Taking advantage of the greater freedom to fly live drones inside, TNT Sports and CBS Sports are bringing back SkyCam to complement mass production


Huge show with more than 75 cameras at State Farm Stadium

Aerial cameras have been all the rage in live sports production lately, and with TNT Sports and CBS Sports' massive production efforts behind this weekend's NCAA Men's Basketball Final Four at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, AZ, that trend is true.

Chris Brown, VP, Technology and Operations at TNT Sports, and Jason Cohen, SVP, Remote Technical Operations at CBS Sports, once again helped lead an operational collaboration between their two networks for the NCAA Men's Basketball Final Four.

After broadcasters introduced limited use of a live shot inside the stadium bowl for the first time at last year's Final Four, broadcasters were given greater freedom to fly during game action and capture live footage from inside the stadium.

“I think it’s a great opportunity to showcase the drone and show the value it can bring to production,” he says Chris Brown, vice president of technology and operations at TNT Sports. “I think we did some good things [progress] with the NCAA and with [State Farm Stadium] So we definitely want to focus more on that, both on the studio side and on the gaming side. I think it will create a unique look and a different way of presenting the game.”

SkyCam returns to coverage of the NCAA Men's Basketball Final Four. It wasn't used last year when the center-hung video board at NRG Stadium in Houston was too low for the four-point system to mount safely.

In addition to the drone, SkyCam is also returning to the camera range. The system is commonly used by CBS Sports and TNT Sports at this event, but was missing in Houston last year due to a low-hanging, center-hung video board at NRG Stadium.

“Every year we at CBS and our friends at TNT Sports sit down and look at what value the previous year created and what we want to bring back or change,” he says Jason Cohen, SVP, Remote Technical Operations at CBS Sports.

An example of a modification this year is the popular RailCam. Last year, broadcasters introduced a dual RailCam with two camera heads running along the same rig. After weighing their options, TNT and CBS have returned to a single camera on the RailCam.

Live Drones: Further building the case

The live drone used here at the Men's Final Four comes from the Warner Bros. Discovery family. CNN AIR, the news network's internal drone division; an effort at this event that first began last year.

A live CNN AIR drone will fly during game coverage of the NCAA Men's Basketball Final Four.

In Houston, TNT Sports and CBS Sports were able to fly a drone into the domed NRG Stadium, a first for the NCAA Tournament. However, the drone was limited to a very limited flight path, which basically allowed it to rise and fall in a single vertical path in one corner of the dish.

Now broadcasters have received permission from the NCAA and State Farm Stadium to fly much more freely through the stadium. The drone still can't fly directly over the field, but the images the drone can provide should be significantly more dynamic than a year ago.

“Integrating drones into sports is a marathon, not a sprint,” says Cohen. “I think we're all trying to get to the same place, and that's the holy grail of drone use, used as a camera to broadcast live wildlife, to take you to places that you would normally go with your regular cameras cannot reach. But you have to be smart, safe and methodical.”

Cohen and Brown called it “a huge step forward” and described that the hope is to fly the drone into the building from outside and even follow players onto the field. It will enter and exit the building, it will follow the players onto the pitch, a huge step forward from where we were last year. And I think that's just the goal, to keep going,

“Progress is about comfort,” adds Brown. “Not only are they trying to move forward safely, but they're trying to move forward in a way that makes it very comfortable for everyone involved and for us to move forward together. I feel like we did just that. It is also crucial to ensure the rhythm between flying the SkyCam with its four-point system and the drone with its flight paths. Making sure the two never meet is probably the most important aspect of trying to figure this all out.”

The range of cameras continues to grow

The antennas are just part of the arsenal of cameras heading north of 75 into State Farm Stadium.

There's the aforementioned RailCam, as well as 17 super slow-motion cameras, three large booms, an on-court RF shooter with shallow depth of field, slow-motion robos over the backboards and 4K-capable 4X robos over the rims, as well as additional camera shots with 6 -x magnification and slash cameras in two of the four corners of the field.

Game Creek Video's multi-truck production facilities will provide live coverage of the game. The NEP Group's ST27 makes its debut at this event and takes over the transmission.