FutureSport 2016: Examining the challenges and changing outlook for sports production managers
The information that it took nearly six years for SVG Europe to host its first all-women panel at one of its technology summits can only be reported with a degree of regret. But onwards and upwards, as they say, and there is some consolation in the fact that the panel in question – Future Directions in Sports Production Management at FutureSport 2016 – was the occasion of an overwhelmingly upbeat and forward-looking discussion.
Following an introduction from Rob Roberts of session sponsor Avid that touched upon several key aspects of contemporary sports production, SVG Editorial Director Ken Kerschbaumer took the helm for a panel that drew on the insights of a quartet of leading sports broadcast managers, namely: Jennifer Angell, VER, Director, International Project Services – Broadcast; Bridget Bremner, Sky Sports, Production Manager; Angela Gibbons, CTV OB, Commercial Manager; and Anna Ward, Premier League Productions, Head of Production.
The session commenced with some recollections of various panellists’ careers in production management. Angell said that she had “been in the broadcast business for 25 years or so now. I started off working in host broadcast [at large events such as the] FIFA World Cup, but around 2003 I moved into freelance work at the Rugby World Cup and for ESPN and FOX. One of the reasons I [went freelance] was that I speak French and was determined to use my language skills. So I ended up working for French Télévisions, Eurosport and some African broadcasters too.”
Asked to consider her favourite events – “or is that like asking who is your favourite child?” enquired Kerschbaumer – Angell admitted with a laugh that “some of them are horrible children actually! But I would say that the best events I have worked on from an organisational standpoint have been Wimbledon – they make life very easy – and the Euros.”
Bremner traced her career back to early days as a TV coordinator, after which she moved into OB as a planner and “then a unit manager-type role”. Moving to the UK she began working for Sky as a freelance production manager, “learning how Sky do it”. Currently she works on the broadcaster’s Premier League coverage, covering “4/5 games per week in UHD”.
Invited to consider what impact UHD has had on production set-ups, she said that “there are elements that are still the same, but the crucial thing has been that a lot of the workflows have changed. But that said we have been trying to keep as close as possible to the workflows that production is used to. One area [where there has been distinct change] is in the IP area where UHD has been delivering UHD over IP. That has been a whole new world for me and for the team.”
Ward recounted her early days of working at IMG and then on the European tour golf operation, prior to moving to CTV. A period of freelance work ensued before she returned to IMG in 2007, since which time she has worked on “a wide variety of programming and [more recently] become more involved in the host broadcaster stuff”. She moved across to Premier League Productions in September 2015.
“When I first moved into TV I wanted to work in editorial, but the opportunities were really in production management,” says Ward. “I am really grateful for that because as you move up in production management you [acquired] a varied lot of transferable skills. I have also found that you can tailor the job to the bits that you like, so for example I really enjoy the financial side of the work. There is also the fact that you are at the centre of the production and are always learning.”
Gibbons noted that she had been at CTV “for seven years now and am really enjoying the challenges of production management across the TV platforms. Last year I started moving more into the commercial side of the business; the more strategic end. To reiterate what Anna said, [production manager] is such a good role to have because you end up with huge, wide-ranging skills that you can draw upon in so many different situations.”
The conversation moved onto the not inconsiderable burden played on production management personnel during a crisis situation. Reflecting on the impact of bad weather – in particular high winds – during The Open 2015 at Royal Troon, Gibbons remarked that CTV as “the facilities provider had to work out a strategy to ensure that the production team did not suffer [in the challenging conditions]. People had gone on holidays, people have lives… But you have to ensure that everything continues and is calm, and that all the logistical details – like ‘my car is at the airport, how do I get to it?’ – are taken care of.”
Angell then reflected on a power outage at the French Open, noting that initially there was simply as sense of “shock that something like that could happen in this day and age. [After a while] we managed to get one camera from ITV; that was the first problem solved in that we had some feed.” As the situation gradually improved the onus was on “trying to maintain calm and make sure our signal was still getting out.”
Recalling the NEP fire of 2015, Webb recalled the initial shock and subsequent mad scramble to ensure that “we were able to do as much as we could do that following weekend. So I spent a lot of time next to the engineers looking at facilities for that weekend, working out what we needed to get, and what compromises would have to be made.” Ultimately it was possible to “get everything we needed to air that weekend with very little in the way of glitches” but it wasn’t without the “incredible support offered by the industry. Everyone rallied ‘round to help.”
The conversation closed with some reflections on the impact upon production management of new digital teams entering the fray. There was a general consensus that this had not been without its challenges, but that the situation was slowly improving – and that there could also be some useful cross-fertilisation of ideas between the new and existing sides.
Ward said that digital teams started joining our teams, “particularly on the Premier League”, about a year ago. “We found that often they did not understand the OB environment or the protocols, so there [had to be a process of education]. As part of that, our teams also needed to see the benefits of what they are coming to do.”
She added: “They do have some workflows that are more cost-efficient so there can be knowledge transfer [in the direction of the ‘conventional’ broadcast personnel] as well.”
Angell also noted that there had been a process of transition, highlighting examples of people “turning up with no accreditation but wanting seats in the press areas and all the other perks. There has been a process of educating them and pointing out the proper channels for them to use.”
There were also a few thoughts on the implications of remote production. Ward encouraged people to see RP in the context of its effect being “not so much where you see yourself, but where you are required to be and what is required. If you have a production manager in a studio it is easier to manage a fixed environment that is generally unchanging, but if you have crews and cameras on-site that is a changing environment [and hence production managers could be more necessary there]. Certainly the level and detail of planning will be more crucial at that point as you won’t have extra bodies on site. So there will need to be a lot of consideration of what you need to achieve and the risks involved.”