(August 18, 2016) ESPN tennis executives Scott Guglielmino, senior vice president, programming, and Jamie Reynolds, vice president, production spoke with media Thursday to discuss the upcoming US Open, and the success and what was learned in last year’s first all-ESPN effort in New York. Highlights of the call are followed by the full transcript.
On: What impact on TV will the roof on Ashe have?
- “I will say from a broadcasting perspective, we have cameras being built this week as well as next week, and audio technicians down there, assessing what the house looks and feels like, what it sounds like under all conditions, either during the day or at night, under total darkness. Once you fill it with 20,000 to 25,000 people, it will certainly shape the temperature range, what the wind currents might be. I think we’re all looking forward to what that house can project or optimize for us and how the nuances may affect the game or enhance the game.” – Reynolds
On: Does digital usage negatively impact TV viewing?
- “Our view is and always has been that it is something that’s complementary to the overall audience. I certainly don’t expect – especially coming off of the year we had last year, ratings up on television as well as digital – I don’t expect a scenario whereby the digital piece is going to harm the TV numbers.” – Guglielmino
On: What makes the US Open in New York special?
- “I would say also, you put this event in New York, it’s still sports theater….Just the character and the tone of what you get out of New York City in prime time is a very different feel. I think that’s the hallmark of this event, the interactivity of the fans, the crowds, the texture of the celebrities that come through, an event that goes on well past 11:00 or midnight, that’s pretty good. It just has its own identity.” – Reynolds
- I’m wondering about what you learned from Wimbledon. I know there was some awkwardness with this broadcasters coaching, all the conflicts in tennis, and how you are looking at the Open with regards to what happened at Wimbledon?
JAMIE REYNOLDS: When you reflect back on the Wimbledon situation, and John operating with the Raonic camp, I think when you look at the roster of talent that we have, you look at this sport in particular, the crossover and the passion of everybody is pretty strong on all fronts. I would say to you I think we, ESPN, handled that identity of John’s duality as well as some of the other folks on our roster, including Patrick Mouratoglou, who spent some time with us, you look at Darren, Mary Joe Fernandez, her coaching responsibilities, as well as the other extended members of our family, I think we were open and very clear in our relationships with what we expected between their perspectives.I think in a sport, at a championship level, we framed it properly to give the viewer a chance to both appreciate the perspective and the insight that they can offer, but also openly acknowledge the fact that some of these folks are wearing multiple hats. And for the viewer how you assess that, how you might interpret their responses relative to that, either you like them or you think there may be a level of conflict. At the end of the day from taking care of the viewership, framing the event, I think their perspectives are still very valuable.
When you go back and look at it historically through a variety of other sport categories, it doesn’t matter whether it’s the van Gundys, the Grudens, even the Grieses, there are a great many relationships, family-wise, that have some sort of attachment in the sports community. I think the viewership, the audience, can understand and at times respects it and some other times finds that it’s awkward or sideways. At the end of the day I still think they appreciate what that insight and perspective can offer.
Q. A question about the roof. How much have you all tested it or know what the environment is going to be when it’s closed?
REYNOLDS: I will say from a broadcasting perspective, we have cameras being built this week as well as next week, and audio technicians down there, assessing what the house looks and feels like, what it sounds like under all conditions, either during the day or at night, under total darkness.
Once you fill it with 20,000 to 25,000 people, it will certainly shape the temperature range, what the wind currents might be. I think we’re all looking forward to what that house can project or optimize for us and how the nuances may affect the game or enhance the game.
But I think everyone, including the USTA and the National Tennis Center, broadcasters alike, are looking forward to seeing how the event feels. Certainly it’s going to have a different experience relative to what we see in Australia and what we see at Wimbledon. I don’t know when you watch or you hear an event at Centre Court at Wimbledon, you know you’re in a fully-enclosed environment. I don’t know that this stadium, this venue, will feel like that.
Q. We don’t know because it hasn’t been full of 20,000 people.
Q. Seems to me that it’s going to be quite loud when it’s full.
REYNOLDS: That’s a fair point. When you close the garage doors around the upper perimeter, the roof is sealed and closed, what that does, what the sound does become in there, it’s going to be interesting. I think we’re all looking forward to seeing how it presents itself.
Q. There’s really no way that you can know what it’s going to be until it happens?
REYNOLDS: Yeah. Baited anticipation.
Q. Another roof question. What do you think will be the biggest impact of the fact that now we do know, at least as far as the matches on Arthur Ashe, will more or less occur when they are scheduled to occur throughout the entire two weeks?
