This week’s WTA Top Seed Open in Lexington, KY, represents the first WTA- or ATP-sanctioned event on U.S. soil since the pandemic shut down the sports world in mid March, and Tennis Channel is on hand to bring the action live to the masses. While the tournament marks the return for high-profile stateside tennis, it’s nothing new for Tennis Channel, which has kept busy over the past five months, producing five tournaments in the U.S. and carrying hundreds of hours of live coverage from the around the world.
“We took great pride in being one of the very first networks to come back with live sports,” says Bob Whyley, SVP/executive producer, Tennis Channel. “We never put the ‘gone fishing’ sign up. We have done five remotes since [the pandemic began], and we’re happy with that accomplishment. If we weren’t producing live tennis on our own, we took in live world feeds from Europe. And, if we weren’t doing that, then we had a live studio show where we incorporated some of our talent in studio and other talent via Skype.”
Safety Means Efficiency: ViBox, SMT Automated Production Tools Deployed
Tennis Channel, on behalf of WTA Media, is producing the world feed for the WTA event in Lexington this week, as well as delivering its own customized telecast to U.S. viewers. In an effort to ensure the health and safety of its team, the network has a smaller onsite crew and footprint than usual, deploying 22 people (which would typically be 50-60) and Gravity Media’s Polaris midsize mobile unit rather than a 53-footer.
“We have to be thoughtful and sensitive to the amount of people that we have onsite,” Whyley points out. “We can’t do business as usual with the big mobile units and big crews, but that doesn’t mean we can’t produce a great show.”
Polaris is built around a 16-channel SimplyLive ViBox all-in-one production system, which is handling the center-court coverage at Top Seed Tennis Club. Tennis Channel has deployed six cameras for center-court coverage, including a jib, a build-up slo-mo system, two hard cameras (courtesy of Ross Production Services), a handheld, and a beauty shot. Longtime CBS Sports Coordinating Producer Bob Mansbach is overseeing the production.
“The SimplyLive ViBox takes a little bit of getting used to because it’s relatively new technology,” says Whyley, “but it has worked out great so far. Our operators in there have been doing a great job, and it’s accomplishing exactly what we need to accomplish, which is a nice, clean world feed.”
To deliver live-streaming coverage from Courts 2 and 3 in Lexington, Tennis Channel is deploying SMT’s automated robotic-camera-tracking system to produce live feeds using just one or two operators per court. Each court has a three-camera setup: one lock-off wide shot and two robotic cameras controlled by SMT software that allows a single operator to produce the entire show. SMT is also providing data and scoring for the main control room inside Polaris (since SMT can integrate into the ViBox directly via NDI).
“I know SMT is more widely known for doing graphics and stats,” says Whyley, “but this camera-tracking system has been pretty impressive for our streaming courts. We knew we needed to have a limited [crew onsite] because of safety, and this has played a big role in allowing us to do that.”
Back in L.A.: Producing the Domestic Broadcast From Home
Another major reason Tennis Channel was able to limit the number of bodies onsite is that it’s leveraging its Los Angeles production facility to create its own domestic telecast. The world feed is being backhauled to L.A., where Tennis Channel’s production team (abiding by all safety and social-distancing guidelines) is using a dedicated control room to supplement the feed with graphics, studio inserts, match commentary, and other storytelling elements.
“[Our studio] has been dark only two weeks since the week of March 9,” says Whyley. “We are very comfortable there, and we have a good process in place by now. And [parent company] Sinclair has been very supportive and helpful to make sure we have all the right procedures to keep people as safe as possible. We don’t have too many folks in one location, and it has been very successful to date.”
Looking Ahead: Scaled-Down US Open Presence, Major Production at Roland Garros
Next week, the ATP Tour returns for the Western and Southern Open (usually held in Cincinnati) at Flushing Meadows in advance of the US Open, starting at the same venue a week later. With health and safety taking precedence at the Open this year, only host broadcaster ESPN will be permitted onsite. As a result, Tennis Channel will not have its usual lofted set at Arthur Ashe Stadium but will be taking in court feeds, providing first-ball-to-last-ball commentary, and producing its TC Live studio show from Los Angeles.However, the real Super Bowl for Tennis Channel each year is the French Open, which, for the first time, will take place after the US Open at the end of September. As the U.S. domestic rightsholder, the network will once again produce hundreds of hours of live first-ball-to-last-ball tennis from Roland Garros and have a sizable onsite presence with 70+ crew (compared with 150 in a typical year) and multiple booths and studio sets on the grounds.“Most of our focus right now is on the French Open,” notes Whyley. “I think I could speak for everyone in saying we’re really excited to be a part of it. We will fall underneath the [French Tennis Federation] protocols when it comes to safety, and we’ll be scaling back in terms of people. But we’re in a good place, and we’re ready for it. You don’t know what tomorrow brings, but, being in production, we’re used to having to be flexible. So we will be ready, no matter what.”