great technology, we still have a lot of talented people involved,” he said, adding that a NASCAR race produced in May by Fox Sports with a Game Creek truck was highly successful in its ability to keep the crews socially distanced while still enabling them to do their job. Lessons learned then are being employed today.

“The skill sets of what you need to do to produce a successful broadcast have not changed,” Davies said. “A good EVS operator is as necessary now as they have always been. Same thing with graphics. However, we don’t put technology over our people. It’s a lot of a DIY [to make a production happen during the pandemic], but all told, it’s a massive amount of management and work, both on the logistical side and also on the management side to do it properly.”

“Each and every staff member is contributing to the preparation and execution of our shows like never before,” Live Mobile Group's Dugger said. “Every project is being vetted for safety and health opportunities like never before. We don’t want to put any of our staff, or any of our crew in a situation that could result in an illness. We are all essential.”

At this point no one knows what the “new normal” will look like, but everyone interviewed for this article expressed a sense of hope that conditions will improve once a vaccine is found for COVID-19. One thing is clear: it’s good to be back producing live television.

“This is a time for cleaning and for training,” Dugger said. “It’s also a time to support one another and be very thankful for the opportunities we do have.”

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