It’s crunch time across the NHL this week. Players and coaches have to get back into game shape, front offices have to sign free agents to fill out their rosters, and arenas have to lay the ice and raise the boards for the start of a condensed season of hockey, which begins in earnest with a 13-game slate this Saturday.
At the same time, in conference rooms and on conference calls across the country, programming schedules are shifting, trucks full of gear are hitting the road, and engineers, technicians, and broadcasters are prepping as television networks across the country get ready to deliver what fans have been missing most: hockey.
Despite the small, slightly chaotic window of time that networks have for prepping for a new season, the resounding feeling is still one of relief.
“It’s great, and we’re happy to have it back,” says Mike Connelly, SVP/executive producer at Fox Sports Regional Networks. Thirteen of the league’s 30 franchises are aired on FSN-owned and -operated channels. “From an ad-sales standpoint and a production standpoint, you can’t pass up professional sports like that, so everybody’s excited.”
At NBC Sports, the NHL’s national broadcasting partner in the U.S., hockey is a welcome return, especially since NHL games are the bread and butter of NBC Sports Network’s live programming slate.
“We consider ourselves the network of the NHL, so we’re more than happy to have it back,” says Ken Goss, VP, sports operations, NBC Sports. “We’re going to go at it starting this weekend all the way through to the Stanley Cup. It’s very important programming to us, and it’s one of the cornerstones of our Sports Group.”
Production trucks will fall in line and programming schedules can be massaged out, but the universal challenge at both the national and regional level will come in the first few weeks of the season when executives will be filling engineering staffing holes left behind by crew and freelancers that had to take other work during the lockout.
“Some of our lead TDs and other lead engineers have other assignments so we’re fixing the schedules and moving some people through,” says Sam Flood, executive producer of NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network. “But because of our Olympic work and all of the other sports that we’re doing now with the NBC Sports Network, we have a great, great group of engineers up and down the line. So we’re able to fill in and eventually we’ll be able to get back to our normal teams. But short tern, yes, it has been a bit of a challenge but our crew has done a fabulous job going out and getting the right people.”
NBC Welcomes Back Programming Cornerstone
Despite losing its hockey ratings crown jewel, the Winter Classic, NBC Sports remained optimistic throughout the lockout that the NHL and NHLPA would resolve their differences to salvage a season.
Aware that news of the league’s return could come at any time, NBC Sports operations kept its primary hockey trucks, NEP Broadcasting’s ND5 and ND6, within arm’s reach over the last couple of months, having the trucks working events for various NBC-owned properties, including Golf Channel.
“These two trucks will not only do this weekend, they will stay with us, sometimes doubling up during the week to cover the three to four games. But they will follow us all the way through to the Stanley Cup,” says Goss, adding that the trucks will each handle either the Eastern or Western Conference playoffs when they begin in late April.
In the league’s 48-game-per-team condensed schedule, NBC Sports Group will air 70 regular-season games across NBC and NBC Sports Network. The schedule includes 14 exclusive windows (15 games) on NBC, the most regular-season windows ever for the network, as well as 24 exclusive windows and 26 exclusive games on NBC Sports Network.
This year, NBC Sports aims to bring a consistent feel across all its broadcasts, whether it’s a major-network Sunday game or one of NBC Sports Network’s blackout-restriction-free Wednesday-night telecasts. That starts with the use of NBC’s primary broadcast team of Doc Emrick (play-by-play), Eddie Olczyk (analyst), and Pierre McGuire, as well as the network’s primary production duo of producer John McGuiness and director Jeff Simon.
“We are trying to standardize our levels,” says Richard Assenzio, director of technical and remote operations, NBC Sports. “Most of the games have identical levels, but there may have been slight differences on the NBC game versus the NBC Sports Network game. I don’t want to say that we were erratic, but sometimes we adhered to those rules and sometimes we changed. Going into this season, we are trying to be consistent with our levels, regarding the super-slo-mo in particular.”
NBC Sports’ high-speed camera of choice is the Sony 3330, which is one of five hard cameras that NBC Sports deploys throughout an arena. The network also uses various specialty cameras rented through Fletcher, including robotic units on the center red line and behind one of the goals and RF cameras inside the nets.
NBC Sports begins its broadcasting slate at 3 p.m. ET on Saturday with NHL Live, a new studio program broadcast from NBC Sports Group’s new, state-of-the-art International Broadcast Center in Stamford, CT. Following the presentation of the Los Angeles Kings Stanley Cup banner-raising ceremony, the network offers regional coverage of the Kings hosting the Chicago Blackhawks or the Pittsburgh Penguins visiting the Philadelphia Flyers.
On Sunday, NBC returns with the Buffalo Sabres hosting the Flyers at 12:30 p.m. NBC Sports Network begins its season Sunday night by televising the Phoenix Coyotes at the Chicago Blackhawks at 10 p.m. NBC Sports Network continues coverage with a game on three consecutive nights Monday-Wednesday.
