Normally the splashy visuals, out-of-the-box camera angles and next-level razzle-dazzle are saved for hockey’s showcase events.
Not so in the COVID-19 pandemic era.
Sportsnet enters fresh territory for the resumption of NHL broadcasts this week as the network transitions to a more unusual televised product befitting these memorable times.
Get ready for “augmented audio.” Swaths of empty seats have been transformed into a set described as a cross between an outdoor game and “American Ninja Warrior.” And the ”JitaCam,” with its 360-degree rotating arm, will provide different camera angles as it hangs from the scoreboards at Rogers Place and Scotiabank Arena.
“The way that we’re doing television and the way that the games are being presented in-arena is different than it’s ever been done,” said Rob Corte, vice-president of Sportsnet and NHL Production. “So there’s potential for some great things and there’s some potential for some things that might not work out so well, but that’s OK.
“This is a unique situation and we’re all going to try and make the best of it. And we’re all going to experiment and look to find some really innovative, positive things that we can add to the broadcasts.”
After a break of over four months since play was halted last March, the NHL is set to resume with 24 teams in the mix starting Saturday. Exhibition play begins Tuesday in the hub cities of Edmonton and Toronto.
EA Sports is helping with artificial crowd noise and the NHL is overseeing the “world feed” of game action with 32 cameras, Corte said. Sportsnet executes the feed in Edmonton and NBC, the U.S. rightsholder, will handle the Toronto end.
The fan-free arenas have essentially been transformed into large studio sets around the ice surface.
“It’s full with specific lighting, special lighting, staging monitors that can be programmed with various images or footage,” Corte said. “And it’s very, very dynamic. So that’s going to be very prominent. That will start on Tuesday night with the exhibition games. But the use of the stage is going to evolve as time goes on.
“So they’re going to do a few things starting on Tuesday, but it’s really going to ramp up when the qualifying round starts on Saturday.”
A consistent audio bed of crowd noise will be used for exhibition play and Corte said more elements will be added as games continue, including team-specific chants and goal celebration sounds.
“EA Sports has done a really nice job creating these audio samples and we’re pleased with where we sit right now,” he said Monday. “Of course, we have to put it into play in an actual game, but all signs are very positive and our plans right now are to include it.”
On the production end, Corte said Sportsnet will have a unilateral camera in the arena that the studio director controls. If the on-air crew wants to tell a story about a player during a break in the action, Sportsnet can use that camera to get a shot of the athlete before eventually returning to the world feed.
The workflow pattern will be different for the network crews because they have less control of things like camera cuts and replay selections, Corte said.
“In some regards when the game is on, it’s a little hands off the wheel,” he said. “The world feed will provide us the pictures, much like an Olympics, and then we’ll tell our stories at the appropriate moment.”
Sportsnet’s play-by-play teams will call the action from inside the arenas and reporters will conduct player interviews via video linkup.
The general plan for the television broadcast is to see what works in the early going and tinker as necessary.
“There’s a lot of things in the hopper and a lot of things we can try and do,” Corte said. “But until we actually go to air and start the show, we don’t know. We have some ideas. But nothing is concrete.
“And it’s like in television, until the red light goes on and the show begins, we’re not really sure how it’s going to end up, which is exciting. I don’t say that as a negative. It’s exciting. There’s so many possibilities here.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 27, 2020.
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press