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Rolling Into 2013, the Mobile Market Looks Strong

By Mark R. Smith

A quick tour around the mobile production industry reveals an industry that has been struggling – notably a recent labor strife in the NBA at the beginning of last season, followed by the NHL’s second standstill of the past decade – that is yet proving its resiliency today.

New and extensive contracts, additions to fleets and the upcoming renovation to the last vestiges of the SD era provide proof that the industry is moving forward at the dawn of 2013.

Token Creek’s so-called Chippewa truck at the Detroit Holiday Parade for NBC affiliate WDIV-TV. The crew is working in/outside of mobile unit.
Token Creek’s so-called Chippewa truck at the Detroit Holiday Parade for NBC affiliate WDIV-TV. The crew is working in/outside of mobile unit. 

Rolling Forward

As is usually the case in the mobile production industry, Token Creek Mobile Television operates from a home base – in this case, Madison, Wis. – that is rarely the site of its work, says president John Salzwedel. He noted the further irony that the company is “less than four hours from most of the Big Ten schools, we but rarely work for them.”

That’s not to say that Token Creek hasn’t enjoyed “a good, strong fall,” though December looked a little light” at press time, Salzwedel said. “That’s due in large part to the NHL strike, and we have part of the brunt of the real trickle down effect there. [The strike] isn’t just about the owners and players.”

Token Creek’s so-called Chippewa truck at the Detroit Holiday Parade for NBC affiliate WDIV-TV. The crew is working in/outside of mobile unit.
Token Creek’s so-called Chippewa truck at the Detroit Holiday Parade for NBC affiliate WDIV-TV. The crew is working in/outside of mobile unit. 

More on the upside, Token Creek’s 48-foot HD Expando, “Chippewa,” its third HD offering in its fleet of four trucks, will soon be on the road. Chippewa features triax and fiber capability, MADI audio throughout, a Calrec Artemis audio console, a GVG Kayenne switcher, “boatloads” of EVS and Fujinon 101x and 88x lenses, plus Cobalt Digital signal processing and a Pantech multi-viewer video wall.

Token Creek’s so-called Chippewa truck at the Detroit Holiday Parade for NBC affiliate WDIV-TV. The crew is working in/outside of mobile unit.  
Token Creek’s so-called Chippewa truck at the Detroit Holiday Parade
for NBC affiliate WDIV-TV. The crew is working in/outside of mobile unit. 
 

The addition will complement the company’s two, 53-foot Expandos and its 48-foot SD truck. And, despite the NHL’s labor strife, all three have been rollin’ of late and the overall outlook is strong.

“We’ve been covering a ton college football, mainly for the ACC, since late August, with some MEAC and SWAC work, too,” says Salzwedel, “so that’s kept us busy. And we also have a full plate of college basketball, primarily for Raycom Sports and ESPN, with some NBA games for the Indiana Pacers also in the mix.

Noting that broadcast signals can leave trucks “in many different flavors now, including HD, SD, or encoded for webcasting,” Salzwedel sees trucks evolving, with IT distribution, as well as getting away from tape machines in favor of transportable devices, such as smartphones, EVS XFiles and the new xFly system. “When we do entertainment shows, we have to come to rely on that equipment, because it’s server-based,” he said.

And what that does is make editing and content transfer easier in Avid and ProRes formats. “We can avoid trading files with post facilities when we can avoid copying from tape to codecs, like the Avid, ProRes or AJA Ki Pro storage system.” In the next two years, he says, “we’ll be away from using tape formats altogether.”

Expansion at Game Creek

A fleet expansion is the big news at Game Creek Video, located about 45 miles north of Boston in Hudson, N.H. President Patrick Sullivan has grown the company from its founding in 1993 to run a fleet of 32 trucks, which will soon include 16 production units and 16 support units.

Five of those production and support trucks first hit the road this past summer, with four designated for NFL Network and the other for Comcast Houston, which covers MLB’s Astros and the NBA’s Rockets. Sullivan said the investment made Game Creek’s entire fleet HD.

Game Creek has grown its fleet to 32 trucks, working for “big” clients such ESPN (baseball, football, basketball), Fox Sports (football, baseball and NASCAR) and NFL Network.
Game Creek has grown its fleet to 32 trucks, working for “big” clients such ESPN (baseball, football, basketball), Fox Sports (football, baseball and NASCAR) and NFL Network.

“The three production units [of the five] are our seventh, eighth and ninth trucks built in the past three years that are 3G,” he says, “and all three carry the new Sony HDC 2500, which is 1080p capable.” Game Creek also upgraded two of its trucks this summer, one for ESPN and one for Fox Sports. The improvements consisted of a larger 288x288 HD2 router from Evertz for both; the company also upgraded the audio console with the Calrec Alpha Bluefin for the Fox truck.

While about 90 percent of the company’s work is for “big” clients such ESPN (baseball, football, basketball), Fox Sports (football, baseball and NASCAR) and NFL Network, Game Creek also was involved in multiple political events in 2012. “For instance, we worked on 20 of the 22 Republican primary debates, then the presidential debates from Florida and Colorado,” Sullivan said. “We also did the lone vice presidential debate from Kentucky, as well as provide the pool feed for both party’s conventions.”

Game Creek has grown its fleet to 32 trucks, working for “big” clients such ESPN (baseball, football, basketball), Fox Sports (football, baseball and NASCAR) and NFL Network.
Game Creek has grown its fleet to 32 trucks, working for “big” clients such ESPN (baseball, football, basketball), Fox Sports (football, baseball and NASCAR) and NFL Network.

While fuel costs have impacted Game Creek’s bottom line, they’ve “been mitigated somewhat by the agreements we have with our customers,” he said, also discussing tech issues like the move toward high frame rate cameras, “notably those made by Vision Research that shoot action at anywhere from 400 to 1,000 fps.

