SBJ/November 13 - 19, 2006/This Weeks News

NHL’s Shannon takes his broadcast manifesto to the markets

Snow surrounded the Toronto home of John Shannon on a night in February 2005, an ideal evening to stay in and watch a hockey game on television. But hockey hadn’t been played in months, and the NHL was instead at the midpoint of a 10-month lockout. Yet there was Shannon, sitting in front of his computer late one night, pounding out ideas on the keyboard for how to make the game more appealing on TV.

“What we are doing over these
next few seasons is re-building
the foundation of NHL broadcasts.”
John Shannon, from his manifesto
to improve the NHL on TV

For two hours the executive producer of Toronto Maple Leafs TV let his thoughts flow.

The end result: The beginning of a 15-page manifesto that outlines ways to grow hockey on television.

Finished in April 2005, copies of the document were sent to fellow broadcasters, team general managers and the NHL league office. Less than a year later, Shannon was named the NHL’s senior vice president of broadcasting, hired in large part to freshen up the sport’s TV product and, in turn, improve its dismal ratings.

And his mission statement from those 2005 hockey-less days became the cornerstone for accomplishing that. It began simply.

“As with the on-ice product, there is a perception that the growth of the game on television has been stunted over the past few years. Whether true or not, the one reality is that television remains as ‘the constant’ messenger of our game to the fans in thirty cities and beyond. It is imperative, in both Canada and the United States, that improving the game is perceived as a priority, at every level of television.”

“We’d lost a lot of our common sense in covering the game under layers of technology and bureaucracy,” Shannon said recently from his office in New York. “If you tore those layers off, you could see the puck better and know the players. We were victims of our own success and needed to get back to basics.”

Shannon hopes to achieve that by working more closely with regional and national broadcasters.

Last season, fresh off the lockout, the NHL proved the strength of its live product by setting an attendance record with more than 20.8 million fans. But it struggled on television, where it has long been criticized for being too difficult for casual viewers to follow. In its first season covering the league, OLN (now Versus) averaged a 0.19 Nielsen rating (117,857 households) over 52 telecasts, making it one of the lowest-rated national sports properties on television.

In a move widely praised among broadcasters and hockey insiders, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman reached out to Shannon and hired him as part of an effort to improve those numbers. With 30 years of broadcasting experience, including time as senior vice president for the much-admired “Hockey Night in Canada,” Shannon is respected as someone with the necessary hockey and broadcast knowledge to make a difference.

Regarded as a passionate innovator and credited with placing cameras behind the glass to secure low-angle shots, Shannon joins a league known for its history of broadcast innovations. The NHL was one of the first leagues to add interviews at intermission, and it undertook an enormous risk when it agreed to Fox’s glowing puck in the 1990s. But other requests to make the game more TV friendly were often swatted away at the team level, giving the league a reputation among broadcasters as difficult to work with.

“Neanderthal is the right word,” said Ralph Mellanby, a sports television producer for more than 50 years. “Unlike the Olympics, it’s very difficult to get through to (the NHL and its teams) that the game is not sacrosanct.”

Shannon will have to overcome that perception. Regional and national broadcasters believe he can because of his willingness to challenge the status quo.

“John is not a quiet guy,” Mellanby said. “He’s not going to be a ‘yes’ man, and they don’t like guys like that. He’s going to want things done and want things accomplished. That’s why (the league) picked the right guy, finally, because he’s going to be fighting for a huge upgrade in television.”

“What we are doing over these next few seasons is re-building the foundation of NHL broadcasts.”

When NHL rights holders gathered in Montreal in July for a meeting with the league to discuss the 2006-07 season, many anticipated the focus would be on logistical issues. That’s what they’d been about in the past, with discussions ranging from parking to power to lighting at arenas, said Bryan Cooper, executive producer for Philadelphia Flyers’ television.

“But John almost entirely set aside those issues,” Cooper said, “and what really came to the forefront were new ideas for content enhancement that were more about selling the players and the sport itself.”

Shannon outlined a series of initiatives in a business plan that incorporated aspects of his initial manifesto. The plan included more uniform camera positions, an instructional program for cameramen and the creation of a film library of player features.

The goal of each was the same as his mission statement started that snowy night in Toronto: To create a more uniform broadcast supported by storytelling.

“We needed to be a proactive group instead of reactive,” said Shannon, 50. “We wanted to be in the marketplace with all the locals and the networks, teaching them and raising the bar for production.”

One of the first steps to achieving that, Shannon hoped, was offering broadcasters extra time out of commercials. In Montreal, he announced that the league would give broadcasters an additional 30 seconds at commercial breaks and two minutes at intermission. The catch? Broadcasters had to use it for storytelling elements, such as an analysis of a play or a mention of a player’s personal interests. Sponsored items like the “Pepsi Power Play of the Game” are allowed, but only “if they tell a story,” Shannon said. The league office monitors the use of the time and storytelling opportunities.