SCOTT GUGLIELMINO: From a programming perspective, it’s going to make things quite a bit easier, both from a scheduling perspective with the tennis center and our colleagues there, but also from a programming perspective. So that’s going to be quite helpful to us. I think also it helps, with a two-week event like this, us not get backed up and be able to continue to feed specifically the primary TV hours on ESPN, ESPN-2. It’s certainly going to take a variable, although there will be other variables with other courts, it will take one big variable out for us from a programming perspective, which we’re looking forward to that.
REYNOLDS: I think from a production side of the house, there’s a duality, there’s a double-edged sword here. We love the opportunity to have those rain delays occasionally because it gave a 14-deep roster group of talent to jump on camera and get into our whip-around, talk through tennis news, updates, spark the daily debate, so to speak, and not miss any action until the rain delay came to a conclusion. So that was a win for us. The other side of it, if it lasted too long, gosh, we have to figure out how to come up with three hours of fill. In this live world that we all live in and exist in right now, live social currency, it’s tough to go back and replay a match.
We on the production side are challenged with saying, Oh, my gosh, we actually have content happening all the time guaranteed over the 130, 140-plus hours we do. We have to figure out how and when are we going to traffic a John McEnroe, Chrissie Evert, Pam Shriver, Mary Joe Fernandez debate, and figure out how we’re going to get enough screen time to explore those issues and stories.
Q. Especially in the early rounds, in situations where it’s raining, we will go from having many courts playing to one playing. There will be some delays trying not to preemptively close the roof too much. How much have you talked through about how different it will be if you find yourself in a situation in the early rounds with only one match going on at one time, and then waiting for the roof to close and them to dry off the court?
REYNOLDS: I think production-wise, we have figured that model out through a couple of years at Wimbledon. In terms of the traffic flow on a day, organizing our playlist, list of ingredients, what we want to have in our hip pocket and ready to convey if the situation arises, we’re pretty well-structured to accommodate that. If this venue closes faster and gets back to play faster than the 22-and-a-half minutes it takes at the All England Club, we’ll be a little challenged about how we do justice to get those stories out, have people have a chance to run through them all.
I think also having a chance, if we just get dedicated to a single match on an afternoon, that’s our playlist middle of the week, I think it actually gives us a chance to both dig into who those two folks are, but also still talk a little bit more broadly. We’ll have announce teams around the grounds ready to go and weigh in on that single match, as well as get into a dialogue about what’s still available and what’s going on in the tennis community. I don’t know that we’re going to miss a beat in that situation.
Q. Is there any fatigue from the Olympics? Is there an Olympic fatigue that you’re worried about? There’s been just a lot of tennis in general going into this international competition, the US Open.
GUGLIELMINO: I’ll take the programming angle to that. I think we’re not overly concerned with that. The US Open is obviously a marquee, world-class event. It is an annual fixture. Even though the Olympics did feature some tennis, we certainly believe that the US Open is distinct enough.
I think certainly our coverage – Jamie alluded to it earlier with the roster of talent we have, the various platforms that will be on – we think it’s a unique story, unique event, what I call a short story over two weeks where it’s going to have its own storylines that develop. Jamie and his team are going to be there to tell that story and to bring it home to fans. So from a programming perspective, we’re not concerned.
REYNOLDS: I would say also, you put this event in New York, it’s still sports theater. Rio, the Olympics, the DelPo-Murray match was extraordinary and terrific theater in that realm. Just the character and the tone of what you get out of New York City in prime time is a very different feel. I think that’s the hallmark of this event, the interactivity of the fans, the crowds, the texture of the celebrities that come through, an event that goes on well past 11:00 or midnight, that’s pretty good. It just has its own identity. I think you carry that momentum. I don’t know if there’s saturation of tennis. I still look at 12 nights, prime time windows, as that opportunity to feature great competition night after night.
GUGLIELMINO: I love the notion of identity, Jamie. That’s a good point.
Q. I was there last week and looked at the new grandstand. Can you talk about your coverage for the new grandstand. Will you have a commentary booth like you had at the old one? What is it like to shoot the new grandstand? And talking about Ashe, they’re planning to do the new Louis Armstrong in 2018. Do you work with the USTA in advance as far as technologically the things you might need for the new Armstrong? Do you have any input?
REYNOLDS: On the first question, on the new grandstand, I’ll meet you for lunch on Monday and we’ll go and take a look at it the first time. No, we have been a part of that process, what the grandstand will look like and feel like for the teams that will work up there. It’s great. A little bit what comes to mind is like the bullring at Roland Garros. It has that larger, theatrical feel. It’s dynamic. It’s a terrific, terrific looking stage, performance stage, for tennis. It’s going to be exciting in there. We do, indeed, have our announce teams over there, which is terrific.
