RailCam, SkyCam, drones, PylonCams, and dual on-site studios all part of the show in Vegas
It isn’t often that the annual U.S. sports calendar gets a new tentpole event on par with a major championship, but that’s exactly what the NBA In-Season Tournament Semifinal and Championship games are shaping up to be this week in Las Vegas. With that in mind, the league, ESPN, and TNT Sports have combined their efforts to create productions that rival those of NBA Finals and NBA All-Star Game broadcasts.
“The competitiveness of these games has really set the stage for everything we do,” says Paul Benedict, NBA SVP, Broadcast Content Management. “So, shout out to the players, the coaches, the teams for bringing this to life and that’s led us here to Vegas on the cusp of an awesome network crossover with WBD and ESPN that’s going to kick off the In-Season Tournament Semifinals in Vegas.”
In addition to both networks rolling out side-by-side studios sets outside T-Mobile Arena, the game productions will feature a myriad production technology, including RailCam, SkyCam, drones, and even PylonCams.
The Big Crossover: ESPN, TNT Collaborate in Front of and Behind the Camera
The action kicks off tonight during the Semifinals with ESPN and TNT each airing one semifinal game and rolling out side-by-side studio shows live from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. TNT’s “Inside the NBA” team will appear on ESPN’s “NBA Countdown” for an extended pregame segment and ESPN’s crew will return the favor by appearing on TNT’s NBA Tip-Off later that evening.
“We’re excited for what’s to come out here,” adds Benedict. “The integrated studio segments, the talent crossovers, Reggie (Miller) and Doc (Rivers) flipping and a host of other enhanced elements and activations for Thursday…will take us across an entire night of NBA basketball now across TNT and ESPN.
Both ESPN and TNT’s studio sets are located right outside T-Mobile Arena in the Toshiba Plaza. The goal is to put both shows in the middle of the fray outside the arena to help showcase the energy created by the fans in Vegas.
“That’s the true innovation – the collective integration,” says Craig Barry, TNT Sports EVP and Chief Content Officer. “The idea is having dual sets that are operating individually, but together at the same time; being able to jump from set to set; being able to share talent – with Reggie and Doc specifically. And then I would say a seamless experience regardless of whether you’re on ESPN or TNT and hopefully if it works the way it’s supposed to, you’ll float right from ESPN to TNT and it will feel like a completely linear broadcast. So, for us that’s the true innovation, that’s where really that we come together [to create] what’s best for the fan.”
TNT’s Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley, and Shaquille O’Neal will appear on ESPN NBA Countdown for an extended segment within its 4 p.m. pregame show. The NBA Countdown team of ESPN NBA Countdown team of host Malika Andrews with Stephen A. Smith, Michael Wilbon, Bob Myers, and Adrian Wojnarowski will then appear on TNT’s Inside the NBA pregame show for an extended segment within their 7:30 p.m. telecast.
“I think the most interesting part aside from the technology and all the innovative cameras [like the] RailCam, it comes down to the big-time personalities on the court and in the studios outside,” says David Roberts, ESPN Head of Event & Studio Production. “And when you talk about having Charles Barkley, Shaq, Stephen A., Wilbon, Bob Myers, Kenny Smith, Ernie, Malika, all being able to interact – that’s a curiosity factor that’s going to have a nice appealing impact for the fans.”
Benedict adds that viewers can expect plenty of pomp and circumstance for the red-carpet coverage on on Thursday and Saturday as well.
“We’re taking it to a new level in terms of what we’ve done in the past,” he says. “I don’t want to spoil anything just yet, but it’s going to be very picturesque. We’ll have Richard Jefferson and Allie LaForce grabbing some players and celebrities for interviews and that will be a great pre-game element.”
The Kitchen Sink of Cameras: RailCam, SkyCam, Drones, PylonCams and More
A RailCam will be used in an NBA game for the first time since the 2020 NBA Bubble in Orlando. Working with Fletcher (an NEP company), the league and its broadcasters were able to extend the ground-level system to run the entire length of the court.
“We didn’t quite have that [full court length] in the Bubble,” says Benedict, “so that’s going to provide some tremendous pictures and moments for [viewers].”
The NBA, ESPN, and TNT Sports also worked closely with Fletcher to design a housing for the camera system that was approved by both the league’s game operations team and the NBAPA.
