Last week’s scrimmages weren’t just for the players. Broadcasters preparing to cover an unprecedented season needed the warm-up reps as well. With the first weekend of Major League Baseball now behind them, networks are still figuring out how to make telecasts as familiar as possible, despite the lack of fans in the stands and the general use of a single broadcast “world feed” for home and away networks.
“When those three preseason games came along it was a godsend,” YES Network senior producer Bill Boland said. “Producers are control freaks, and we’re very thankful we’ve gotten to run through this and see what we can do and possibly some of the pitfalls.”
In place of chattering fans, every MLB team is piping crowd noise taken from the video game MLB The Show into their stadiums. PA announcers will still be heard too, along with in-stadium sounds like Sweet Caroline, even if they are playing to an empty house.
For home games, regional broadcasters can alter the levels of artificial audio, but they have less control when their team is on the road. For this season, local networks have agreed to create a world feed for each home game that hews much closer to 50/50 coverage of each team. Away broadcasters then get that feed, plus one camera under its control, with the ability to insert their own graphics.
“The untrained viewer probably won’t notice,” Boland said. “But you might see a graphic and go, Why did that go over that shot? Well, it’s because we won’t always have control of what shot’s coming next. We’ll try to mitigate that as much as possible, but it’s inevitably going to happen.”
NESN is going a little further to give its coverage a Red Sox flavor, at least at Fenway Park, producing a world feed for other broadcasters and then having a senior producer separately mix the various video and audio feeds to create what NESN vice president of programming and production Rick Jaffe called “more of a typical Red Sox broadcast.”
After learning about the new guidelines before the season, Jaffe’s first ask to the Red Sox was getting the ability to mic up players and air their sound in-game (though not live). The team agreed. NESN also decided to deploy extra mics at the bases to pick up more game noise. The team also OK’d the presence of an on-air reporter in the stands for home games, though they aren’t allowed to interact with players. Instead, they’ve been tasked with describing the atmosphere (or lack thereof) and showing fans the views from various seats that would normally be off-limits.
“It’s one of those things where we’re saying, ‘Let’s try a few things,’” Jaffe said. “Most will work. A few won’t.”
Braves viewers will be treated to some experimentation as well, with Fox Sports South’s crew discussing microphones on umpires or catchers as well as a camera on third-base coach Ron Washington’s helmet, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It’s going to be very fluid,” Jeff Genthner, general manager and senior vice president of Fox Sports South and Fox Sports Southeast, told the paper. “We’re going to do the best we can to do things different.”
FOX is taking the biggest swing by adding computer-generated fans to certain shots of the stands during its national broadcasts. That tech too is expected to evolve as the season progresses.
One other addition viewers might notice: more ads. Yankee Stadium will include Audi placements stenciled along the base path, with virtual spots behind home plate and across the outfield, as teams and networks try to offer new value for sponsors during a shortened season.
Howard Levinson, YES Network’s senior VP for ad sales, said they have already locked in more sponsorship money for August and September than they finished for those months last year—a needed bounceback after an early summer stretch in which “our numbers were really a nightmare.” New advertisers in the recently allowed gaming and gambling category have contributed to the strong numbers.
Despite the expected bump in viewership (the Yankees’ three exhibition games last week drew twice as many average viewers as their Spring Training matchups), Levinson said the network hasn’t increased rates for returning advertisers, though he’s looking for a 10% premium from newcomers.
He is also adjusting to the new broadcasting setup, unable at times to request certain shots for a sponsored segment. “The packages we’re putting together for sponsors have to be sensitive to the fact we don’t have control on the road,” he said. On top of all of that, MLB has added new pace of play rules this year that could impact the number of total commercials shown during games.
It’s just one more thing broadcasters will have to sort out. “A lot of this is trial and error,” Jaffe said. COVID-19 will surely present new challenges along the way as well. One Astros broadcaster is already isolating after testing positive for the disease.
“I don’t want to say the expectations are low,” Boland said. “We just want a clean game on the air that represents to the audience the documentation of a baseball game…. We’re going to walk before we run. We’ll be jogging (soon).”