Looking forward to the Armstrong construction, where they’re going on that, we do indeed. We look at ourselves a little bit like general contractors in partnership with the USTA and the tennis center specifically to really figure out how we’re going to get fiber connectivity, can we build some recessed positions for cameras in advance, can we prewire for future protected camera positions at the venue. It’s very much based on this 10-year relationship. We’re side-by-side on this. Coming in with what we think we ought to be prepared for three years, four years, five years from now, we don’t have to go in and retrofit the venue. Like the current grandstand, it will be a future-proof project.
Q. Jamie, I spoke to you last year when you had the CoCo Vandeweghe interview live on court. Can we expect more live on-court interviews?
REYNOLDS: It’s a fascinating follow-up. I think we all learned a lot through that exercise last year. It was a wake-up call for all of us, broadcaster, media, as well as the four majors, the ATP, the WTA, ITF, to kind of get their heads together and say, Let’s get this gang of seven, the folks that will steer the future of this sport, come together and start figuring out what can we do to offer more value from our performances, from our competitions, for the fan base. It’s been a really good year in terms of opening that dialogue, kind of getting everybody in phase with one another to figure out how we’re going to grow the sport and stay current with other competitions, other sport categories around the globe.
What happens at the US Open specifically, we’ve all come to the consensus that this is good for the sport, but we have to be aligned in how we do it at all the events. There’s been a lot of conversations behind the scenes, so to speak, with all of those rights holders, trying to get our respective compasses oriented in the right direction. Those meetings will continue to take shape, as they have at the other majors. We’re going to continue to keep pushing the envelope with everyone.
Right now to your specific question, are there plans to do it right now, I don’t know that I can commit to that answer yet.
Q. Given how the digital viewing for the Olympics have hurt ratings for Rio, are you concerned at all with a similar impact for the Open?
GUGLIELMINO: Well, let’s put it this way. From an ESPN perspective for the US Open, our view is and always has been that it is something that’s complementary to the overall audience. I certainly don’t expect, especially coming off of the year we had last year – ratings up on television as well as digital – I don’t expect a scenario whereby the digital piece is going to harm the TV numbers.
DAVE NAGLE: Aside from the TV numbers that went up, the audience grew and got younger. The Watch number, it was four times than what we did the year before, and it was the most-watched tennis tournament ever at the time on WatchESPN.
Q. Jamie, what are we going to see in some of the cool tech toys that end up at the tennis center for you guys? Specifically, are you bringing back, or is the USTA bringing back the freeD 360 replay system?
REYNOLDS: The way to frame this one is this is the USTA’s coming out party. If you look at their new house, you look at the National Tennis Center, what Danny Zausner, his group, the USTA have done, we’ve adopted a mindset that this is their party, this is their coming out, where it’s all about the venue this year. The debut of the roof, the outer courts, it’s pretty spectacular. So everything from our perspective, our capturing the event, both as host broadcaster and domestic carrier, is designed to feature that, right? It’s a pretty progressive venue now. We’re kind of excited about that.
What did we learn last year with the hardware we brought to the dance? SpiderCam is coming back. That’s part of the host broadcast feed. That’s embedded. We’re at a point now where that ought to be not a discreet asset but a shared asset for the world. Same thing with RailCam on Ashe. We kept that installed on the south wall.
Hoist, we have the same 70-foot crane that’s coming back. Rather than being on a footprint, we actually have it go onto the park’s ground just outside the venue shooting back. That’s on the southwest corner shooting back into the venue. It features a prominent presentation of the new grandstand stadium in that southwest corner of the venue. That’s kind of cool.
We’re embellishing the roster of toys, the Steadicams and (indiscernible) cameras that we’ll have around the grounds to be able to move around, take advantage, display as much of what this tennis facility has to offer. That’s kind of cool.
On the replay technology, the freeD group, we know they were sold to Intel. That deal ESPN did last year. We’ve committed to a three-year package with them. They’re in their second year of three with us. That 360 technology will a stay as a discreet asset for ESPN.
Q. The two new TV courts, does it change anything for you? How much have things evolved in terms of ESPN3, the streaming product growing exponentially over the years? Now with two more new TV courts, how much is that a factor beyond the linear from a production and operation standpoint?
GUGLIELMINO: From our perspective, obviously we’re looking to provide end-to-end coverage. With all the simultaneous courts happening, two things are striking. The first one is being able to provide live full coverage of another court. For consumers that want to get locked on to that court that perhaps isn’t on ESPN-1 or 2, there’s that aspect to it.
The other piece for Jamie, it’s in his world, that’s another court he can go to and we’re getting a feed from, which again it adds the complementary piece to the television side, but it also adds to the comprehensive coverage and the ability to kind of go to that court beyond just serving it up as a linear offering, if you will, to a fan that wants to park on it.