“A lot of people have to sign off on something that is right on the court like that, so we all worked together to ensure it met the necessary standards,” says Eddie Okuno, senior remote operations specialist, ESPN. “We also built a custom structure right behind it, where there is full-court-length VIP section, as well as both the ESPN and TNT announce tables, and a spot for our center court handheld camera.”
In addition to flying a SkyCam as part of all three games productions at T-Mobile Arena, ESPN and TNT Sports will deploy drones both inside and outside the arena. ESPN has stationed a live outdoor drone on top of the Park MGM Las Vegas hotel similarly to what the network deployed for its coverage of the NHL All-Star Game, which took place in February at T-Mobile arena. Both ESPN and Turner are also leveraging ENG drones to capture compelling content and B-roll that will be integrated into their respective broadcasts.
ESPN and TNT Sports have also integrated a pair of new 1080p, 180 fps wireless PylonCams provided by 3G Wireless into the RailCam padding on both ends of the court to capture extended foul line angles.
“It’s quite a large show and we have a lot of shared resources,” says Okuno. “There are plenty of new toys and we’re really looking to push the envelope. The main goal is to make it look different from any [NBA event] you’ve seen before. We have never been able to do anything like this at a neutral site during the regular season so we’re taking full advantage of that opportunity.”
The 39-camera complement shared by ESPN and TNT also includes a shallow–depth-of-field camera rig with a Sony Alpha 1 provided by AVS, as well as a multitude of Sony slo-mo systems and Fletcher robos. Three cameras, including the SkyCam, RailCam and an outdoor drone will all be equipped for AR graphics.
“The volume of cameras is about the same as an NBA Finals, but we’ve actually reassigned some of those cameras to do different things,” says Okuno. “We have more coach and player microphones than we would typically have, so we have isolated cameras full-time on both coaches and multiple players. That’s the difference for this coverage: we’re trying to bring the game closer to the fans.”
Bunking Up in the Compound: ESPN, TNT Share the Technological Wealth
In addition to co-mingling their on-air talent, ESPN and TNT Sports are also sharing the production compound. NEP is providing Supershooter 24 for TNT’s game and Supershooter 32 for TNT’s Inside the NBA, while Game Creek Video has rolled out its new Varsity mobile unit (coming off its debut on ESPN’s college football package, the brand-new college football package) and Game Creek Apollo for ESPN’s NBA Countdown.
ESPN and TNT Sports are sharing a plethora of sources for their respective shows and worked together install an added fiber backbone in order to serve these needs. IN addition, CP Communications is on hand to handle the ultra-complex RF frequency coordination and Firehouse Productions is providing audio coordination support.
For Chris Brown, VP, technical operations, TNT Sports, this week’s sprawling dual operations in Vegas would not have been possible had it not been for the chemistry and camaraderie developed between the NBA, TNT Sports, and ESPN in the 2020 NBA Bubble during the pandemic.
“I feel as though we were able to build a foundation and a solid roadmap back during Covid, and working through that primed all three parties to be able to tackle something like this so effortlessly,” says Brown. “It allowed us an opportunity to refine that relationship and build something for production that does, in fact, take us to yet another level in the overall partnership. Just as in 2020, both networks are able to lean into our own unique styles of production, all while at the same time sharing the same space.”
Okuno seconds that sentiment: “We are really picking up where we left off in Orlando, but improving what we learned from the Bubble in terms of sharing and integrating resources making the signal flow and video format [exchange] more seamless.”
Adding to an already complex operation in Vegas is the fact that the Las Vegas Golden Knights had a home game on Dec. 4, leaving just 48 hours for setup for the Semifinal games tonight. In addition, the venue is hosting a Nike Highschool basketball game on Friday night, which is being broadcast by ESPNU. The game is being produced by an outside packager and ESPN/TNT Sports are assisting them to avoid any disruption to the existing compound between Thursday and Saturday. To top it all off, following the Championship Game on Saturday, ESPN must be completely out of the building by 3 a.m. for a Knights home game on Monday night.
“It’s been a real time crunch, but we’ve been able to get it done and a big reason for that has been our ability to share resources with one another,” says Okuno. “The cooperation and the teamwork with TNT Sports has been fantastic.”
Brown adds: “On the surface, it appears as if it’s a game and studio execution, but we know it means more than that to TNT Sports, ESPN and the NBA,” says Brown. “And the idea that it comes right in the middle of the first half of the season adds to the complexity, not only for Las Vegas, but also as games were being decided as we approached Las Vegas. It’s just as it was advertised: a playoffs at the beginning of the season.”