As MLB returns to action, the sport’s broadcasters are continuing with a remote integration model (REMI) with plans to get back to the ballpark as the season progresses.
In this case, “Home Run” (in-house) productions of lead sportscasters Fox Sports and ESPN will continue largely as they were for the COVID-truncated 2020 season but with adjustments and enhancements that will see them become even more of a made-for-TV event.
Indeed, many of the core technical solutions introduced last July to resume games with skeleton on-site crew will likely remain in place beyond 2021.
“During COVID-19, broadcasters have had the opportunity to use technology in different ways and try new solutions,” Susan Stone, SVP of operations and engineering at MLB Network told TV Technology.
“Before, we would have dipped our toes into cloud-based technologies when we consider our content and programming. Today, however, we have many systems to engage fans.”
With restrictions on attending live events still in place, both ESPN and Fox Sports are keeping the Home Run workflow for early matches. A quarter of ESPN’s normal 100 crew, for example, will be travelling to venues. Instead of producing at the stadia, they will take the host feed from the regional network back to production hubs in Connecticut and LA respectively.
The regional feed is stripped of normal local team graphics/angles to become neutral and is augmented with a number of robotic PTZ cams (which require limited local crewing) and slo-motion cameras which do require a camera-op.
PTZs are one of the technologies that have proved their value during the pandemic. Robotic cameras have been able to simplify the creation of high-quality content with smaller crews and reduced production hardware requirements. As the world adopts a more virtual approach to production, PTZs enable activities which would normally take place in person to proceed virtually. Another plus is that they can be mounted on walls, ceilings, poles and many other crazy places. Since cabling can extend up to 100 meters quite easily, the sky is the limit.
MLB Network has 20 centerfield BallPark Cams at most stadia including in dugouts and another dozen in press rooms. It also connecting analysts and pundits working at home to the broadcast via PTZ cams using BitFire to adjust the feed to fluctuating internet bandwidth.
“It’s like a souped-up Zoom,” Stone said. “Plus, many of our talent have in-home technology, like PTZ cameras, that capture broadcast-quality video.”
This use of PTZs even extends to athletes, sometimes from a player’s car. “The result is obtaining additional content by presenting players in a different fashion,” Stone said. “And everyone is fair game if they have strong internet.”
A closer relationship between fans and teams/players is part of a wider development in sports termed “gamification.” These techniques are often plucked from the world of eSports on Amazon Twitch, designed to create deeper fan engagement which is becoming critical for broadcasters and franchises in the absence of game-day spectators.
Other innovations include SpeedCam, which was used last year on two MLB Network Showcase telecasts. An RF-connected Sony P1 attached to a Jib Tek tracking dolly with a G1 Shotover gimbal was mounted on the first base dugout to measure the time the batter took to reach first base. Ironically, the dearth of fans last year allowed for its unobtrusive introduction, TV Tech observes.
According to Stone, MLB Network is also toying with adding more virtual reality, with which it dabbled in during batting practice at the 2020 World Series.
Fox is promising to unleash the Megalodon which it trialled in a few NFL games last year. This is a hand-held DSLR Sony a7R IV with a Canon lens which wowed some fans with its “cinematic” view of the end zone. It could make an appearance at the All Star game which is now scheduled for July along with HDR in Fox Sports’ coverage.
As for last season’s artificial crowd noise, the initial 10–20% capacity crowds allowed back into stadia might suffice for ESPN to can the canned sounds. “The extra noise [from crowds] might become a sweetening thing this season,” Paul Horrell, remote operations manager for ESPN told TV Tech.
By the All-Star Game, the broadcast approach may change to permit more on-site workflow. A month later it may change up again for the Little League World Series.
“It’s interesting to me that it took a pandemic to show us what we could do, given the circumstances,” Horrell adds. “Through fiber and equipment—and pure will—we were able to keep sports fans engaged and keep sports content on the air.”
One highlight of the regular-season schedule will be the Field of Dreams game, which will be played in an Iowa cornfield on Aug. 12. That game, between the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees, was originally slated for last season.
“We’re very excited and think that is going to have something special for everyone,” Fox Sports VP, Field Operations and Engineering, Brad Cheney, tells SVG. “We’re pulling out the plans and dusting them off and will look at them with some fresh eyes. We’ve got a lot of great ideas.”