Networks look to add crowd noise to games with no fans
If Phil Orlins boils down his production philosophy to one word, it would be “authenticity.”
With that in mind, Orlins, a 32-year ESPN production veteran, was appalled when he first heard the idea that some network executives were thinking about using fake crowd noise during telecasts to make up for a lack of fans.
Then ESPN picked up rights to carry the Korean Baseball Championship.
“My opinion on that evolved,” Orlins said.
For Orlins, it took two innings of watching his first Korean game to convince him that light crowd noise was necessary, even if it is not an authentic way to show a game from an empty stadium. He described it as “disorienting,” “stark” and “jarring” to watch baseball with no crowd noise.
“If I take away my philosophies about being authentic and just go with my human emotion, it was pretty clear to me that a little bit of sound can be added in there,” Orlins said.
Network executives have spent weeks trying to figure out the best way to produce games in empty stadiums and arenas. Talks with executives from the country’s top television networks suggest that fans should get used to the idea of artificial sounds — a sports TV version of a laugh track — during games this year.
“We are looking at more than just pumping in audio,” said Brad Zager, Fox Sports’ executive producer, executive vice president and head of production and operations. “We’re looking at trying to figure out how to score a game live. How do we make sure that we have something that sounds authentic?”
Fox Sports looked into the idea of using pumped-in crowd noise soon after sports leagues suspended their seasons in March. After studying telecasts of games with no fans, they decided that the lack of a crowd roar was noticeable on baseball and football telecasts. Fox Sports did not use artificial noise for its NASCAR coverage earlier this month, for example, because the lack of crowd noise was not noticeable given the roar of the engines.
Unanswered questions revolve around how much artificial noise should be used. During ESPN’s Korean baseball telecasts, the crowd noise remains constant at a low volume.
Zager, though, speculated that the crowd noise would change depending on game conditions.
“Will Cody Bellinger walking to the plate in the second inning have a different crowd feel than him walking to the plate in the ninth inning with two guys on, down by two?” he asked.
NBC’s lead NHL announcer, Doc Emrick, predicted that such situations would add a layer of complexity to telecasts that would be new to TV producers.
“The events coordinators that put the music and everything else in at a game would have to be really skilled in order to do that and make it fit the occasion of what was going on, on the ice,” he said. “The excitement of the sport will probably give me energy, but how it will sound going into peoples’ homes on TV — that will be strange.”
The most common plan has the noise being used for sports where the crowd is the most noticeable — football, basketball, baseball, hockey. Most likely, the pumped-in sounds would be heard throughout the stadium and arena — it would not be TV-only audio. For that to happen, Zager said players would need to buy into the idea of playing with artificial noise.
Such a plan would also need league approval, too, though sources said that executives with most leagues have been part of these discussions with the networks.
“What we have to understand is, what are the players going to want?” Zager said. “Players have grown up their entire life playing with crowds — baseball, football, basketball — and feeding off of that energy of playing in front of thousands of people.”
Staff writer Terry Lefton contributed to this story.