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Volume 27 No. 53
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Producing TV games remotely is here to stay

The pandemic forced the move, but cost savings have networks planning to stay with the approach.

This story appears in the Nov. 9-15 print edition of Sports Business Journal.

This has been a tough year for behind-the-camera folks who make up television production departments.

Last week, ESPN cut hundreds of jobs, many of which were focused on the network’s production groups. The cuts were a mix of current employees who were laid off and open positions that will remain unfilled.

It was the same story back in July for Fox Sports, which laid off more than 50 employees, many of whom worked in the production department.

A month later, it was NBC Sports Group’s turn. The group and its regional sports networks went through their own big round of layoffs, much of which also involved production groups.

In September, it was DAZN, which laid off dozens of employees, with, yes, the production department hit especially hard.

If producing games during a pandemic has taught television networks anything, it’s that they can do more with less. And that is likely to result in especially tough times for anyone involved with producing games for television.

NASCAR is an example. When it returned to live races in May, NASCAR and Fox Sports reduced the number of people used to produce a race at the track from 150 to 50. The rest did their job from Fox Sports studios in Charlotte, which is where the announcers called the race, and Los Angeles, which housed the graphics team. NASCAR had been producing its Truck Series races remotely in 2019, and started shifting its Xfinity Series races to remote productions earlier this year.

“Remote production was already a trend that was starting to accelerate,” said Brian Herbst, NASCAR’s senior vice president of media and productions. “Remote production work has been accelerated with the pandemic, and what was previously probably taboo — to not have a certain amount of personnel on-site — probably is going to come under a little bit more scrutiny in 2021 and beyond.”

ESPN’s Karl Ravech calls a Korean baseball game remotely in May as an early test of the system.
Photo: espn images

The move to remote production comes down to saving money for the networks, which have been in cost-cutting mode since the beginning of the pandemic. Networks are seeing revenue shortfalls from the cord-cutting trend, which has seen, for example, ESPN shed 20 million homes in its distribution footprint over the past six years. At a rate of nearly $10 per subscriber per month currently, that adds up to a significant revenue stream that’s shrinking.

Sports networks also saw their ad sales take a hit this year, especially in the early days of the pandemic when there were no sports to sell. In its quarterly results announced last week, Fox reported a 6.9% first quarter drop in ad revenue for the three months ending Sept. 30. The company cited the lack of live sports events as a main reason for the drop.

The cost savings from remote productions come from more than just reducing head count and producing games and studio shows with a leaner staff. With producers and graphic designers working out of the home office, networks reduce travel expenses — no flights, no hotels. 

Network executives also see the lack of travel as an opportunity to get the best talent to work more games, especially without the two days of travel — one day before the game; one day after, sometimes — that affected some production scheduling.

The move to remote productions will add more disruption to production departments than layoffs. Network executives said they expect to see more of their production teams move to one of the coasts to be closer to a network’s production facility.

That could have a big effect on regional sports networks. If, for example, Spectrum SportsNet LA decides to produce all of the Dodgers’ games from Los Angeles, that would cut down on the number of freelancers they would hire when the team is on the road.

Typically, the RSN would hire around 20 local technicians to produce a game, as well as pregame and postgame shows. In a remote production setting, that number could be cut to four or five, because the majority of the production would be completed remotely.

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Remote production is not a new concept. ESPN, for example, has been dabbling in what the industry calls REMI for the past six years. 

“We were pioneers in that, in doing games through our control rooms in Bristol and other places,” said Stephanie Druley, ESPN’s executive vice president of event and studio production. “We were fortunate to be able to pivot to that pretty quickly back in March.”

ESPN’s operations team installed at-home studios allowing its on-air talent to call games from home. This started in April when ESPN produced the NFL draft remotely.

From her house in Charlotte, Druley used an app on her mobile phone that allowed her to listen to everything going on in the control room and communicate in real time with Seth Markman, vice president of production, and Lee Fitting, senior vice president of production.

“We’ve continued to use that app, and it helps us do play-by-play and analysis from home,” Druley said. “It’s not that challenging, but we’ve been — knock on wood — so far, so good.”

Big cuts in 2020

Here are some of the job reductions this year among the major media companies and networks.

April

Univision announces companywide furloughs and an undisclosed number of layoffs.

