Commentary

Play-By-Play From The Studio: Embrace It!

Monitors provide angles galore. It’s better than sitting in the nosebleeds

editing room

It’s happening but don’t get angry!

In recent years, albeit infrequently, ESPN and other networks have pulled their basketball announcers from venue to studio. Earlier, it was a practice networks only resorted to for overseas events; circumventing travel costs and higher setup fees.

This past college basketball season, less than 1% of ESPN’s broadcasts (37 of approximately 4,000 games) were produced in this manner according to spokesperson Kimberly Elchlepp. ESPN labels the practice remote integration which for basketball broadcasts has been limited to ESPNU or platforms other than ESPN and ESPN2.

When doing so, ESPN shifts much of the production, announcers included, from site to studio. The network says that cost savings are invested in newer and more streamlined equipment which in the long run will enhance the overall viewer experience.

But when play-by-play announcers were first asked to call homegrown basketball from the studio, they bristled. Mike Patrick who recently left ESPN made his strong feelings clear on these pages, “I did one game from a studio. Anyone who says the quality doesn’t suffer should be selling used cars.” ESPN will tell you that studio technology has vastly improved since Patrick’s experience some years ago.

Last January 21st on ESPNU, Anish Shroff and Cory Alexander were seamlessly calling a Virginia win over Wake Forest in Winston Salem. As I recall now, they never mentioned the fact that they weren’t at the venue and frankly there was no reason to suspect otherwise. But after the game, Virginia coach Tony Bennett was interviewed at courtside; standing alone and fielding questions from Shroff and Alexander in the studio. It was eye-popping. Not bad, just odd!

remote integration room

Accept these facts:

  • Broadcasting from a studio that has the needed bells and whistles is an upgrade for many NBA and NHL announcers who have been steadily relegated to impossible vantages in arenas.
  • It’s an issue for football too. Some broadcasters are now assigned booths in the corners of end zones where they are often forced to call plays off monitors. It’s awful.
  • Courtside and midfield are ideal but only the top national television networks will survive the deportation of announcers to the nosebleeds.
  • Radio has little bargaining power at all and television isn’t far behind. Ratings for English language winter sports are minuscule and there’s little demand for advertising.
  • Listenership to foreign language wintertime radio broadcasts is microscopically tiny and the poor souls who calls these games are assigned locations that might as well be outside the arena. Still, like sheep to the slaughter, they trudge night after night to unworkable locations to do the best they can.
  • This is not the1940s when Red Barber and others recreated out-of-town baseball games by putting creative flesh on strips of skeletal ticker-tape. No additional tools, just a creative imagination!
  • Walk into the ESPN studio today. You’ll find bright, large, magnificent screens with brilliant resolution. Views are available from multiple camera positions. Bose-like quality headsets give announcers unimaginable stereophonic sound, a virtual feel of being in the best seat in the house. In addition, there is also the convenient immediacy of stat and replay monitors.
  • A few years ago, Bob Picozzi broadcast a triple overtime game from ESPN’s studio. A buddy of his, an ex-coach, texted him to say that he sounded great. Bob replied, asking whether he realized that they were in the studio. The buddy was shocked. Color man Tim Welsh said the only thing he missed was the energy of an arena before a game. Yet, Welsh said that he had full access to coaches and others to be perfectly prepared.

America is the richest country in the world, due in large part to the efficiencies and cost savings that were first spawned by mass production, then automation and later technology.

Look around. Cameras are being developed to follow the ball automatically; good for production costs, bad for cameramen. They’ll go the way of the elevator operator and the milkman. Down the road, AI might usurp microphones from announcers altogether. It could happen.

Former broadcaster Barry Kipnis compared his difficulty calling a football game from a ground-level car to describing Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade from the subway. Well, the nosebleeds or end zone locations might as well be the Herald Square subway stop beneath Macy’s flagship store

Noah built the ark when it was sunny.

In the studio, announcers might actually see the ice, court and field! Don’t fight it.

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David J. Halberstam
David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History.

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Barry KipnisDavid J. HalberstamChas GlazerBruce Bernstein Recent comment authors
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Bruce Bernstein
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Bruce Bernstein

These productions save a lot of money and work fine with the production crew because the producer/director team is in the truck, not in the arena. It really doesn’t change what they do. But the announcers are the ones who lose the most. They need to talk to assistant coaches, etc to get intel for the audience. And they need to convey the feel of the arena. The only way to do that is to be on site.

Chas Glazer
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Chas Glazer

Two things… First…the concept of broadcasting live from the studio might be a more recent event, however, when I worked at KTLA Channel 5 in sports in the early 1980’s, the station had the rights to UCLA football and basketball…the games carried were on tape delay at 11 pm that night and one game, I believe was at Colorado, in which the game was shot and taped at the game site…then the video tapes were flown back to LA and the station ran them with Joe Buttitta doing play by play with a color analyst calling the action from the… Read more »

David J. Halberstam
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David J. Halberstam

Got this from the NBA’s commissioner Adam Silver after he read this article:

“As you probably know, we’ve done this for some of our international
games and we continue to look at new ways to improve our broadcasts.”

Barry Kipnis
Member

On the point, Fox Sports is going to cover the preliminary rounds of the World Cup from Russia from their local studios.