It’s been just more than a year since the Lakers RSNs, Time Warner Cable SportsNet and its Spanish-language equivalent, Time Warner Cable Deportes, launched in the Los Angeles area. It was no small feat for an MSO to become the rights owner for a professional sports team and make the unprecedented move to launch its own RSNs—particularly from a production standpoint. CableFAX spoke with Larry Meyers, Time Warner Cable Sports vp, content and executive producer, about meeting the challenges to launching the networks from the ground up.
What are some of the challenges to launching two networks at once, and one in Spanish no less?
Time Warner Cable had never been in this part of the programming business before. The idea of paying the rights for the Lakers and then launching two regional sports networks was brand new. So we were all coming together from scratch from the very top down. David Rone was employee number one after the rights deal was made. I was employee 12 I think, and that was in October, about 11 months before we went on the air. We had that much time to build two complete networks from scratch, which at the time … we had no name, no building, no logo, and brand attributes that needed to be created. So the challenge was to build everything—to build a brand, build a facility, hire two staffs under one company that work together to launch two networks.
It wasn’t just about putting together stats from the game, but it was also about the programming schedule and supporting that with a significant amount of live studio, and a significant amount of original, shoulder programming that goes around both the studio and the game. The big opportunity was that we were building an RSN serving the English language market in Southern California but we were building two, and one of them was the first ever 24/7 Spanish language regional sports network in the country, in LA.
How did you manage running two networks without double the staff?
In production there is the concept of the dual production in live sports. It’s pretty common in live regional sports when there’s for example a Lakers game… say they’re playing the Phoenix Suns. It would be very common for the Lakers broadcast to be the primary broadcast, the home broadcast. And then the visiting team would come in with the smaller group of both production people and technicians, and take what has become the dual feed—where it takes fewer people to create a customized second show. And that has been for the past few years a common way for the second show to get done.
Apply that concept to what we did, where we have two networks. We have a primary show that’s cutting the game and has control of all the cameras. And then we’re doing our own internal dual. And that way, the Deportes broadcast has complete control over its content—its editorial storyline—but the game cutting is shared between the two shows. And what’s very challenging for what we did was that we were not only doing that on home. Nobody ever went on the road in the NBA before us and did essentially their own dual on the road—where the visitors were basically doing two of their own shows.
How did you meet that challenge then?
It’s really all about planning. And very early on before launch we put our teams together that were going to be the people actually producing the telecast. We worked very closely with our new technical managers, the people that are supplying the mobile units, the camera technicians and so forth, to make sure the equipment was going to be available for us at every place that we went. And we also worked closely—and well—with the NBA. I think we really recognized the importance and the step that the launch of Time Warner Cable Deportes meant in the community of NBA teams and they really supported us. They worked closely on our behalf with the other teams and venues that we went to to make sure that there was a place for our equipment, places for our announcers, and that we were completely accommodated to take the biggest local show ever on the road.
From a technology standpoint, what has worked the best?
We are fortunate to be new, and in a large market, and as a result of that there are a lot of new technologies that we’ve been able to bring into the shows right from the very beginning. For example, we have brought in some analytical tools that we use both in our studio productions and in the games. There’s a company LiberoVision that does a really impressive animated illustrations, where they’re able to move players around and have great graphics, and we’re able to create angles that turn in the course of analysis. We’re utilizing that technology, which is commonly only used in national productions.
One of the tools that’s become very prevalent in national sports production and starting to find its way somewhat commonly in regional sports production is the high frame rate cameras—the ultra slow-mos. They create anywhere from 100 to 300 frame per second video replays of what’s taking place in the competition. And we have taken it a step further and have placement of those high frame rate cameras at our home games, behind one of the baskets and actually shooting through the glass on a remote controlled robotic map. It creates unbelievable views of the play from the point of view of the viewer. Our focus, and a lot of what our brand is built on here, is to bring our viewers inside the game, behind the curtain to the largest degree possible. We work closely with our team to give fans access, and use the tools in a way to make viewers feel like they’re in the game. And this camera really does that.
How closely do you work with the team to create content?
There are two prongs to that. You can’t have the NBA conversation without having a team conversation. As the regional rights holder, our partner, is the Lakers. It’s important to us that both of our networks are able to tell the story independently and in the way that’s most appropriate for the viewers of each network. There are nuances to the Hispanic marketplace that will mean the storytelling is a little different than the English language marketplace. Our first point of contact for most things is the team. As a partner, we promise back to them that we’re not going to ever violate that trust. And our job is the present the team to the viewers who are emotionally connected to being fans of that team. We’re not here to breaks stories, we’re not here to make anybody look bad… and we’re not here to violate the privacy of the players.
On the league side however, there is a lot of important communication and it’s storytelling related and technology related. The league is really reaching out and making technology available that was previously available only for the national rights holders, such as wireless microphones on coaches, wireless microphones—we hope—on players, and there are very specific league rules that are put in place to protect teams, the privacy of the competition, etc. The league is willing to work with us on these things so long as we work together on a common set of ground rules. Those kinds of conversations with the league are ongoing, as are [those with] the liaisons with the team venues… so that when we go in with these two shows that we do, there are no surprises.