REYNOLDS: It’s a safe bet that as we get deeper, we were at 11 courts last year, up to 12 this year, the outer years we’ve made a commitment to continue to increase, at some point to get as many courts as possible off the venue and have them available for not just ESPN or E3, our clients, but also for the world. It’s valuable for the USTA to be able to market them internationally if they have the opportunity for a discreet feed. In the global expansion of the event, it’s attractive.
Our strategy right now is to continue to deliver to what we refer to as that seven linear feed style of cutting. It’s a traditional control room with a variety of camera complements. Seven linear courts is the standard operating procedure of production.
The outer courts that were four last year, five this year, where we feature the Hawk-Eye, TV robotics, is a good solution where we can guarantee multi-camera coverage but do it on a scale that is commensurate with action on those courts.
NAGLE: I think it’s safe to say at ESPN we don’t believe much in self-cannibalization, otherwise we never would have launched ESPN2 and everything that followed.
Q. A question about the press room cameras, for the press conferences. Can you go into that? It’s related to the on-court interviews.
REYNOLDS: I think we’ve realized the value. Certainly as a 24-hour network, we thrive on live content. What we’ve learned at a variety of other events is the more that we can take advantage of either a second screen opportunity, more value that can continue to enhance and broaden the experience of the event, the more valuable it is to the rights holder and the more valuable it is for us to service the fan in that live moment.
We went to the USTA a year ago with a concept that rather than just having a single or multi-camera coverage of the press room, letting the broadcasters record sound or go to that feed live when it was appropriate, what if we create a service that’s a multi-camera switched feed that now is a live signal that starts at 11:00 a.m. and runs till the last presser at the end of each day.
In that interactivity, our goal is to enhance the exchange press corps, as well as whoever is in the press room at the time. In a multi-camera coverage, we will have robotic cameras trained both on the press corps or those in the press room at the time, as well as the principals speaking up at the rostrum. Our goal in that interactivity is to capture that dynamic, the enhancement of what folks find interesting to hear the firsthand account, both the questions, answers, responses, back and forth, get that dialogue, and offer it as a continuous service. I think from the digital standpoint from ESPN, if that’s constantly on, that’s great. If we elect to go to a presser at the time live-live, it’s another delivery mechanism for that content.
Q. When you say ‘continuous service’ you mean for your feeds or publicly?
REYNOLDS: Both. For the ESPN audience, on the E3 channel, watch it on your desktop, wait for all the pressers to come through all day long, you’re welcome to do it. On the linear screen, watch what we’re doing with match coverage.
Q. Jamie, I saw you when they did the roof opening ceremony. They had a little bit of a glitch trying to reopen it after they closed it. Did you have any glitches last year during the tournament? Is there anything that the US Open presents as far as the heat, the shade, the wind, anything like that that makes it more challenging or different from the other majors?
REYNOLDS: What did we learn last year? I think we learned last year what a hit replay technologies, freeD, 360 system, in that arena works very well. How it’s going to behave and react or act in a new lighting scheme, we’re hoping to get that tested out tonight and over the next couple of nights to make sure we can optimize that at nighttime. That will be interesting.
I think the shadowing will now be a new ingredient. While it’s a wide opening, you’re going to have angular lines crisscrossing the court now as the sun traverses across the sky, right? It’s going to look a little bit more like Australia than the rounded edges and sight lines that we’ve historically seen there. It’s going to feel different in different lighting during the course of the day.
The wind swirl, what actually happens, I think it’s going to be neutralized somewhat now because you don’t have the bowl effect that we’ve had with an open top before. That will change for the players as well as the fan base, what it actually swirls and feels like down at the bottom.
The last ingredient that I think was still an incredibly invaluable untapped resource is the access they’ve allowed us along the practice courts. I think being able to handle 8 to 10 hours a day from that practice court position has been an incredibly rich, coordinated effort that helps the fans feel connected to the event. Not just observers anymore; you’re actually in the moment. I think our goal is to try to enhance that experience from noon to 7:00, when the prime time window starts.
Q. Trump got quite a reaction there last year, people were all over him. When someone like that comes, do you know in advance? If Trump or Clinton came, can you get to someone like that?
REYNOLDS: It’s a coordinated effort. The USTA handles their guest list, their attendees. They have a group that marshals that and handles that. They make us aware of who may be in the house, what the plans are, whether they’re open to being a part of the telecast or whether they prefer to just come out and enjoy the tennis and that’s their night off. It’s a dynamic dialogue that takes place on a daily basis. We typically know 24 hours in advance.
Jamie Reynolds of ESPN on Approach Shots