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Volume 22 No. 19

Media

Sports TV networks are going to look more and more like video games over the next few years thanks to advanced production technology combined with desires to attract younger viewers.

The 50-yard-line camera is not going away as the main camera shot for TV’s football productions, at least not any time soon. But over the next few years, network and league executives predict that more players and referees will be wearing cameras that can broadcast their point of view during a live telecast.

“We are seeing an increased interest in doing these things,” said Michael Davies, senior vice president of technical and field operations for Fox Sports. “There’s an increased willingness from leagues to give this a try. … The technology is in a place where the networks can present this to the leagues.”

During this year’s preseason, the NFL and Fox experimented with a camera on the cap of referees that offered a unique perspective on the action.
Photo: ActionStreamer

POVs and worn cameras are not a new concept. Davies, in fact, referenced the “catcher cam” Fox used during baseball games 15 years ago as an early version.

Several companies are developing microscopic cameras that can fit on a football helmet — or even a boxing referee’s bow tie — without being obstructive. ActionStreamer, Vicareo Systems and Telstra are three companies competing in this area. The NFL, NBA and MLB have been testing the tech more frequently.

The key is not just getting the cameras small enough that players and referees don’t balk at wearing them. It’s also about being able to stream the video live out of congested environments such as stadiums and arenas.

“The challenge that a lot of folks have had trying to do this over the years is getting robust streaming happening when there’s 60,000 in a stadium or an arena,” said Chris McLennan, ActionStreamer CTO. “We really approached this, not as an action camera company or as a wearable company, but really as a data transmission technology.”

Founded by McLennan, CEO Max Eisenberg and former NFL player Dhani Jones, the Cincinnati-based ActionStreamer had a test run with MLB during spring training. The NHL tested it on officials and in skills competitions, the NFL conducted its own tests and ESPN looked into it for the X Games.

ActionStreamer has bought into the idea that the technology will draw in younger viewers, since it mirrors how video games are produced. The company also believes it will be a good second-screen complement to television and already is positioning live video from a helmet cam as a second-screen application.

“Interest in sports isn’t dwindling as sometimes articles make it seem with the numbers from television viewership,” Eisenberg said. “It’s a changing landscape in terms of where fans are getting their fix.”

He said POV video has existed in broadcast to some degree, but in a limited fashion, such as two or three look-ins during a broadcast. “We saw the opportunity as fleshing that out into something that can be a bona fide, fan engagement driver for leagues and networks.”

Monumental was the first company to cut a deal last summer and used the cameras on players and referees during AFL games.

“We started off doing ref cams,” said Greg Roberts, ActionStreamer’s head of strategic partnerships and development. “This year was the first deployment of our football helmet cameras.”

Television executives spent a lot of time this offseason strategizing about how they would cover the NFL’s off-field social issues when the games started.

 

The protests and threatened boycotts so far this season have remained a big storyline for the league, but they have not scared away advertisers from buying time during the games, CBS’s top ad sales executive Jo Ann Ross said at the SBJ Game Changers Conference in New York last week.

 

Ross, president and chief advertising revenue officer for CBS, referenced a preseason seminar at the network’s Manhattan office last month that was attended by NFL executives. “They talked about the anthem and kneeling and social justice versus patriotism,” she said. “They’re working on it. … There are a lot of divisive issues in the NFL right now.”

 

Network executives privately have said that those issues have accounted for one of many reasons why NFL television ratings have dropped over the past several years. But even in this political environment, advertiser interest in the games remains strong, with Ross citing a “very active scatter [market] in the fourth quarter” for NFL games. “I have not seen any pushback from the advertisers,” she said.

 

Advertisers are drawn to the fact that the games consistently bring the highest ratings on television, even as the league has been embroiled in controversy.

 

In August, ESPN boss Jimmy Pitaro created a mini firestorm when he said his network did not plan to show the national anthem live during “Monday Night Football” games this season. Pitaro’s comments did not signify any change — ESPN did not show the anthem live in most games last season, either.

 

In her talk last week, Ross said CBS was not changing its strategy with regard to broadcasting the national anthem.

 

“We typically do not show the anthem,” she said. “We have no plans to show the anthem at the beginning of games. If that changes, we’ll have conversations with our partners at the NFL.”

 

This is a Super Bowl year for CBS, which will show the game next February from Atlanta. Ross did not offer stats on who has bought ads and how much they are paying, only allowing that it has been an “active marketplace.” Sources have said the Super Bowl is commanding around $5 million per 30-second spot. Networks typically wait until the week before the Super Bowl to announce an advertising sellout.

 

Jo Ann Ross said advertiser interest in the NFL has not dropped.
Photo: Marc Bryan-Brown

This is the sixth Super Bowl that Ross has sold for CBS, and she said each one “takes on its own life.” Advertisers, she said, have expressed excitement about having the game in the Atlanta market and the new stadium.

 

As you would expect, having the rights to carry the Super Bowl changes how CBS approaches ad sales. In non-Super Bowl years, CBS packages its NFL ad sales with its SEC games and NCAA Final Four games. During those Super Bowl years, CBS packages its NFL ad sales with Super Bowl units and pregame sponsorships.

 

“It’s a big game; there’s more pressure,” Ross said. “We won’t fail, we’ll get there. All the commercials will be there. It’s still the biggest audience out there. Clients still want to be associated with it.”

 

Two years ago, Ross acknowledged that some advertisers preferred to buy digital programming on the theory that they had more data about exactly who was watching their ads.

 

“That has been stemmed,” she said, referencing problems some advertisers have had when their messages get posted next to objectionable content. She also referenced digital measurements, which sometimes counted non-humans such as spam bots among their viewers.

 

“The good news for CBS and a lot of broadcast networks is that we package our digital inventory with our TV inventory. We try to count every single eyeball,” she said. “We want to be smart about it. We do not want to shove it down their throats. But where it makes sense, we’ll go there.”

 

Ross also referenced Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google as “frenemies.”

 

“All of these clients are buying broadcast television in a huge way to get their messaging out,” she said.

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.

Around a decade ago, 3D television was the next big thing — so much so that ESPN launched a dedicated 3D channel in 2010.

Around five years later, it was virtual reality that was about to break through. When the San Francisco area hosted the Super Bowl in 2016, it seemed like every media company in Silicon Valley had some sort of VR demonstration it wanted to show.

This year’s technology? Here comes 4K television, the latest generation of high-definition TV.

Insight TV CEO Rian Bester has heard skepticism around 4K television, but he’s a true believer. That shouldn’t be surprising given that Insight TV produces all of its programming in 4K and is looking to grow further into the U.S. market.

Bester cited two main reasons why 4K television has more of a chance to succeed than 3D or VR.

■ It already has gained traction in Asia and Europe. “If you look at the numbers of sets being sold, it’s catching up very quickly in the United States now, too,” he said. “All of the major operators are now, in some way or another, doing 4K. … It’s almost impossible now to buy an HD screen if you’re going to Best Buy or the other big stores.”

■ 4K TV does not have the same technical barrier as 3D or VR. “The hassle of the glasses and the viewing angles with 3D and virtual reality — all of that was not contributing to the overall experience. 4K actually enhances the experience because you’re creating a more lifelike image. Stats show people are buying bigger and bigger screens. When you combine bigger screens with more lifelike images, all of these things make the image and the movement seem more real.”