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Producing live television events: fast, flexible, accurate and fair

Producing live events — particularly sporting events — is an exercise in making accurate split decisions, while maintaining calm, patience and flexibility.

Producers not only create content, but also manage the production team. They must be decisive and make multiple astute decisions, for the ability to communicate quickly to the production team can make or break the live sports moment. For example, producers call out replays and review real-time graphics, never knowing when “the moment” is about to happen, but ensuring the team is ready to roll with highlighting it when it does.

Shott Assistant Professor R. Charles (Chuck) Scatterday teaches sports production courses as part of the Reed College of Media’s Sports and Adventure Media major, including serving as the executive producer of Mountaineer Playbook, the senior capstone sports broadcast course. He offers and explains five basic sports production tips below:

Television Production 101: Tips for managing content

  1. No is an acceptable answer.
    No is an acceptable and honest answer in a live sports television production. Think about it: You’re producing a replay tape sequence during a live event and you’re about to execute that sequence when you hear over your headset, “No, X-machine is not good!” As the producer, you change your course of action in real-time and instead transition to a different video tape source to tell the story. The viewer is none the wiser of this near on-air blunder. One bonus tip: It’s live. If you mess up, own it, learn from it and move on. You can’t do anything about it after the fact, and to wallow and anguish over the on-air hiccup is not helpful to the broadcast. Longtime ESPN sportscaster Chris Berman would often say,” It’s off to Pluto, and you can’t do anything about it now.”
  2. Produce from your position.
    Regardless of the position you have on the crew, produce it. If you are the audio mixer, mix the best game ever. If you are the associate producer, produce the best graphic idea with your operator. The bottom line is that your team must look smart, from the on-air talent to operations, and it builds camaraderie and team chemistry. Mentor and former ESPN senior coordinating producer Mo Davenport would remind us on college football Saturdays to “produce from your position,” no matter the position.
  3. Listen, think (quickly), then answer.
    Listen and think before you speak, but then say it. Being succinct is one of hardest things to do in a live sports television event. Your ability to pivot in a moment and have your entire team on the same page with as little as 15 seconds of advance notice is key to successful execution on the air. Your ability to distill the information that needs to be conveyed, from what sources and by whom, with acknowledgment from various positions within the broadcast truck, will make or break the moment.
  4. Walk a mile in the other person’s shoes.
    Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes is an old saying, but is also a nod to a former college mentor. Alex Gavula was the general manager of WWVU-FM (U-92), the University’s campus radio station. During live radio broadcasts in a learning environment, Alex would remind us that some of our radio teammates had never done live radio. It was our responsibility to treat them with compassion and empathy as they learned by “walking a mile in their shoes.” Alex would simply say, “walk with me” or “walk a mile,” and you knew. Consider that the next time you put on the producer headsets.
  5. Be accurate in your coverage; you have an obligation to the viewer.
    Some would say that it’s just a sporting event, but your first obligation to the viewer is to be truthful and accurate with your documentation of the event. Your words, or the on-air talent’s words, matter, and there are consequences that go with those words. The viewer has invested in the broadcast, and you have a duty to deliver the truth – the facts about the event, the score, the key moments, such as highlighting a key injury or when the game turns around for the other team. You can’t assume viewers know what has happened unless you show them. As the producer, you need to remind, tell the story and constantly update the storylines with your broadcast team and be accurate in your reporting.

Sporting events and their accompanying broadcasts are meant to be fun and entertaining. Fans set aside time to watch, and some will record the event and replay the game repeatedly. Others will watch or listen to the event on their smartphones, and some will even travel to away venues to support their teams in person. Viewership is increasing, as are the high stakes for broadcasting a compelling event.

An average of 17.3 million television and digital viewers have tuned in during the first quarter of the season, a 17% increase from last year. CBS’s viewership is up 22% from last year, and ratings for ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” are up 24%. (Source: Front Office Sports, Oct. 12, 2021)

NBC revealed Monday that more than one-third of U.S. televisions tuned in as Brady's new club, the reigning Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, clawed out a 19-17 victory over Bill Belichick and the Pats at Gillette Stadium. The 34 share, a percentage of televisions in use tuned to the game, generated by the Buccaneers-Patriots, established a record for NBC's "Sunday Night Football" package. The game was the most-watched Sunday night game in nearly nine years and pulled in the broadcast's second-best ratings ever, based on preliminary data, since the network began airing "SNF" in 2006. (Source: USA Today, Oct. 4, 2021)

The broadcast should be fun and entertaining but must operate as a working environment with professionals in every broadcast position ready to manage content with the producer. It all starts and ends with the producer, but how she or he manages the team and those “moments” may in fact define the broadcast. Be ready for the moment!

Before joining the College of Media, Scatterday (MSJ ’92) worked at the network level for ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC Sports and was part of the launch team for ESPN News and ESPNU networks. He previously served as operations manager of West Virginia Media Holdings LLC and as executive producer with the Nexstar Media Group, producing Mountaineer GameDay and the Bob Huggins and Neal Brown coaches shows for WVU Athletics. He also manages a personal media company, Scatterday Night Live Productions.

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