What Tom Said: About Appointment TV

Tom Butts

Live television—for many of us it’s the bread and butter of our industry and it’s what distinguishes broadcasting from the rest of media. As more and more consumers access their entertainment on demand, the value and importance of live TV (or “appointment TV”) becomes apparent. Despite the attraction of television anywhere, anytime, consumers still crave the shared experience of watching a live event in the here and now. The ratings for these events prove it.

The production of live television was the subject of NewBay Media’s “Business of Live Television” Summit recently, and I had the pleasure of moderating several panels that discussed the challenges and opportunities behind broadcast and streaming of live events. The panelists ranged from producers to engineers and consultants who shared their insights on how live television has changed over the years.

The technology and complexity of live television has greatly increased in the past decade. alone As one panelist commented, there’s just more of everything.

“Everything is IT-based, computer-driven, file-based; everything is networked and has to talk to each other,” said Jason Cohen, director of sports production for HBO. “There’s no longer just a TV show that you’re producing on a linear network. You’re also having to tailor your entire show to a whole new audience that receives it in a whole different manner. And by the way, the budget stays the same.”

Panelist Larry Estrin, director of Clear- Com’s Global Rental Group, worked on the first year of “Saturday Night Live.” He talked about the evolution of wireless communications, which has grown more important as complexity has increased.

On the first season of SNL, there were four people using wireless mics. “Now they routinely have over 100 people on a wireless communications device,” he said. “So there’s an incredible amount of technology to make it work.”

The increasing use of social media integrated with live televised events was also a hot topic of discussion with the general consensus that it’s still a “work in progress.” As it relates to live events, “social media is marketing,” said John Hamlin, senior vice president of music events and talent for CMT, who produces the network’s yearly CMT Music Awards. “But in the end, if we’re not creating content that people want to talk about, it doesn’t matter if it’s Twitter, Facebook or a billboard in Times Square. You’ve got to create content that people want to see and feel excited about and feel like you don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

The streaming of live events was the topic of another panel at the event, with panelists discussing the idea of managing expectations both internally and for consumers.

“There’s just so much more we can do on the IP space where we’re not confined to just the square box that we’re delivering to,” said Eric Black, vice president of technology for the NBC Sports Group. “The question is ‘how can we do more?

“We could look at doing 22 cameras if we want from each soccer game; but how do we make sure what we’re doing is responsible and engaging for the end user? Because the possibilities are nearly endless.”

For Clark Pierce, senior vice president for mobile and product development with Fox Sports, managing expectations for the user is a huge challenge. Clark handles the network’s “TV Everywhere” service, and authentication— where the availability of live streaming is reserved for pay-TV customers only—is often a sore point for sports fans. “We will get a flood of emails and texts saying ‘why can’t I watch this game?”

Despite the promises of new technologies such as IP, tapeless production and social media, in the end it’s all for naught if production crews can’t cope with the complexity of live production.

“With the advent of technology,” said Hamlin, “when you’re the executive producer sitting in the truck, you just want it all to work.”

Tom Butts

Tom has covered the broadcast technology market for the past 25 years, including three years handling member communications for the National Association of Broadcasters followed by a year as editor of Video Technology News and DTV Business executive newsletters for Phillips Publishing. In 1999 he launched digitalbroadcasting.com for internet B2B portal Verticalnet. He is also a charter member of the CTA's Academy of Digital TV Pioneers. Since 2001, he has been editor-in-chief of TV Tech (www.tvtech.com), the leading source of news and information on broadcast and related media technology and is a frequent contributor and moderator to the brand’s Tech Leadership events.