Sports

How Fake Crowds Know When to Cheer

And all of your other NBA playoffs broadcasting questions answered.

LeBron James grins on the court during a game in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, on Sept. 8
LeBron James, all smiles in the bubble. Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The NBA’s solution to the coronavirus pandemic was not a simple one, but you can’t argue with the results. The league has been playing games inside a cordoned-off section of the Walt Disney World Resort in central Florida since July. There have been no positive COVID tests inside the NBA bubble. There has been some excellent basketball, starting with the “seeding games” contested by the 22 teams invited to the bubble and continuing into the conference finals, as only the Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Denver Nuggets, and Los Angeles Lakers remain.

Potential disease vectors that we are, fans have not been allowed inside the bubble, though we can follow the action on TNT, ESPN, and ABC. It’s not every season that the league’s television partners have to produce high-level live coverage during a pandemic and from a theme park, but they’ve made it work. To find out how, I called Chris Brown, the vice president of sports production and technical operations at Turner Sports. Brown spent about three weeks inside the bubble helping TNT’s crews get set up and has been overseeing their productions throughout the NBA’s restart. In our conversation, we talked about fancy new cameras, rampant on-court swearing, and why we don’t see the players’ families on TV. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Nick Greene: You’re gearing up for the Western Conference finals now. What has changed, production-wise, in the bubble since day one?

Chris Brown: The biggest thing is there is less of it. We started out with eight production trucks down there, and we’re down to the final three. There’s sort of a sense of relief as we’ve made it through each segment. From a production and content standpoint, we’ve made some adjustments in terms of adding a couple more of our super-slow-motion cameras, Hypermotion cameras, things like that.

Does not having fans make it easier to add these new cameras?

It’s allowed us the freedom and the flexibility to put cameras in places that traditionally we cannot. Our corner cameras—we call them “slash cameras”—we’ve been allowed to bring them closer to the court. We’ve been able to experiment with our rail-cam, and it’s been well received. That’s the camera that runs along the near-side sideline. We’ve gotten quite a bit of action from that.

We’ve also been able to go back to putting a handheld on the camera side at center court. These are things that, in our traditional coverage, we have not been able to do, either because of fans or because of safety.

Can you give a quick explanation of how the artificial crowd noise works?

Capturing crowd sound is something that we had been doing on our own. We’ve been able to take a mix of that and, with the help of the NBA and some of their vendors, we take that collective knowledge and the collective library of crowd noises and what we call “swells” and leverage them into a tool that the NBA is using courtside. As the game ebbs and flows, they’re helping to manage some of the acoustic specifics that you tend to hear when you’re at a game. They’re doing that in real time. As the game goes on, there’s someone who is basically being the active crowd participant.

So it’s someone sitting there with like a DJ setup, pressing buttons to get reactions.

Very similar. [They’re sitting] in front of an audio console as well. It’s a combination of things. There are a number of audio feeds going between this particular group and our production facilities so that we can integrate it into the broadcast mix.

To me, it’s seemed as if the crowd noise has improved over time. I guess I wasn’t just imagining it. Everyone’s had more practice.

As we’ve gotten more knowledgeable on the tools, we’ve been able to react and make the proper adjustments. We had to create this environment in three different buildings. We had, I think, four or five different audio mixers as part of the rotation, especially early on. You’ve got an opportunity where these audio mixers are able to listen to their colleagues’ mixes. And you also have the mixes that are happening through ESPN, so you can listen to what they’re doing. It’s a process where all of us have continued to learn as the rounds have gone on.

No one has ever broadcasted NBA playoff games from a bubble before, so there had to have been lots of unpredictable elements. Are there any mistakes you made in the beginning that you can look back on now with hindsight?

One of the things that we’ve been excited about, that the NBA has been excited about, has been the access to microphones and being able to hear a little bit more of the conversations that happen on the court. Obviously, there are sensitivities to that. When we implement our traditional standards and practices, you have a person who’s listening for profanity or whatever it may be, and they may hear one or two things throughout the telecast. For us, them saving one or two things means the world, but it does mean a disruption in the audio. But when you have this unprecedented level of access, our responsibility for that heightens, which means that we’re more active pressing that button. That means you’ve gone from one or two disruptions for your viewing audience to seven, eight, 10, 15, 18 interruptions. It becomes aggravating for the viewer because we’re cutting into what the announcers are saying.

