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Soaring With Eagles

Though the Philadelphia Eagles had a rough season, enthusiasm is still high among the production team at the Eagles Television Network (ETN). They’ve been turning out three weekly shows a season, and will soon debut a half-hour animated kids’ show, all written, shot, produced and directed in-house, and a slow season isn’t likely to slow them down.

Known around the NFL as one of the leaders in production and post, their facility is nestled conveniently inside the stadium at Lincoln Financial Field with a view overlooking the gridiron. It’s one of only a dozen in the league, and is on the short list of the best equipped. Several other team’s production units have been in to observe the operation, and left Philadelphia impressed by what they saw.

“We feel we have revolutionized sports production and feel we have the most unique game production in the league. We’ve stepped away from the ‘classic’ look and have put an Eagles Television Network twist in what our fans view each week,” said Rob Alberino, director of broadcasting at ETN.

KICKOFF
Alberino started out with the birth of ETN in 1997, when he was hired to create the network from the bottom up. He had been working as a filmmaker for NFL Films when he got the call from the Eagles. Starting out in a makeshift office, he was given carte blanche by the team and proceeded to assemble the network’s first shows.

This series of events resulted in a unique system which remains in place and allows them to produce shows the way they want to.

The first part of that system is the trust that the Eagles front office places with them to a great job. They’ve been given 100% freedom, including unique access to the players and the ability to choose the highest quality equipment to build a state-of-the-art facility, which was installed with the construction of the new stadium. The consistently high quality output they produce preserves this freedom, and the management’s confidence is surely bolstered by the 26 Mid-Atlantic Emmy Award wins out of 88 nominations that the team has garnered in the past eight years.

The second half of the equation is the close-knit team Alberino has assembled. He’s worked with his two handpicked editors, Ron Schindlinger and Dana Heberling, for six and ten years respectively. The atmosphere he fosters shows them and the rest of the team members that he wants to put his all into making great shows and his enthusiasm certainly trickles down to them.

THE IMPORTANCE OF A TIGHT TEAM
Just as the head office trusts Alberino to do good work, he trusts his team. A few of the guys are from his days at NFL Films, and that camaraderie is evident. They’re a close-knit group, and choosing the right people to work with and providing an enjoyable working environment and great equipment opens the door to the type of programming that the ETN is known for.

The entire team has the flexibility to perform virtually any task that comes his way, ensuring that each man understands everyone else’s job.

“I wear a lot of different hats: I write, produce, direct and shoot, and so do all my guys. They all have tremendous versatility,” Alberino said.

WORKFLOW
When producing a show for ETN, they take their footage and dump it into their Avid Unity, where everything is digitized and stored, then get it to the edit suites where they work their magic. From there it goes to the control room where it’s blasted out to the world. Doing everything in-house not only saves time, but also assures that the quality of every aspect of a production is up to snuff.

In order to keep productivity high, nine Compaq PCs, each with a 120 GB hard drive, were purchased as a rendering farm. Instead of diverting precious resources away from the Avid, this dedicated system of computers handles all the rendering. Each PC also serves as a repository for logos, music, graphics and similar files.

An important aspect of keeping things running smoothly is the high level of redundancy built into the facility. The edit suites, for instance, have two 360 GB backup drives each. They try to cover all the bases—should anything fail, there’s always a replacement.

“Our pulmonary artery is the sync generator—if we lose sync, we lose the show,” said Alberino. “We bought two of them. If one goes down, we’ve got the other one right here. We have safety nets everywhere.”

FACILITY DESIGN
Alberino had a good deal of input into the design of the post facility. He chose what equipment he felt was needed and handed the list over to Acoustic Dimensions, a Texas-based company, who drew up the blueprints. Diversified Systems Inc., out of New Jersey, then took over and integrated it.

The control room, with its view of the entire playing field, is set up exactly like a TV studio. It’s used not only for creating the TV & radio shows, but also to produce and control everything the crowd sees on the screen during a game, from opening videos to touchdown announcements. This proximity to the live games is not only key while operating the video screens, but it also allows them to feel close to the team, giving the shows they produce a depth not available to a group without that advantage.

“We have what’s basically a TV truck stuck up on the 35-yard line at the stadium. It’s set up just like most control rooms, but with more firepower,” said Alberino.

Powering the control room is their Avid Unity (with 8 TB of memory), an Avid/Pinnacle FXDeko II, three Sony DigiBetas and one Sony Betacam. Additionally, there’s a Thomson Grass Valley Zodiak Switcher, four Ikegami cameras and Pro Tools HD.

Down a short hallway are the two edit suites, each with a 16 x 16 router—a convenience that shouldn’t be underestimated. The ability to route everything in and out of each section saves time and money that can be then used to maintain quality.

In the edit suites are two Avid Symphony’s, two SDI Ikegami monitors, an Avid DSHD and a Yamaha O1V digital audio mixing console. Ron does all the effects work in Edit Suite 2 using Adobe After Effects, a program they speak highly of at ETN.
Each of the rooms is painted dark green (interestingly, the only ‘green rooms’ in the stadium) and decorated with nice track lighting, comfortable couches, various awards and artwork. This gives the rooms a relaxed feel that’s conducive to getting things done.

In keeping with the philosophy of easy access to keep the work moving smoothly, all the rooms were designed so that a laptop could be plugged in anywhere at any time. That way, files of all formats can be sent back and forth with ease.

The Power Of Branding ETN has taken what is essentially a regional production, with 20 million viewers in Philly, New Jersey and Delaware, and turned it into something with a national feel. Whereas many teams’ productions have somewhat of a newsy feel, they offer something more intimate and insightful.

When the Eagles were designing their new stadium a few years back, there was one simple directive handed down from above: make it look like ETN does. This is a testament to the strength of the branding the channel has done for the team.

Also towards this goal was the creation of a partially animated children’s show—Eagles Kids Club TV Show. The idea came from Mark Donovan, the senior vice president of business operations, and is part of the youth program the team runs.

He basically asked the crew to put together a show that would be educational, not profit-based, and that would be partially animated. In this case, everything was done in-house except for the animation, which makes up about 4 minutes per 20-minute episode. Everything else (voice work is done by the crew and their family members) is produced in-house.

The concept is to use spare time at the facility to make programming that young fans will learn from. Hopefully those kids will stick around as they get older and remain fans later on.

ETN and the channel’s crew are an integral part of the Philadelphia Eagle’s organization, and the value that has been given them is returned in carefully and lovingly crafted shows that continue to be the envy of the NFL.

Rob Farren is the Managing Editor. He can be reached at rfarren@cmp.com.