May

ViacomCBS cuts 400 jobs in its latest round of layoffs that began following the Viacom/CBS merger in December 2019.

June

The Golf Channel, owned by NBC, announces it will lay off most of its Orlando staff beginning in August and allow those workers to reapply for a smaller pool of job openings as part of plans to move its headquarters to Connecticut. The Orlando Business Journal reports that more than 300 employees are affected.

July

Fox Sports lays off more than 50 employees in a realignment.

August

NBCUniversal, which includes Telemundo, begins layoffs that are expected to be below 10% of its 35,000 full-time employees.

Pac-12 Networks announced it would lay off or furlough approximately 95 employees.

NBCUniversal’s regional sports networks lay off 17 employees in the Bay Area, 15 people in Philadelphia, 20 in Boston, more than a dozen in Chicago and at least 10 in Washington.

Turner Broadcasting lays off at least 10 people at Bleacher Report.

September

DAZN lays off dozens of employees — roughly 2% of its global staff — mainly in its U.S. and Brazil operations. The OTT furloughed much of its staff in April, but provided those employees 50% pay and full medical benefits.

October

WarnerMedia plans to restructure its workforce, a move that could affect thousands of employees over the next weeks.

November

ESPN announces it will eliminate several hundred jobs in the coming weeks.

Source: Sports Business Journal research

Druley also pointed to the studio show “The Jump” as an example of remote production that worked really well during the pandemic. Everyone — the talent, the producers, the director — developed the show separately from their homes for several months.

“I never would’ve thought we would have been able to do that,” she said. “If you were watching, you had no idea that person wasn’t sitting in the L.A. control room. Technology is an amazing thing. We all say we’re going to keep up with technology, but you’re always a little bit hesitant to be that different and do away with a safety net.”

ESPN already has begun bringing the production of some of its shows back into the studio. Producing shows from multiple homes brought its own set of challenges, some of which were obvious.

“You’re only as good as your internet provider,” Druley said. “You’re always holding your breath there a little bit. Our team does a great job of troubleshooting from where we are, but it’s different from being in the studio. It also can depend if someone is watching a game on DirecTV and someone else is watching Hulu. There may be a lapse.”

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While networks have been dabbling with remote production, pandemic protocols have sped up its implementation.

“We are producing them in a really different way than we were a year ago,” said Brad Zager, Fox Sports’ executive producer, executive vice president and head of production and operations. “There’s not really anything that we are doing in producing these shows that we wouldn’t have gotten to eventually. What this pandemic has done is speed up the inevitable.”

Zager said Fox was put in a position where it had to learn how to do certain aspects of remote production on the job. Zager said he was worried that production values would suffer in the rush to produce live sports remotely. 

“Usually you try to take advantage of technology by testing it out on smaller shows,” he said. “You usually have a lot of people involved to make sure that you have a safety net. What this pandemic did was make us so we have to trust that technology and connectivity and everything out there on larger shows right away.”

He pointed to Fox’s early NASCAR races back in May and June as an example of how Fox’s confidence to produce big events remotely grew.

“When we brought NASCAR back and had to produce it in a different way, that was the first time where we knew what we were doing would work,” Zager said. “We just didn’t expect to get there in 2020. It really sped up the inevitable. Once we saw the results on NASCAR of producing in a different way, then we started planning for the fall.”

Those early NASCAR races ended up creating a template for the fall, when Fox’s schedule was filled with sports — the NFL, college football and MLB playoffs.

“I was most nervous about taking something that was all-hands-on-deck for a NASCAR event and all of a sudden trying to pull it off with 20 shows on a weekend,” Zager said. “Trusting something for one show is a lot different than trusting it for a busy fall weekend. I actually expected us to have more issues than we had.”

Zager foresees many of the changes that were made because of the pandemic becoming permanent. Fox Sports will staff its production vault for playback and graphics from Los Angeles, as more events will be produced remotely.

Fox recreated production trucks — using the same layout and the same equipment — on the Fox lot in Los Angeles to make staffers more comfortable about working remotely.

“It’s not just getting through this pandemic, but we are learning from it and laying down a foundation that helps us moving forward,” Zager said. “We saw right away where we had enough resources, both from a technical standpoint and a human standpoint and where we didn’t. When everybody’s working remotely, when you’re trusting new technology, that comes to the surface very fast.”