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May 14, 2012, 1:34 p.m.
Reporting & Production
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They’ll do it live: Inside Boston Sports Live, The Boston Globe’s new noon sports show

The new live sports show is meant to capitalize on Boston sports fanaticism and peak traffic time on Boston.com. But to succeed, they’ll need to encourage a new habit in their audience.

“Where’s Gasper? We might need him.”

There’s an empty chair where Christopher Gasper should be. It’s at a news desk set against a green screen in the studio where Boston Sports Live will go on the air at noon in about 15 minutes. This studio is inside The Boston Globe — just off the newsroom, to be exact, and Gasper, a sportswriter, is probably somewhere between his other desk and this one. It’s a Monday, the second week the Globe has been producing the live online sports show, which aims to capitalize on the city’s deep and intense relationship with sports.

Which means there’s no shortage of material the three days a week the show airs on Boston.com. Today feels like a particularly robust day in Boston sports: a big win from the Celtics in the NBA Playoffs, yet another meltdown from the suddenly hapless Red Sox (in 17 innings, no less), and the retirement of a member of several Patriots Super Bowl teams.

In the last two hours, Alan Miller and his small team have been prepping for noon. While the needs of the moment are slotting the B-roll footage and fixing the sound levels, the team is still learning the ropes when it comes to producing something TV-like. It helps that Miller, the Globe’s director of video initiatives, comes with almost 20 years of TV expertise producing shows for local broadcasters.

This, though, aims to be a little different: The Globe wants the gloss and precision of TV, but the interactivity and reach of the web. So not only does this team have to work on smoothing out the transitions between show blocks and massaging graphics, they’re also trying to make sure their live chats are surfacing enough questions and that the livestream works on various devices.

Of course, right now, they’d just like it if the host was at his desk.

“He’s here — he’s in the building,” Miller says. He’s jokey and loose with just a hint of urgency. “Everyone’s in the building and we’re ready to play internet TV.”

Since their earliest moves onto the web, newspapers have been trying to figure out video — to figure out how best to take advantage of the higher engagement (and higher ad rates) that video promises. The Globe is no different, producing video packages to accompany stories, movie reviews, gadget reviews, and interviews with politicians and athletes. They’ve been nominated, and won, regional Emmy awards for their online video.

What’s been more elusive is live video. Caleb Solomon, the Globe’s managing editor, told me live video was the logical next step, something that could be used on scene (for breaking news, press conferences, and so on) or as appointment viewing. In the last year, they started to get more ambitious with their live video, having journalists report from the New Hampshire Republican primary and Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis. One of their biggest moments was the retirement of Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek in March, which gave the site its largest viewer numbers for a live video ever (though they wouldn’t share specifics). For a live online show, there may be no better time than noon, which is when traffic on Boston.com peaks, Solomon said.

Sports and video seemed like a no-brainer, particularly because the Globe, like many newspapers around the country, has invested in prepping their journalists for TV. It’s not difficult to find Globe reporters, particularly sports reporters, on ESPN or regional cable channels like NESN and NECN. A live, online sports show would capture that in-house talent for the Globe instead of a partner and help drive audiences to Boston.com, a site that lost some of its newspaper-derived content in last fall’s launch of sister site BostonGlobe.com.

After months of talking it over, the JetBlue sponsorship meant the show was accelerating fast — like trying-to-outrun-an-avalanche fast.

But video is not cheap, especially if you want to make it look good. “We’ve been looking at live video for a long time now and, like so much of what goes on with video technology, the price came down to the point where we could do it in good way,” Solomon said.

A breakthrough came in the form of JetBlue looking for more advertising opportunities with the Globe. With sponsorship money in the bank, Boston Sports Live quickly started taking shape. A set, in the studio off the photography department, was constructed. They also purchased a NewTek TriCaster — essentially a TV control room in a box, that allows for multiple camera angles, customizable graphics, video compositing, and HD streaming. For the Globe, one of the TriCaster’s advantages is its ability to build virtual sets. Once those green drapes are down, the host and the guest could be anywhere, the moon, the White House, a zoo. They went with something more modest, a studio overlooking Fenway. After months of talking it over, the JetBlue sponsorship meant the show was accelerating fast — like trying-to-outrun-an-avalanche fast. “It’s amazing. It shows the quality of people in this building, being able to put together a studio and TV show in 6 days,” Miller said.