“Several years ago, the images the Vision Research cameras were creating, especially in poor light, weren’t very good,” Sullivan continued. “But during the 2012 World Series, for instance, Fox Sports used them to show [San Francisco Giants’ players] Hunter Pence’s bat breaking and Marco Scutaro watching the raindrops.

All told, he thinks the market is “pretty healthy,” noting that Game Creek’s biggest competitor – NEP out of Pittsburgh, which also owns New Century Productions and TRIO Video of Chicago – is up for sale “and should command top dollar on the market.”

Pay Dirt With the Pac-12

MIRA Mobile has a multi-year contract with the Pac-12 Networks – which launched in August – for all A-level football and basketball, and its recent expansion to include the Pac-12’s B-level broadcasts.  
MIRA Mobile has a multi-year contract with the Pac-12 Networks –
which launched in August – for all A-level football and basketball,
and its recent expansion to include the Pac-12’s B-level broadcasts.
 
 

Currently operating eight HD trucks with one SD truck, MIRA Mobile Vice President and General Manager, Frank Taylor, of the Wilsonville, Ore.-based company says he wouldn’t be surprised if that last SD truck has been replaced with an HD truck by late next year. “We still have some clients that are doing small conference college basketball and other events in SD,” he says.

MIRA’s fleet varies in terms of capability because most of its trucks are purpose-built for various contracts, which include handling the visitors of the Vancouver Canucks and home/away for the San Jose Sharks and Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.
New of late is a multi-year contract with the Pac-12 Networks – which launched in August – for all A-level football and basketball, and its recent expansion to include the Pac-12’s B-level broadcasts, which mainly cover basketball and some Olympic sports.

As for the trucks, MIRA just built a new HD truck for the Pac-12’s A level games: It’s a 53-foot trailer with a 51-foot Expando, with 12 GVG LDK 8000 cameras, with a GVG Kayenne switcher, a Calrec Artemis Beam audio console and more than 20 channels of EVS. For the B-level events, “We renovated an SD truck into and HD unit,” says Taylor. It’s a 53-foot trailer with a 35-foot Expando, with somewhat scaled back equipment specs that are sufficient for college basketball games: It contains six of the same cameras, 14 channels of EVS and a GVG Kalypso.

The “B” truck also will be used for the visiting side of West Coast NBA clients, such as the Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings and the Golden State Warriors; as well as visiting shows for NHL clients.
Concerning the company’s ledger, Taylor called 2012 “Our fiscal year ended at the end of September and even with an NBA basketball strike it was a solid year; as our new fiscal year started, we are now faced with an NHL lockout. But we still anticipate good year-over-year growth.”

As for the next big tech push in the mobile industry, Taylor notes that while “there has been much discussion about the potential of 1080p, at the same time observers are already talking about 4K (which offers four times the present resolution of 1080p HD). While the new technology may or may not become mainstream, he says, “These are major steps and it will take the market some time to sort it out.” 

MIRA Mobile has a multi-year contract with the Pac-12 Networks – which launched in August – for all A-level football and basketball, and its recent expansion to include the Pac-12’s B-level broadcasts.

MIRA Mobile has a multi-year contract with the Pac-12 Networks – which launched in August – for all A-level football and basketball, and its recent expansion to include the Pac-12’s B-level broadcasts.
MIRA Mobile has a multi-year contract with the Pac-12 Networks – which launched in August – for all A-level football and basketball, and its recent expansion to include the Pac-12’s B-level broadcasts. 

Penetrating the Market

Chuck McKean can offer a broad perspective on the mobile industry, as he can observe from somewhat of a unique perch: He’s the director of public relations for Alliance Productions, a co-op of 12 mobile companies based in Little Rock, Ark., that the entity refers to its clients as partners that are spread out nationwide.

The partnership, which includes Token Creek and MIRA, was created to market mobile units to the TV broadcasters. “Our partners operate 40 HD trucks between them,” says McKean, who can see the end of the road for one segment of the market.

An Alliance truck on location in Randalls Island, N.Y.
An Alliance truck on location in Randalls Island, N.Y.

“Any SD trucks have become minimal. I think they will all be converted or off the road within 18 months,” he says, adding that conversions costs can vary. “New trucks are in the $6 to $8 million range, and a conversion costs about $3 million.”

An Alliance video operator at work.  
An Alliance video operator at work.  

As for the Alliance, “We have a variety of trucks available, which is part of our appeal. We can do anything from small shows to the Super Bowl,” McKean says. “Some of our trucks are B units, while others include a new HD setup with up to 12 cameras.”

As the Alliance locates new business, that business is distributed to the partners based on factors such as facilities within the trucks, client preference, geography and availability of schedule. “Our partners book plenty of business, but we help to supplement their jobs and clients with additional gigs. How much additional business they get varies from a few percent up to 25 percent of their annual revenues,” he says.

Another benefit of being in a partnership is that partners can share equipment for a nominal fee, which negates the need to spend money at the rental houses. “That keeps the income in the family, so to speak,” McKean says, while also pointing to clients who are becoming more sophisticated and want more “tech bells and whistles,” such as telestrators, supplemental audio equipment, and more channels of EVS for additional cameras.

McKean described business for the industry in 2012 as robust. “We’re very pleased with our ability to service repeat customers while we have located new clients. We have had the opportunity to work with some of the major networks on convention and election coverage, which is nontraditional,” he said, “but it bolstered our usual clientele of sports and entertainment entities.”

An Alliance truck from YES covering a Presidential address in Washington, D.C.
An Alliance truck from YES covering a Presidential address in Washington, D.C.