People, Service, Technology—And Lots Of Trucks

I consider myself very fortunate. To me, this means being lucky enough to have a career I enjoy and co-workers I like being with. The mobile television production business is such a career. It’s greatly satisfying on a personal level, and a lot of fun. I’ve had the advantage of having what are really two separate, very different careers, both of which were quite challenging, interesting and gratifying.

My first career was with the New England Patriots. My dad started the team in 1959. In 1983, after an extensive nationwide search (as I like to say), he chose me as his general manager. In 1985 we were fortunate enough to go to the Super Bowl. I worked with a great group of people there, some of who work with me today at Game Creek Video, which we started in 1993. There are a number of reasons why I transitioned into the mobile television production business.

One reason is that when I worked with the Patriots, I’d always see mobile production trailers with network logos pull up to cover the games. As time went on, however, I started to see Unitel, TCS, NEP and other independent vendor logos instead. I was curious to know why. The mobile production people explained that the networks were expanding their sports coverage, but they didn’t have enough trucks to cover everything they needed to do. That’s why the independent vendors were getting into the business. Over time, I saw how some of these vendors created successful companies while others didn’t. This led to more reasons for getting into the mobile television production business: I felt it offered a good living while also enabling me to do things that could be very enjoyable, unique and challenging. And that has proven to be true.

We started Game Creek Video in 1993 with a couple of trucks. Now we have 22, and we’ve just put three more—full HDTV units—on the road. We utilize our trucks from 200 to 250 days per year for various networks and other customers, while the networks might use them for just 75 to 100 days a year, max. As a result, we are able to make more efficient use of our capital.

I believe that success in the mobile television production business directly relates to the fact that it’s a service business. Meeting our customers’ requirements is our primary focus. We’ve also grown by adapting to the changes in the industry that have occurred over the years. Most important, however, are people.

Anybody can buy the same equipment, lenses and cameras. There are some nuances and differences as to how you put it all together, but the real core of the success or failure of any enterprise is the people involved in it. You need to hire a core group of people that you can build and grow the company on, and we’ve been able to do that.

Your people also must be competent. Our clients are the most knowledgeable people in the industry. They expect to deal with other capable people, not only in the trucks and the engineering staff, but also the drivers, who have to be able to deal with customers and venue management folks. And the people back in the office have to be on top of things so that when the trucks arrive on site everything that’s needed to be successful is there and ready.

There’s very little room for error in the mobile television production business, which is why we build in a certain level of redundancy. Much is at stake. A mobile television production company’s clients invest a great deal in what they do, including rights fees, crews and satellite/transmission services. You have to be prepared to work around problems, because not everything works perfectly on every show.

You also have to work very closely with your vendors. We have good relationships with all our main vendors, including Calrec (audio), Canon (HD lenses), Evertz (distribution, conversion and synchronization cards), EVS (disc-based replay systems), PESA (routing) and Sony (HD cameras). Your engineers need to know every company’s tech support people on a first-name basis, should they have to call them from the field.

We don’t go in to any truck-building project thinking that we have all the answers. Instead we ask as many questions as we can and listen to what the client says. I think we’ve been pretty successful in building products that ultimately serve our customers well. The production teams that will be using the trucks need to visit while they’re still being built. They’ll be spending a good chunk of their lives in these trucks, so they have to be comfortable in them. They should be able to make adjustments based on their requirements and have a sense of “ownership” in the finished product. Little things become of high importance, like the placement of control panels; three or four inches one way or another can make a huge difference. It’s a very collaborative effort.

HD is not just the future, it’s the present as well. You can’t ignore it. If you do you might as well say, “I’d rather just step away from the business altogether.” Of our 22 trucks, 11 of them are production units, and the rest are support units. Of those 11 production units, six of them will be HD, so that pretty much tells you where the business is going.

We were asked to build two high-def trucks in 2003, which we did, and they came out in 2004. Ultimately we will have five HD trucks for use by Fox, three for the NFL, and two additional very large-scale production units built to do NASCAR as well as Super Bowls. Other clients include ESPN, the YES Network, MSG Network, The NFL Network, Winnercomm and CBS.

These new trucks are more of an evolution for us from where we’ve come over the last several years. HD—from the perspective of being a mobile television production company—has caused us to go out and raise enormous amounts of capital to keep up with the demand for it. HD is also not as complicated a technology as we first thought. The pricing on HD equipment is starting to come down, which is good. The differential between the cost of HD and SD equipment has been reduced fairly significantly over the last two or three years, which is also favorable. HD is a technology that’s evolving quickly, and there’s a lot of support from the manufacturers to do some interesting things with HD that makes it more flexible and easy to use than it was just three or four years ago.

These things include what I would call infrastructure changes. For example, we decided in 2002 to utilize new technologies PESA was creating that allow us to rely on the router to be more of the core of the truck, as opposed to our doing a lot of manual patching. We found PESA’s new design concept to be highly reliable and quick to set up, so we incorporated it into the designs that we did starting in 2002 with our last SD truck. Our first three HD trucks all have a similar “router-centric design.”

The SD truck has a very large-scale SD digital router with an analog component to it for monitoring. And then our HD trucks had HD routing as well as a fairly large analog component router for monitoring. The Fox truck has a massive HD router only; there’s no SD or analog in the truck. That’s a PESA router as well.

The Fox trailers themselves were built by Gerling & Associates. The wiring was done by Beck Associates, based on the designs that Jason Taubman, our VP of design, and Paul Bonar, our VP of engineering, created.

In the realm of moving toward increasing amounts of HD production, we have advanced the state of the art to a stage where, I believe, we offer our customers the quickest trucks to set up, the most flexible for different kinds of events, and an incredibly capable group of engineers and office personnel to support that production.

I think there will be more and more HD in this business. I believe the cost of transmitting HD will go down, as will the cost for the consumer to view it. I see the demand for HD projects continuing to rise, sustaining the current growth spurt.

All of the major events—certainly in the sports industry—are done in HD, and it’s even filtering down to some of the second-tier events.

The other perspective on HD is from those who watch at home. If you have the right equipment—and hopefully the right way to get the signal over-the-air, from your cable company or satellite TV provider—there’s nothing better. HD is a terrific way to watch a variety of different things, from documentaries to sports.

Game Creek Video is ready to bring that HD programming to audiences everywhere.

Patrick Sullivan is the Founder and President of Game Creek Video (