National games had operated that way since February, before Shannon’s arrival. But his announcement made the system uniform across national and regional broadcasts.

It was something broadcasters had fought for years to get, according to Joel Darling, executive producer of “Hockey Night in Canada.” “To know that it came out of the broadcasting department and it’s not a fight we have to fight is great,” he said.

“This brings me to mention that an investment in a feature library is key.”

Anticipating that networks might be concerned about filling an additional two minutes at intermission, Shannon offered a solution. The league’s broadcasting department had compiled 70 two-minute player-profile segments that would be available to networks for free.

The features were part of the league’s broader marketing effort to raise the awareness of individual players. According to Marketing Evaluations Inc., the current player with the highest Q Score awareness ranking is Steve Yzerman of the Detroit Red Wings. His 32 percent awareness level in a 2006 study falls far short of basketball’s Shaquille O’Neal (89 percent), baseball’s Ken Griffey Jr. (83 percent) and football’s Brett Favre (79 percent), who top their respective sports.

The profiles are aimed to change that by showing players out of uniform, talking about their passions off the ice. Producing such segments would cost a network $4,000 to $5,000 each, said Mike Baker, a coordinating producer with Versus, and it would be difficult for a local broadcaster such as Altitude Sports & Entertainment in Colorado to profile players outside their market.

Now, instead of seeing the Boston Bruins’ Tim Thomas as strictly a goaltender, viewers could learn he’s a bow hunter who once got stuck in a tree above a bear. “For me as a producer, it’s a fabulous resource to allow people to cheer for these players as people and say, ‘That’s the hunter guy. I like him,’” Baker said.

So far, 18 of the features have been used by multiple rights holders — most of whom have been pleased with the content.

“Not to quote MasterCard,” said Doug Sellars, senior vice president of production for Fox Sports Net, “but they’re priceless.”

Making hockey TV friendly
More uniform camera positions
An instructional program for
cameramen
Extra time out of commercials and at intermission for player features
A film library of player features

“It cannot be emphasized enough that we must guarantee rights holders the best camera and broadcast locations the building will allow.”

Shannon also shared with broadcasters that the league would be suggesting a standard location and film angle at every arena for the central camera — known as the game camera because it follows every play and provides a feed to both home and away regional broadcasters.

Currently, those camera positions vary in each arena. Shannon and the broadcast department developed a physical number for how high up and how far back the camera should be at each venue — a step the NBA took years ago. Broadcasters say the effort will eliminate the rows of seats seen during some televised games and allows viewers to follow the entire game.

The St. Louis Blues were one of the first teams to adopt the new camera position when team president John Davidson removed several seats in the Scottrade Center to provide space for the central camera. It might mean a loss in revenue, Davidson acknowledged, but the trade-off was worth it.

“When you think big picture in our league, we all want television to have a bigger part of it,” he said. “You have to give the fan watching the best chance to see the game as possible.”

Part of that, of course, falls on the individual cameramen. Since many hockey cameramen are freelancers who also shoot other sports, they often miss the nuances of filming hockey, Shannon said. To help them, Shannon hired Al Mountford, a cameraman with 30-plus years of hockey experience, to visit each arena and offer insight into framing each play. The result, Shannon hopes, will be a uniform image from every stadium.

“There are a few cities that can use that input,” said Doug Menzies, senior producer at Altitude Sports. “Sometimes the most important player might not be the guy with the puck. If that’s (who’s being followed), you can’t see any play development.”

Menzies doesn’t expect everyone to be completely receptive to the initiative, but he believes it can help, especially if the goal is, as Mountford said, “to make every game look like Game 7 of the Stanley Cup, comfortable and exciting.”

Shannon has already trained cameramen in 12 cities; he hopes to get to the rest this season. To help that, the league has added three people to his department, one who joined the staff last week and two who will join it this month.

“Because we’re dealing with 30-plus shows, different entities, different rights holders, we have to be patient,” Shannon said about the changes his department has been able to effect so far. “But as long as people are prepared to listen, it won’t be a problem. So far people have been sponges just dying for information.”

Shannon thinks it will take three years before viewers see a qualitative improvement in the TV product at every regional carrier around the league.

“I don’t think there’s anything short term about this,” he said. “We’re rebuilding the foundation.”

More than likely, he added, fans will say, “I don’t know what’s better, but something’s better.”

That’s already begun to happen in St. Louis. While no official studies have been taken, a random poll of 30 fans taken by Fox Sports Net Midwest producer Tim Pabst revealed that most noticed a difference.

“They say players look closer,” Pabst said. “A few educated fans have specifically complimented us, but there’s been no viewership increase. The TV product is definitely better, though.”

The league hopes that new foundation leads not only to praise from fans but also quantitative results. The 11 games shown on Versus thus far this season have averaged a 0.2, or roughly flat from last year’s final number.

“Ultimately, we’d like to see it pay off in higher ratings,” said Doug Perlman, NHL executive vice president of media. “I don’t know that we have a specific timetable. The sooner, the better, obviously.”

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