What parts of pandemic broadcasting might remain post-pandemic?

Many of the changes caused by the pandemic figure to be either optional or permanent. Some of them might not sit well with fans, media or the broadcasters themselves.

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Networks would rather have their announcing and production crews together at a game, but they’ve learned during the pandemic that it’s not required.

Networks would rather have their announcing and production crews together at a game, but they’ve learned during the pandemic that it’s not required.

Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

If sports television networks have learned anything from broadcasting during a pandemic, it’s that nothing is impossible.

Need to call a hockey game played in Edmonton from studios in the States? It can be done. In fact, the play-by-play voice and analyst don’t even need to be in the same state.

Need to call a baseball game in Pittsburgh from a ballpark in Chicago? Viewers couldn’t tell much of a difference, if at all.

Networks discovered they weren’t tethered to the stadium or production truck to produce a game. Many jobs that were carried out on site were done elsewhere.

“It’s actually a lot less onerous than we realized to do things via remote,” said Mike McCarthy, Marquee Sports Network’s general manager. “We probably identified 12 key television positions, whether it’s within the studio or live, that could be done from home. We had graphics being produced by someone in their home and airing through our studio. If you had told me last year we were going to try that, I would say that’s crazy.”

Production crews for competing teams shared cameras on baseball broadcasts, with the road teams operating theirs from their home truck. It took more communication between crews, but it worked.

“The main thing we learned is there are ways to broadcast a game where you don’t have to have all of your resources in the same space,” said Kevin Cross, NBC Sports Chicago senior vice president and general manager. “It didn’t affect the show in a negative way; in some ways it enhanced the show. We were able to do more elements in the game because we were able to pull from resources back in the studio. I think some of those things will carry over.”

To be sure, networks would rather have their announcing and production crews together at a game. And perhaps when COVID-19 vaccines become readily available to all, everyone will return to their seats.

But as in other lines of work, many of the changes caused by the pandemic figure to be either optional or permanent. And when it comes to broadcasting, some of them might not sit well with fans, media or the broadcasters themselves.

Here are three concerns for broadcasting post-pandemic:

Scheduling

With no fans in the stands to consider, teams and leagues have been free to move game times and game days because of impending weather or, more acutely, a COVID-19 outbreak. But could that practice continue post-pandemic?

This issue affects baseball more than other sports, though football has had some weather-related changes over the years. But if, say, the Cubs have a night game and it’s obvious that a storm front will reach Wrigley Field by first pitch, would they make it a day game on short notice?

The Cubs moved a few game times pre-pandemic but not by much. Would they do what they did this past season, when they moved a game from 7:15 p.m. to 2:20 the day before the game if there were paying customers to consider? Any gate is better than no gate, as all of baseball learned this year.

Remote broadcasts

Everyone prefers to be at the games, but now that networks have seen what they can accomplish remotely, you have to wonder whether on-site broadcasts will be reduced. Remote broadcasts are nothing new, but they’ve never been to the scale we’ve seen this year. And with networks facing financial challenges because of the pandemic, perhaps a cost-saving measure is less travel.

Though viewers rarely detect a discernible difference, the overall quality of the broadcast can suffer. Announcers are at the mercy of the cameras, and if a shot is missed, so is the call. Plus, the broadcast can lose an intangible element if the audience knows the announcers aren’t at the game. It was odd watching Oregon-Oregon State play in a monsoon while the broadcasters were warm and cozy at home.

Access

Sideline reporters have been adversely affected by safety protocols. They’ve become grandstand reporters. You might have noticed hearing more anecdotes than reporting as they try to adjust to the reduced access.

In football, they still have their brief halftime meeting with the coach and report injuries, but the audience knows they’re limited. This was particularly true on baseball broadcasts, where field reporters mainly provided human-interest stories and a different camera view.

How long will access remain limited, and for whom? With teams hosting news conferences via Zoom, will reporters of all kinds ever return to the locker room or clubhouse? Or will teams maintain the separation as a means to control their players?

REMOTE PATROL

  • NBC Sports Chicago will cover baseball’s virtual winter meetings for Cubs and White Sox fans with “Winter Meetings Live,” airing Sunday through Thursday. David Kaplan and Chuck Garfien will host the show, which will premiere after “Football Aftershow” at about 4:30 p.m. Sunday and air at 6:30 during the week.
  • Eric Collins, who was a sideline reporter for Bulls games from 1997 to 2002 and is the TV voice of the Hornets, will call the Iowa-Illinois football game Saturday with analyst Ben Leber. Kickoff is at 2:30 p.m. on FS1.
  • Fox’s No. 5 team of Kevin Kugler, Chris Spielman and Laura Okmin will call the Lions-Bears game at noon Sunday.
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