TV stations have satellite trucks. These guys are relying on wifi and a Dropbox account.

It’s 11 a.m. and Patriots offensive tackle Matt Light is officially retiring after 11 seasons and five Super Bowls. He’s also running 30 minutes behind when he was supposed to start. This has Miller and Ed Medina, the Globe’s director of multimedia, slightly worried. Light’s retirement is scheduled in the rundown of today’s show, which starts in about an hour. Meanwhile, down in Foxborough, Globe videographer Scott LaPierre is filming the press conference. Had things gone according to the original plan, LaPierre would shoot the event, send a short clip to the newsroom and the footage would make the noon show. That process is routine for TV stations. Of course, TV stations have satellite trucks. These guys are relying on wifi and a Dropbox account. Considering all they need is a 20-30 second clip, the window of opportunity might still be open. LaPierre just has to get a 3-5 minute clip into Dropbox, which would then have to be downloaded and edited. Best case scenario: The clip gets deposited 30-45 minutes before the show. Anything less wouldn’t make it and they’d go without. Miller’s optimistic, Medina’s skeptical. “If it doesn’t finish uploading till 11:45, that’s too late,” Medina says.

In the still evolving world of the show, Miller is the producer/director, Medina is technical director, and Steve Silva, a sports producer for Boston.com, is graphics editor. This morning, Silva’s been busy hunting down and piecing together shots of Doc Rivers, Paul Pierce, Matt Light, Bill Belichick, and Clay Buchholz. Medina been spending his time trying to finesse the virtual set and reduce some of the fuzziness you see when people are placed against the green screen. Medina is embracing incremental improvements. “You missed the baby being born,” he told me. “Now we’re at the nursing stage.”

If there is a trick to making Boston Sports Live work, it’s going to be nurturing a new habit from the audience, namely getting them to watch a 15-20 minute show online. Capturing the mid-day, sitting-at-your-desk-with-a-sandwich audience is a step in that direction. They also want a level of engagement through live chats and viewer questions, pulled off email, Twitter, and Facebook. These things will take time — again, incrementalism. Medina said they need to merge the excitement of live, breaking stories with a sense of reliability to form a habit in viewers. “You can’t deny breaking news video or the effect a big event has on your traffic,” he said. “This is different. This is more like appointment-based TV viewing.” Even though the show is online-native, they also want some of the look and feel of TV. It conveys a sense of professionalism, but also familiarity for viewers. “The better we get at this, the harder it will be to tell the difference” between TV and online video, Medina said.

Around 11:20, Miller’s phone rings. “Hey Scott, how’s it going,” he says, walking out of the studio. A few minutes later, he’s back with news from Foxborough. “We’re not gonna get Scott’s stuff. It’s gonna take too long to download,” he says. “We gave it a shot.”

Gasper made it with 12 minutes to spare, followed shortly after by Chad Finn, another Globe writer guesting today to talk Sox, Celtics, and Pats. Miller goes over the rundown and script with them, pointing out potential pitfalls, some of which they’ll hit over the next 20 minutes. When Gasper can’t pull up audience questions on his iPad, Miller feeds them to him through an earpiece. Also, at one point the top of Finn’s head goes missing. Medina has to fix the unfortunate crop by adjusting the camera live.

What may matter more at this point is getting the production routine right. After all, the material will more or less take care of itself. This is Boston: Sports draw heat no matter what takes place on the field. In order for the show to work, to grow an audience and to attract sponsors, they’ll need consistency. These are the things that carry over from TV, the unavoidable similarities that will factor into the Globe’s success or favor.

Of course it’s not exactly TV either, something they’ll all be reminded of daily. Just after the clock hits noon, the studio is dark and quiet as Miller gets off the phone: “We’re up on the home page. Everyone standby.”

POSTED     May 14, 2012, 1:34 p.m.
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