“We were always under the idea that we had to react at some time,” says Goss. “We didn’t know when [hockey] was coming back. In January, we were hopeful it was coming back, so we were pre-strategizing prior to hearing the good word.”
RSNs Take a Big Hit
NBC may be the high-profile national partner of the NHL, but teams’ local RSN affiliates lost loads of airtime and ad dollars during the lockout. Those networks, most falling under the Fox Sports or Comcast banner, understand the value of getting live NHL content back.
“It’s massively important,” says Jon Slobotkin, VP/executive producer, live events, at Comcast Sports Group, which owns the broadcast rights to the Chicago Blackhawks, Philadelphia Flyers, San Jose Sharks, and Washington Capitals. “Hockey is so much a part of the fabric of what we do. The fan bases in our markets are rabid hockey fans, and, while I have no doubt that there was great disappointment felt by the fan bases when there was no hockey, I think it’ll be somewhat of a forgive-and-forget mode. I think that our teams know their fans and what [they] want. I would be really surprised if we didn’t see a significant outpouring of attention in terms of ratings and attendance.”For many RSNs, their NHL and NBA contracts are the keystones of their fall and winter programming, and the lockout has left a gaping hole in those schedules. Fox Sports chose to fill them mostly with college basketball but is now shuffling a schedule that the networks had not received from the league until earlier this week.
“We have systems in place to schedule alternate channels for each region, so it’s just a matter of making sure that we can accommodate all events with our alternate channels or ‘plus’ channels,” says Connelly. “We expect a few nights to be a little bit tough to reschedule, and, generally, that’s Saturday nights with college basketball or Thursday nights depending on what the NHL schedule looks like.”
The lockout also left the networks in the tough position of letting production-truck facilities and freelance staff go while the league canceled games in two-week chunks.
According to Slobotkin, in the world of NHL regional shows, it generally takes 30-60 days to order facilities and get crews in place. Much like the players and teams, networks use the preseason to get their productions in shape and iron out any issues that may arise with the venue. They do not have the luxury of that this season.
“We’re all going to be very much in a little bit of a scramble mode to start,” says Slobotkin. “The regional-sports-network production business is fascinating because we all do a ton of games across the country and in Canada all the time and there’s always that fine line between a wonderful show and a disaster. We’re all in this together, everyone’s pulling on the same rope, so I think that will put everybody in a cooperative spirit.”
The lockout does appear to have buried the idea of introducing any production enhancements, both at the national level with NBC and, for Fox Sports and Comcast, at the RSN level.
“Obviously, budgets will be a little bit tighter since we were locked out,” says Connelly. “What we want more than anything is just to have good, solid, clean shows and not miss anything.”
He adds that the high-speed camera Fox refers to as X-Mo will be deployed on most Fox events and that the networks are looking to add Vizrt’s LiberoVision, a graphics-enhancement program, in some bigger hockey markets, such as Minnesota or Detroit and possibly L.A.
Bringing Back the Fan
There is concern that the lockout may have an impact on television ratings, especially for NBC, which enjoyed the most-watched Stanley Cup Playoffs in 15 years. Flood and NBC Sports are not naive to the fact that the lockout could indeed have an impact on audience numbers.
“We’re going to have to see,” he says. “We can’t control that right now. All we can do is cover the games the best way that we can and hope the passion for hockey bubbles back to the surface very quickly. The hockey fan is a very passionate group and we’re cautiously optimistic that they will come back. It won’t be instant. You’ve got to regain the trust and regain the passion.”
The NHL enjoys more ratings success at the regional level than nationally. Certain markets will likely bounce back more quickly than others. Despite belief that some fans may hold bitter feelings and resist returning after the lockout, Slobotkin remains optimistic.
“I think hockey fans love hockey, and I think they’re going to be thrilled when it’s back, and we’re going to be thrilled to televise it,” he says. “I think, within a couple of days, you’re going to see hockey in your town either at home or on TV practically every other night for three months, and I think people are just going to immerse themselves in it once it starts.”
Even with that optimism, networks are doing their part with the league to help smooth over any fan resentment that may still exist.
For the third straight year, NBC will host Hockey Day in America, which aligns programming to celebrate America’s passion for the game. On Sunday Feb. 17, more than nine hours of coverage will include three games across both NBC and NBC Sports Network. Coverage begins at noon on NBC with NHL Live. The first two broadcasts on NBC are Pittsburgh at Buffalo at 12:30 p.m. and Los Angeles at Chicago at 3:30 p.m. The final game of the celebration pits the Washington Capitals against the New York Rangers at 6 p.m. and airs on NBC Sports Network. In addition to the games, coverage will include features and interviews that aim to tell the story of America’s passion for hockey.
Fox Sports North will celebrate the return of the NHL with a full day of hockey on its air. Three high school games will begin at 9 a.m. CT on a frozen lake in Grand Rapids, MN. From there, the network will go to a college showdown between the University of Minnesota and rival University of North Dakota. The slate is than capped by the Minnesota Wild hosting the Colorado Avalanche.
Karen Hogan contributed to this report.