Chances are you weren’t in Indianapolis watching the Pittsburgh Steelers take the field on Thanksgiving. But even if you — like 63 percent of Greater Pittsburgh — had to watch in shiny HD with family and the picked-over remains of your pre-game turkey, you could take a little local pride in the broadcast. Like so many other large-scale live broadcasts, the Steelers win over Indianapolis was brought to your screens in part by a hometown company.
NEP Group, Inc., began with the construction of a mobile production truck for WNEP in Wilkes-Barre in 1978. After spinning off as an independent entity in 1986, the company moved its headquarters to Pittsburgh and continued to grow, to the point where it now possesses the largest fleet of mobile production trucks in the world.
The company’s trucks are used for production of live broadcasts across the world, including Sunday Night Football, Monday Night Football, Big Brother UK, the Tour de France, and the Dubai World Cup.
The truck systems represent another layer of the hidden complexity behind major live broadcasts, beyond what the on-air talent handles on gameday.
Production of a Monday Night Football game, for example, requires a five-unit fleet. The A unit is the production control room, where the producer, director, and other key personnel sit and direct traffic for the game. The B unit houses the main terminal pieces of essential hardware: the infrastructure of the router, the intercom systems, the main production switcher, the audio console, and so on.
Tape operators sit in the C unit. It contains, essentially, the user interfaces for all the gear in the B unit. The D unit is the studio truck, containing a small switcher, a small audio console, and transmission equipment. And the E unit is the loader, doing the grunt work of carrying gear like cameras, tripods and anything else that needs to be set up or deployed onsite.
The Incline was given a tour of NEP’s set-up earlier this NFL season, when the Steelers opened their slate against Washington on MNF. Michael Pean, the Sr. Account Manager for NEP who handles the ESPN account, described the actual functioning of their elaborate system like this:
“The D unit is the truck mainly used for studio productions. For the Monday Night Countdown show that takes place on the road for ESPN, that truck has a secondary control room with a switcher panel that’s tied to the primary core switcher, the infrastructure for which is in the B unit, and the panel for the technical director and the production team is in the A unit. That’s how it’s all tied together.”
Seems simple enough. Or a bit like rocket science and magic.
The equipment and technology on the trucks belongs to the customer — ESPN for Monday Night Football, NBC for the Sunday Night Football games (and the Sunday Night Football telecasts on Thursday, like Thanksgiving’s game), and so on — but NEP staffs each of their mobile units with engineers that travel from city to city. These folks, Pean explained, are “the ones that are responsible for setting up the trucks every week, getting them ready, troubleshooting any issues that come up, and working with the ESPN production crews to get the shows on the air.”
NEP also provides the drivers that transport the trucks between cities, a job not without its own logistical problems. Different trucks have different specialized gear, so sometimes only one truck is available for a game whose location isn’t yet known.
“Sometimes we have to [have that truck] in the middle of the country,” Penn explained, “with extra drivers on, to drive through the night to get to the necessary place.”
For a specific example of this sort of logistical quagmire, Pean pointed to the end of the MLB regular season, which came down to the Friday before the final weekend, with the possibility of four teams tying for the final American League Wild Card spot. Turner Broadcasting would be handling the AL Wild Card games, but ESPN had the rights to both the NL games and any play-in tiebreakers.
Pean and his colleagues spent the entire weekend on the phone with the various networks, trying to plan for all scenarios.
“On Saturday morning,” Pean said, “we were planning to have a truck cover a tie-breaker game in Detroit. We had a truck in position to cover a tie-breaker in St. Louis. We had one out in Seattle and one in San Francisco that had to be ready.”
And then, the way things played out that weekend, none of those potential tie-in games happened.
These kinds of predicaments affect a number of on-the-ground personnel for NEP: the driver, as mentioned, but also the engineers, the account managers and others, all of whom have to have a plane ticket in hand and a head on a swivel.
Bob Walsh, an NEP engineering manager who works with Pean on the ESPN account, has experienced the worst-case version of this scenario: “There’s been occasions where I’ve gotten on a plane going across the country,” Walsh said, “and gotten to the airport and found out, ‘Oh, the other team won, I’ve gotta go to the other city.’ ”
In addition to the logistical maintenance of NEP’s staff, keeping the trucks up to date is another challenge that goes largely unseen to the at-home viewer. As technology advances, the infrastructure of the truck itself needs to be able to support it. Think standard def to HD to, eventually, 8K, or slow-mo to superslomo to Xmo.
Each of these advancements serves to improve the telecast, but each has its own physical requirements, too, and often trucks can’t be retrofitted or updated to accommodate the new features. When that happens, older trucks are cycled down to less technologically demanding events (or broadcast outlets that aren’t yet up to the cutting-edge standard) and the top-tier broadcasts get new trucks.
But those trucks are still constrained to the limitations of truckishness.
“It’s not like we have a building here where you can just add more room,” Walsh explained. “It’s a truck. It goes down the road. There are certain limitations that you have to abide by: Trucks have to be under 80,000 pounds; that’s a federal law, punishable with fines. Obviously with the footprint of the truck, there’s only so much room you can get.”
One of the trucks handling the Sunday Night Football package covered the Olympic golf tournaments in Brazil this past August, came back to handle the Ryder Cup, and then got set up to be part of the NBC’s SNF package.
This combination of complicated logistics, massive throughput, and a broad customer base leaves Walsh with a mixture of weariness and pride. “On any given weekend, whatever you’re watching,” he said, “there’s a good chance that an NEP truck or an NEP facility is doing those live events.”
Matt Terl is a freelance journalist in the Washington, D.C. area who writes regularly about sports for Washington City Paper. He previously worked as a staff blogger for Washington’s NFL football franchise.