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Broadcast Students (and Athletics) Go High-Def at U Oklahoma

Source: University of Oklahoma

Journalism and broadcast and electronic media majors at the University of Oklahoma have a unique classroom environment in which to learn their crafts -- SoonerVision, the in-house production arm of the institution's athletic department. The shows produced by this operation would be the envy of many professional broadcast companies, except that most of the talent behind the scenes (and even some in front of the cameras) are students.

This year's output is expected to consist of 60 to 70 live TV sporting events, 70 coaches' shows created in the studio, and about 100 "big-screen" events created for fans sitting in the campus' athletic fields outfitted with large-format high-definition video screens. The same content also appears on the SoonerVision website, which delivers both free and "premium" content for which fans pay about $100 a year. (The university won't divulge how many paid subscribers it has; but it does state that CBS Sports Network, which runs the university's media-rich athletics website, consistently places it in either first or second place in terms of traffic.)

Fast Track to ESPN-Caliber

When Brandon Meier, assistant A.D. for broadcast operations, joined the department in 2007, the athletic department had a completely analog control room that was easily 15 years old and whose components had begun to fail.

Fast forward five years. The athletic department is equipped with two control rooms to manage simultaneous events, nine high-def cameras from Sony, three robotic controls for cameras in the field, numerous displays, multiple controllers to get the devices to communicate with each other, replay systems, and "all the bells and whistles our fans are used to seeing on ESPN and Fox," Meier declares. "Our vision for our broadcasts was to have network quality. That was our goal."

Helping to achieve that was one of the primary reasons Meier left his job with the Houston Rockets, a professional basketball team. "I loved my job there, and I loved what I did," he said. "I just had an unbelievable opportunity to come up here and realize the growth opportunities that the guys at Oklahoma had to become the best video department in the country."

This wasn't the first campus position Meier has held. In 1996 he joined the staff of the University of Nebraska, which had just put up the first college big screen in the United States in its football arena. Two years later, the university installed a video screen in its basketball arena and then invested in fiber technology to be able to run that from the control room located in the football stadium. That gave Meier his first taste of the use of fiber to accommodate the high-bandwidth needs of broadcast production between sites.

Focus on High-Definition

U Oklahoma had installed a giant video board in its football stadium shortly after Meier's arrival. That spurred him to meet with the athletic director to persuade him to start working with high definition technology. Putting in a big screen without high def, Meier said, was like "buying a fancy car without an engine."

Thus began upgrade number one. That first phase, which totaled about $2.5 million, included installation of a centralized high definition control room where Meier's team could control the big screen in the football stadium, as well as the one that followed in the basketball center. In 2009 the university added a big screen to its baseball park. In 2010, another big screen was added to a softball complex. "By that time we had figured out how to use our facility to do both big screen and broadcast," explained Meier. "We didn't really want to take away resources from the big screen and use them for broadcast."

That's when phase two of the upgrade kicked into high-def gear: a build out of a second control room to enable U Oklahoma to do both a big screen show and broadcast and push that state-wide to regional television affiliates and to the SoonerVision website for webcasting. That cost another $2.5 million.

The upgrade included installation of equipment in both spaces from Telecast Fiber Systems to transport the video, audio, control, and communication signals among six athletic venues spread across the university's 3,500-acre campus.

Managing Dual Setups

Now, Meier noted, the production system can have two "setups," one covering a baseball game, for example, and the other dedicated to a big screen production. The control rooms, cameras, and other gear are operated by a team of seven full-time people, 10 to 20 part-time freelance professionals, and about 60 students. A typical event that includes both broadcast and big-screen work would have roughly 41 people working, most of them students.

Previously, that kind of coverage would have required the university to hire a production company to bring in and staff a production truck outfitted with switching, cameras, audio, graphics facilities, microphones, and other equipment to run the broadcast. That would cover a single event; a second event at the same time would require a second truck.

Since it's all pricey equipment -- for example, a lens can cost $130,000 -- some observers question the wisdom of allowing students to handle the gear. Meier points out to naysayers that the advantage of having the setup internal to the university is that it doesn't have to broken down between games. "We might have basketball games for 10 straight days," he explained. "We're not tearing our stuff down like a production truck would and loading it all up and going to the next site. Our setups and teardowns are a little bit different. That allows our students to come in a few hours before the game and jump on a camera that's already set up, go through stuff with the director, and then after the game put a bag over the camera and leave it. That gives us a huge advantage."

Meier sits in the middle of the activities, managing the teams of workers and deciding who will be staffing setup A and who will be running setup B. The "marquee" games -- such as a wildly popular Texas baseball series -- are allocated more resources, more cameras, more people.

Student Win-Wins

Students have the opportunity to work their way up through SoonerVision's organization. Each chooses a specific track they intend to study in their academic classes -- such as on-air talent, sports production, post-production, engineering -- and SoonerVision tries to put them into the appropriate jobs to develop their skills. "Some have a knack for handheld camera work, and some would much rather run our EVS [for game replay], DEKO [for graphics production], or clip server [for video playback]. Some want to get into the editing side and after-effects and building the graphics. Some just want to run the scoreboards and don't want to be on the broadcast side, which is a little more high pressure," Meier stated. "We work very, very hard to develop a student program and not just look at it as hiring these people as part-time labor."

Skill development also includes weekly training sessions every Wednesday night to give students experience on the gear. Those who prove their mettle can move up to become a senior production assistant, a job that pays $9 an hour, and production specialist, which pays $12 an hour. "I tell these 60 kids, 'Hey, I strongly believe you have the best part-time job on campus,'" Meier declares.

The university also benefits from SoonerVision. According to Meier, the broadcasts have helped build the brand of the school and given its athletics department a great deal of exposure. "It allows us to take our product to the fans that can't get to the games. We've got a ton of fans in Tulsa [two hours away]. We recognize that on the Wednesday night when we're tipping off at eight p.m. at a basketball game, it's probably not realistic to expect them to drive to the game and drive back home. We want to deliver that to them. We want to feed their appetite for OU athletics."

At the same time SoonerVision has helped with recruitment of student athletes. "Our coaches can go into a kid's home and say, 'If you come to Oklahoma, your parents are going to be able to see almost every one of your games on the Internet. When you're recruiting a kid outside your region, that's a big deal," he noted. "I also think that being on TV and getting that exposure is also special to the athletes. Some of them embrace it and love being on TV."

Going for More

When the sports schedule starts to slow down, beginning in April and May, Meier turns some of his department's attention to creation of documentaries about the history of U Oklahoma's football team. The university has already produced two, one covering 1895 to 1946 and the other 1947 to 1963. Now, said Meier, it's time to work on the "Barry Switzer era." Switzer, who began coaching at the university in 1966, had one of the highest winning percentages of any college football coach in history. In 1972, Switzer became head coach of the Sooners and led the team to national championships in 1974, 1975, and 1985. (He later joined the Dallas Cowboys and led that team to a Super Bowl victory in 1995.)

Eventually, Meier would like to see the university take on the launch of a full-scale sports network. That, he noted, would require more of everything -- "creating more unique content, doing more live games, creating more shows."

Until then, he's satisfied with "just trying to keep the ship moving forward in the right direction" -- as long as the quality stays high. "We would like to think that our broadcasts are just the same if not better quality as what ESPN is putting out," Meier observed. "We're very proud of where we're at and with what we're doing with students. It's a win-win across campus."

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