Thursday, October 12, 2006

What does a director do in a sports production

I recieved this e-mail today and the content seemed interesting and applicable to this blog. As I have been needing to continue my efforts in blogging, here is my second post...

Hello Mr. Billingsley,
My name is Andrew Choquette and I am a third year Broadcasting student at Niagara College in Welland, Ontario, Canada. I am currently in an English course that requires me to write a 25 page paper on a topic related to the broadcasting industry. My topic is the role of the director in a sports production. As I have noticed on this website,, it states that you have done many. I was wondering if you could answer a couple questions for me regarding my topic. Thanks for your time

I responded that I would be happy to help and Andrew forwarded me this list of questions...I started with a bit of responses are labled with my name and company.

[Mike Billingsley Action Television]
Let me start by saying that in my experience most sports productions have a sports producer who is the principle on the project. The director is typically just a staff position that is involved in the switch on the truck. The producer in sports is much more involved in the creative process and the technical process than in film or commercial production. That being said I will answer the questions as if I’m speaking more of a sports producer/director. I hope this is clear.

Also, I’m assuming you want me to talk about a live or live to tape event production. I have done a ton of film style sports productions or docu-magazine shows, but this is quite unique. I have done a fair amount of event coverage sports production which is obviously more ubiquitous. So I can speak to this aspect of sport production to a certain degree. If you would like more on the type of magazine, reality and documentary sports shows we typically produce let me know.

1. How do you, as the director, prepare for a sports production?

[Mike Billingsley Action Television]
Preparation begins with the “architecture” of the event. You first determine with the client (network or event company) what the parameters for the show are going to be. Then you need to get a feel for the venue. In most of my productions I’m building a coverage package from scratch. The venue is always new and usually there has not been television done there. So for me the first thing I have to do is determine the coverage needs. How many cameras, what type of lens, placement of cameras, what type of audio coverage, how will on site talent be used, any special needs like POV cameras?
Once I’ve determined my needs and designed the coverage package, I can begin to concern myself with crew and staffing. This is pretty straight forward, but a very important step in terms of negotiating price and schedule with the staff members. Obviously a next step is also procuring my equipment and scheduling any rentals that are flown in, determining what might be purchase.

Once I’ve determined the equipment and site plan, identified my staff and any special needs the most important meeting is with the site staff. Typically with events I have produced I’m working with an event company who is setting up a customized site. This planning and communication is the key to the success of the entire event. It is also a delicate balance, because in one aspect you want to be firm and somewhat aggressive in establishing your plan and the details of your needs. However, it is critical to fall in line with the event organizers and take guidance to their needs and restrictions, particularly if they are also your client.
In order of priorities here the first aspect is to layout camera positions, special needs such a scaffolding for towers or in our case snowcat work to build camera platforms. Once the site people get a feel for where you will “live” at their event they can have a better grasp of how you will fit into the event. Another critical issue to work on at this time in our case is sponsorship placement. This includes banners, signage, props or inflatable’s designed to promote the event supporters during coverage. If this is done poorly from the start the event can fail financially in the future.

Finally, I like to establish a chain of command and a communication platform with the event coordinators. In most events it is really critical that they understand that TV is king and sometimes this can be a big hurdle. If you have a renegade event manager, you will have problems with coverage because the event will take off when the TV is not ready. So it is best to get this out in the open immediately and establish the ground rules.
I’m sure there are many other items of detail I’ve left out, but in general I could write for an hour about planning. This is where the rubber meets the road in events and where all the hard work is done. If you don’t plan the entire production and outline a running script for how the event and the day will go you will likely have far too many surprises during your production day.

2. Could you tell me basically the life of a director? From the start of your day at crew call, to the wrap-up at the end.

[Mike Billingsley Action Television]
As I said above, all the hard work should be done before the production day arrives. IN my world, the production day is hopefully a very enjoyable and straight forward experience. I generally try to start the day by having a casual meeting with my crew people. They are the key to the success and making them feel comfortable immediately is key. I like to include them in the production and make them feel like they are a part of the show. SO I usually try to tell them a story of what we are doing and how we will go about accomplishing our program. I then take time with each person in the crew individually and make an effort to address any concerns they have.

Be aware of the “director” behind the camera in this process. You have a vision or a goal and it is important to provide a platform for the crew members to tweak on their particular jobs, while maintaining a stark line when they try to advise you on the coverage of the entire event. Ultimately however, I have found great success by treating my crew people as equals and taking good care of them. This means feeding them. So many events neglect things like getting people food and water. This can go a long way in the success of any event.

Once my crew knows their roles, I send them to duty and step into the client services role. At this moment as a director or producer I spend considerable effort to double check all of the details with my event contacts. Again, they need to feel and hear me and understand that TV is ultimately running the show. Very important to go over all timing details so that if there is a need to stop the action this can happen.

Once we get near the start of the event the key is to touch back to my crew and maintain presence in master control. Whether I’m doing an ENG event or a truck shoot I need a mechanism to communicate with all of the crew as best is possible. Keep in mind that a lot of the time we are doing ENG coverage of events, meaning each camera is recording his own tape. So I spend great effort to make sure they are confident and aware of the running order of the event. If someone misses the action, we will be SOL in the edit suite to make a show.

Wrap up is very important in our job, as we need to make sure all equipment is taken care of appropriately. Again, it is also key to reach out to the crew and continue the great communication you have established through the day. I like to make an effort on a big shoot to have a liquid refreshment to wrap the production with.

3. Are their any people that you have to meet with throughout the day to get the production moving smoothly?

[Mike Billingsley Action Television]
See above…but yes, the event people are key to work with and communicate to effectively throughout the day.

