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Cleveland Indians Go HD With WKYC - TvTechnology

Cleveland Indians Go HD With WKYC

By striking the Indians deal, WKYC has given Cleveland viewers a compelling reason not just to buy HDTVs, but also to tune into WKYC to see their local team on over-the-air TV for the first time in four years.
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Hundreds of broadcasters have gone digital. But Cleveland NBC affiliate WKYC is going one better, by leveraging its HDTV plant to become the exclusive HD producer of the Cleveland Indians.

Under a deal negotiated with the Indians and the SportsTime Ohio (STO) regional sports network, WKYC is producing 158 Cleveland Indians games during the 2006 season with 83 in HD, both at home at Cleveland's Jacobs Field and on the road. Twenty of these games will be broadcast in HD on WKYC using sports director Jim Donovan for play-by-play. The other 63 will be shown in HD on cable/satellite-only STO, using WKYC's sports production team but branded with STO mic flags and graphics.

The driver behind this innovative deal was WKYC president and general manager Brooke Spectorsky. For his station, signing the Indians made good sense, given that WKYC owner Gannett Broadcasting has spent millions upgrading WKYC. Besides, "I firmly believe that a digital cable-only contract really impacted the Indians for casual viewers," Spectorsky tells TVB. "In contrast, we offer strong promotion on a station that is heavily viewed."

Having spent the last four years exclusively on digital cable, "We had an interest in trying to get some over-the-air games," says Dennis Lehman, the club's executive vice president. "Clearly we held onto loyal Indians fans for our STO telecasts, but we lost casual viewers because it wasn't on-air."

However, it wasn't just getting some local on-air exposure that sold the Indians on WKYC, it was also the slots being offered. "Brooke spoke to Gannett and NBC about getting some valuable airtime released so that he could show the games in primetime," Lehman says. "That was very appealing to us, because having primetime games on a network affiliate is the type of exposure we want."

At SportsTime Ohio, the idea of signing with WKYC was welcomed warmly. It wasn't just that WKYC was offering to handle all the technical details; what really made the difference is that WKYC's studios are only 10 blocks from Jacobs Field, with two broadcast-quality fiber optic lines connecting the two. "The beauty with hiring WKYC is that there's no trucks to roll up," says Jim Liberatore, president of SportsTime Ohio. "Thanks to them, we have a fiber link direct to air."

"WKYC is a big player in this market," Liberatore adds. "For a brand new regional sports network to partner with a high profile known entity was a huge advantage for us. It adds perceived value right away, helped by the fact that WKYC's talent are anchoring the programs."

HOW WKYC DOES IT

When it comes to packaging Cleveland Indians games, WKYC is as serious as any major U.S. network. Back at its studios, "we produce the broadcasts using a Sony MVS-8000 HD switcher and a Chyron HyperX for HD graphics systems," says Rex Rickly, WKYC's director of technology and operations. "We've installed two EVS replay servers, and have set up 15 fiber optic camera locations at Jacobs Field for our 12 Sony HD cameras. They are cabled to our camera control truck parked at the stadium, where the cameras are shaded. The camera pictures are then sent via fiber back to WKYC's baseball production control room using Evertz gear, and then to baseball master control where commercials are inserted." To provide beauty shots, a robotically-controlled WKYC camera has been mounted 150 feet above the ground on a light standard. "We can add a 13th camera, when we've got a blimp over the field," says Spectorsky.

For audio, WKYC uses up to 30 microphones at Jacobs Field. "We're producing the audio in 5.1 surround sound," says Spectorsky. "The audio is fed along with the video down our fiber optic lines, for mixing at our studios using a Wheatstone audio console."

As for crew? "We contract the professional baseball freelancers who man the cameras and specialized broadcast equipment," says Rex Rickly. "They are overseen by WKYC producers and directors, and also supported by our on-air talent."

For road games, WKYC uses Lyon Video of Columbus, Ohio (www.lyonvideo.com). (The only exceptions are when the Indians are on the West Coast, says Spectorsky. In those cases, it is more economical to hire a West Coast truck.) Lyon Video produces the Indians' road games in HD using their own crew and Lyon's Mobile Unit 6HD (MU-6) multi-format unit. Displayed at NAB2005 and built at a cost of over $7 million, this 53' HD production trailer comes with 11 Grass Valley LDK 6000 mkII WorldCam HD cameras, a Grass Valley Kalypso HD switcher, a Grass Valley LDK 6200 HD Super SloMo camera, a Grass Valley Ethernet-based LDK C2IP camera control panel, a Grass Valley Trinix video routing switcher, and a Grass Valley Concerto Series stereo audio router.

CHALLENGES

One would think that ramping up to a full-fledged MLB producer would have been a major task for WKYC, and so it was. However, "the time frame was the most challenging part," says Rickly. "We didn't get the go-ahead until the day before Christmas 2005, so we couldn't start ordering until January 2006. We had from then until the start of broadcasting April 4th to get our system together."

Given that the station is also upgrading its news and local programming to HD, the Indians project was no small item to add to its task list. This is why WKYC opted to use freelancers to man its Jacobs Field operation, says Spectorsky. "You can't just take a crew trained to do news and throw them into a baseball game," he tells TVB. "It just wouldn't work. That's why we're using pros right now, and have begun a training program so that our people can learn baseball production techniques."

BENEFITS

Now that WKYC has picked up the ball for the Indians and SportsTime Ohio, everybody seems to be happy. "The deal is a win-win for everyone," says the Indians' Dennis Lehman. "With WKYC providing the equipment, it leaves us and STO to concentrate on marketing and promoting the team, which is what we do best."

"The lesson here for regional sports networks is: why do the work twice?" says STO's Liberatore. "Having WKYC take care of production allows us to focus on distribution and programming." As for the quality of WKYC's Indians game coverage? It's so good that SportsTime Ohio "would like to make WKYC our permanent master control," he says.

Musing on the Indians/STO deal WKYC's Spectorsky is pleased with how it's worked out. "This exercise is making it possible for us to use WKYC's HDTV plant to its fullest," he says. "As well, with STO paying us to produce the Indians games, we've found a new revenue source that has allowed us to jump into full-scale HDTV today, rather than having to wait a number of years until we could justify the cost. That's important because going heavily HD now positions WKYC well against its local competition."

"On the personnel side, producing the Cleveland Indians has fired up WKYC's employees," Spectorsky notes. "It's something new and different that has caught everyone's attention, and really got them excited."

James Careless covers the television industry. He can be reached at jamesc@tjtdesign.com.