How do we create a listening experience that allows us to maintain this access the NBA has given us without it being a disruption to the listener? That was a small project that we took on, and it took us about a week and a half to get there, with some interim measures in between. We came up with a solution where the harsh audio critic can probably hear what we’re doing, but the casual fan is probably not going to hear it. We’re being attentive to keeping our air clean, that is void of any profanity or any other type of speech we don’t want to go out. It’s almost seamless. We’ve been doing it since the first round of the playoffs.

Is it just a matter of sound mixing? Listening more attentively?

It was in the sound mixing. It took a little bit of work because we’re utilizing a couple of different audio control rooms in order to make this happen. It took some creative thinking, and we were able to come up with a solution.

Luckily the players were able to give you lots of opportunities to hone and refine this new method.

Indeed.

How challenging is it to work with the superimposed logos on the court. I didn’t even realize they were a visual effect at first, but I’ve noticed occasionally that the implementation isn’t always seamless.

We’ve been fortunate in that, in the beginning of the ’19–’20 season, we embarked on a project where we superimposed the shot clock on the court. That shot clock has been a part of our telecasts since the preseason of 2019. We had a good bit of time to work with our operators, work with our video department, work with our technical directors, and they’ve all had a great deal of exposure on how we implement that virtual technology onto the courts. We were able to pick up what we learned there and incorporate it into what we’ve done down there in Orlando.

The folks at the NBA worked very hard at these venues to bring them as close to the NBA specifications as they could. Because we are in nontraditional venues, the NBA’s events team had a particularly strenuous time trying to get these venues lit in such a way that we could produce these graphics. Lighting is everything when it comes to these graphics and the ability to overlay them on the court in such a way that you have players running across them and referees running across them and they don’t move.

There are some wild cards in there, too, which are team uniforms. We got surprised by a couple of teams’ uniforms. We were able to get that messaging back to the teams to ask them to not wear those uniforms anymore.

The announcers are no longer courtside and are instead calling games from a slightly higher vantage point. Have you heard feedback from them on whether this affects their job—either positively or negatively?

I’ve not gotten direct feedback, but I think the main thing is that they could be present and actually at the games—to be on site, be safe, but also to be able to feel the energy of the room, to be watching with their own eyes, looking to the corner to see the coaches, looking at the clock, seeing which players are looking at the clock. All those things that are intangible and aid their ability to call a game.

Number one was to get them there. Number two was, how do we manage this given the way the NBA split up the zones where people are able to go [inside the venues]? That’s what pushed them up to that higher level. And then, everybody that enters the building has to be wearing a mask. One of the requirements for us was that we wanted to make sure the announcers weren’t calling the game wearing a mask. And that’s where the plexiglass came in. The announcers are the only folks in any zone, short of the players, referees, and select coaches, that don’t have to wear a mask.

Did you ever consider having the announcers call games from a remote location?

In June, everything was on the table. We considered everything.

The NBA has allowed players’ families to come to games, but I’ve noticed there haven’t been many shots of them in the crowd. Was that a specific point of discussion?

Primarily it’s because they sit on the camera side, so it’s hard to see them. That side of the building is not lit well, quite honestly.

Are there any production strategies you’ve had to implement in Orlando that might make it out of the bubble for normal broadcasts, whenever those resume?

With what we’re looking at, from a cameras and coverage standpoint, those are some things that we’d love to keep, but they’re going to require the NBA to sign off on them. They’re going to require the players to sign off on them. There are reasons why we couldn’t have certain camera angles to begin with in the old arenas. We have to look at that landscape and see how things change and whether we will be able to move any of those things.

So you’re saying don’t count out the rail-cam making it to a normal broadcast?

Right. Maybe when the NBA restarts, depending on whether or not crowds are back, we could get it in. If crowds are back, maybe not. That real estate where the rail-cam lives is high-value, high-dollar real estate from a ticket holder standpoint. Not sure they’re willing to give that up for television.