4. What are some of the major difficulties that you will run into during a production?

[Mike Billingsley Action Television]
During a production there better not be any. The worst instances are always technical or the elements which limits your technical abilities. In planning I like to try and include as much redundancy as the budget will allow. Obviously if there are technical glitches it is much easier if you have a backup camera, etc to throw into the mix.

As I said before, maintaining control of the event can be a big issue. If you don’t maintain the timing of the event and keep the production day moving major problems can happen. I’ve had events where the event guys screwed around far too long and we ended up shooting final runs in the dark. Not good shooting a ski event when the sun is setting. So keeping the schedule moving, while allowing for television to hold the schedule should technical problems arise.

Another thing that you might not consider is a physical problem with a crew person. If you have a grip or audio guy get sick, that is probably not that big of a deal. If one of your camera guys bonks on you, this is a major issue. So having a grip or utility person on staff who can run camera in a pinch is a good idea. This happened to me once and my people were so good that I didn’t know about it until about 30 minutes after the camera guy got ill. One of the utilities jumped in and saved the day.

5. What do you like least/best about your job?

[Mike Billingsley Action Television]
I enjoy the design phase, where I’m imaging how I will cover an event and design the “architecture” of the television coverage. This has always been my favorite part because it is personal thing that I can do on my own. I also enjoy seeing it come together on event day and having the sense that I’m kind of not important and just watching what I’ve created happen. If I’m running around solving problems and super engaged in every part of the production, then there is a problem and I’m generally not liking my job at all.

That leads me into what I like the least about event sports production…the unknown. I hate when things out of my control bring down my production. This can and most likely will happen at one point or the other. I’ve had it happen to me once and pretty much I stepped away from event production because of it.

6. Is it easy to get too caught in your job? Do you find yourself watching the game and not what you should be focusing on?

[Mike Billingsley Action Television]
Sometimes I suppose, but I enjoy my game behind the game so much that our television game takes precedence.

7. How much “homework” do you do before each event? (eg. Researching courses, stats, etc.)

[Mike Billingsley Action Television]
As much as I feel is necessary to be educated. For instance I didn’t know much about mountain bike coverage when I was challenged with this for a UCI event. So I spent considerable time watching how others had covered the sport

8. What creative aspect do you add to each production that you do? (eg. Using camera’s to follow skiers down a hill)

[Mike Billingsley Action Television]
Well that is what makes the job fun. Creating a look or a feel for the coverage is what differentiates every sports producer. Some guys like to use jibs and motion while others like a lot of POV work. As for actual hands on work, I do a ton of this with my half hour magazine and informational shows, not so much with event work.

[Mike Billingsley Action Television]
Hope this helps…happy to add to anything else you need.

I tried to be breif with my responses and I think I got a little better with the later questions. I've left a lot out, but I think this is an interesting process.


Monday, October 02, 2006

My 1st Post

Fifteen years ago my wife and I started a company called Rocky Mountain Resorts Network, which became known as Videographic West for many years. Videographic West was renamed through a merger and re-acquistion and today our company is known as Action Television, Inc.

Action Television is a programming company specializing in lifestyle programming. Our shows have aired across the US and in Europe. In the states you might have seen our original series Ski TV, Golf Life or our most recent series Inside Poker. These programs air on Fox Sports Net, Comcast Sports Net and various independant regional sports networks.

My wife Stephanie Billingsley and I have run our company from offices we own in Avon, Colorado for the past decade. However, we recently decided to make the move to the big city and now reside in Broomfield, just north of Denver, Colorado. Our television programs are currently not in distribution and I'm taking time to reflect on the past 15 years in the cable television business. I will turn 40 in December so all the change of the part months comes at an interesting time in my life.

Life is interesting, sometimes your moving along, working through the piles of tasks at hand. Then all the sudden things come to an end for a brief moment and you look around and life has changed. That is exactly what happened to me.

In August it looked as if we would be starting our second season of Inside Poker. We had just completed a crazy summer where we distributed the 6th season of our series Golf Life and the first season of Inside Poker. Each week we had to shoot, edit and ship out a new completed 30 minute show. Needless to say we ran after a few UPS trucks to get our shows to the national television audience in time.

We had our house in Vail listed, but no movement all summer long. I believed we would stay put in the mountains. We had put earnest money on a house being built in Denver. While Steph wanted to move very badly, it looked like we were going to have to let go of the Denver house.

Then wham! We sold our home in Vail and closed on the place in Broomfield very quickly. Then I make the decision to take Inside Poker out of distribution until Q1 of 2007. I shut down our office in Avon and move most of the equipment to Denver. For all reasonable purposes we are financially sound and there is nothing forcing me to hurry back into any quick business moves. All the sudden after 15 years of "being in business" and working mostly around the clock producing and selling programming I've finally go some time to sit back and review the last decade in a half.

For a small production and television company we have probably put out more television programming than just about any other company our size in the US. Our shows have won awards and consistently get very good reviews from our viewers. We have definately had our struggles and our share of successes as well. I feel like I've done a lot and now is the time to look back and plan our next step forward.

This blog is dedicated to that decision. Do we continue on the difficult path of creating cable programming or do we look to a new path entirely? Do we take all the equipment and stock footage and value we have acumalated over the years and leverage that into furture profits or do we take a new path with new tools and new ideas? Do I staff a new office in Denver or work with my freelance talent remotely with each of us in our own offices?

In the coming months and years I will try to document this journey and reflect back on the challenges of concepting, selling, syndicating and producing cable television programming. I hope this blog will be a benefit to others in the production business who want to produce their own show. At least maybe it can provide an entertaining platform to chronical a mid-life crossroads (and hopefully not a crisis).

Thanks for following my writings if you choose to read on.....