Changing the Dynamics of Air Shows through Live Video

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Six years ago, Mark Magin of Onboard Images was driving home from an air show when he tuned his radio to a station that was covering a press conference at which the late NASCAR president Bill France, Jr. was passing the reins of the organization to his son, Brian France. “After a while,” remembered Magin, “one of the reporters asked France to what he attributed the spectacular success of NASCAR during his time at its helm. Without hesitating, he said ‘on-board cameras.’ He said that once NASCAR stopped being a ‘bunch of yahoos running around in circles’ and began using on-board cameras, they took the race to the fan.”

It was an epiphany for Magin. Here was Bill France, Jr., a man largely credited with the rise of NASCAR as an iconic-level, American sports and entertainment phenomenon. He had pointed singularly to on-board cameras as the lynch pin of his multi-billion-dollar enterprise. Maybe, Magin thought to himself, France hadn’t simply passed the reins of NASCAR to his son that day; maybe he also was sharing the keys of his kingdom to those who were listening.

Over the past two decades or longer, many have pointed to NASCAR as a successful model that air shows should attempt to emulate. And, if video was the magic potion that allowed NASCAR to assume its mantle atop the motor sports Pantheon, technological advancements have made it feasible for air shows to consider full-scale video productions that can enhance the on-site experience for air show spectators while delivering that experience to mass audiences via the Internet.

Alas, when cost enters the equation and air shows are looking at upwards of $150,000 for first-class video production capability and another $15,000 to $40,000 for an on-site big screen, for all but a handful of shows, the dream of video would appear to be just that…only a dream.

Or maybe it’s not just a dream. Maybe there are ways to scale back the production and otherwise reduce costs so that any event organizer — and thus, the entire industry — can build live video to document and even enhance the air show experience.

Acquiring the Magic

Those who work with video tend to break the discipline into three distinct phases: the acquisition of the media through cameras, the production of that media into a usable product, and the delivery of that product to an audience…whether that audience is a traditional broadcast television audience, on-site air show spectators via big screens or to tens of thousands of people through the Internet.

Costs can vary wildly depending on the front-end quality that an air show might require as well as on the back end, based on to whom the show wishes to target the product. In the middle, there needs to be a producer who understands how to put together a live event and how to maximize or minimize the signal that is distributed to the audience.

When it comes to capturing the action, there are at least two schools of thought: those who feel that nothing short of broadcast quality video is worthy of consideration, and those who believe that establishing a lower-cost entry point is the only way that large numbers of air shows can get involved.

When achieving broadcast quality is non-negotiable, the costs go up exponentially. Television and film professionals generally agree that when an F-22 Raptor makes a high speed pass at 650 knots, not just any camera or camera man can capture the action in a way that does the moment justice.

Sticker shock scares off most event organizers when they get estimates for an operation that includes camera men using long lenses with stabilizers capable of 100 to one ratio shots, cockpit video transmitting live to the production truck that provides the pilot’s perspective, and several cameras on the ground to get multiple angles of the aircraft and the other elements of the show: the announcer, the crowd reaction, and the ancillary activities.

There is no disputing that when executed at such a high level, the product is spectacular. But if air shows are to take anything from the wisdom of NASCAR and Bill France, Jr., the entire video experience must circle back to in-cockpit video.

“The main benefit for spectators is they’re getting to see something they don’t otherwise get to see themselves,” said Magin. “Rarely do people get to be in the cockpit. We get to take them along and show them what the pilot is seeing. Most people aren’t going to go for a ride in an aerobatic aircraft. They won’t get to do what Sean Tucker or Patty Wagstaff or John Klatt is doing. We give them that experience.”

Likewise, if video is going to deliver an experience that is better than that which spectators can get through the naked eye, it somehow has to be different. “Different” doesn’t have to mean more expensive, though, according to several entrepreneurs who believe that lower-cost cameras and lower bandwidth transmissions can deliver the integral components of an air show to Internet audiences at a small fraction of the price. 

Production

Roger Bishop straddles the two worlds of air shows and video production, working both as a production specialist for the NBC affiliate in Indianapolis and as the producer of the Indianapolis Air Show. Not surprisingly, he is a major proponent of video on site at the show as well as through streamcasts to larger audiences on the Internet. When it comes to cameras, Bishop believes, “the more the merrier.” He suggests putting cameras in the cockpit, in the aerobatic box, and all over the ground. Either way, though, success is contingent upon a first-class production. “The middle of it is the producer, the guy who knows who the clients are, how to manipulate the signal for us on big screens, for Internet streamcasts, for television in hospitality suites, or maybe for a post-produced DVD.”

Further, the producer needs to know what the advertising commitments are in each medium, how and when to integrate B-roll content and graphics, and generally how to ensure the entire effort proceeds in a professional manner.

Sam Artinger of Screen Works/NEP is among the purists and has produced video for a number of air shows over the years. He suggests that — to run a full-fledged video outfit — he needs 32 people.

“You have six camera operators, a graphics operator. You have tape playback, a sound mixer, a director, a producer, and a technical director. You need at least one good cameraman who can handle a long lens and people to help them with cameras and spotting. And your audio guy has to be ‘A number one.’”

It adds up to a price tag in the neighborhood of $150,000 for a broadcast-quality production when you add in a mobile production studio, transmission costs, wiring, utilities, and, of course, in-cockpit video. “It all breaks down to how much gear you use,” said Artinger. “You’re charged for the graphics machine. You’re charged for the taping machines. Ideally, we isolate every camera, so even though we’re doing a live show on a screen, we can go back in post-production and create any show we want.”

By all accounts, a product developed in such a manner is spectacular. But if the cost is prohibitive for all but a handful of air shows, might there be another approach that is less expensive, and dramatically so?

The Other Side of the Fence

David Knight of Big Moving Pictures doesn’t  believe that it’s possible to avoid high production costs and maintain a quality product. “Let’s say that, instead of sending the signal to big screens, you’re going to send the signal to the Web,” says Knight. “The cost of streaming to the Web is negligible, but it’s still going to cost you for the cameras and the lenses, and then the audio. Unless a local TV station already is covering the show, you have to provide the cameras, the switchers, and the support personnel. People are expecting high quality, and you need real cameras with expensive lenses and stabilizing systems.”

Knight has cycled through a number of business scenarios to cut costs, but was unable to make any of the models work. “We were trying to learn how to do the production without expensive equipment,” he said. “We learned quickly that you either need to go big or don’t go at all. We started using little screens; we used lower-end cameras and switching equipment. It really bit us in the rear quickly. It was never at the caliber where we could charge advertisers. You can’t do it in a half-baked way, even if people are watching on their computers.”

Others disagree. Phil Pacific and Tom Bendien began a partnership in 2008 that is predicated on the notion that they could deliver the air show experience to mass audiences through Internet streamcast at a cost that makes it feasible for even the smallest of air shows. Pacific operates the ADC Group, an event marketing company while Bendien is the president of Live Media Now, LLC.

Pacific and Bendien said they have arrived at a price point in the range of $20-$40,000 per show, but — by leveraging their own national sponsorships and trade-outs — they can get the price down to $8-$10,000 and perhaps lower. “You don’t need too many sponsorships to cover that amount of money,” says Pacific. “And, keep in mind, now you have tens of thousands of people watching over the Internet,” the type of large, captive audience that is appealing to advertisers.

How is this done? “We roll into the show with two or three cameras and we get sponsors to offset that cost,” said Pacific. “We shoot B-roll on Friday and we do rehearsals. The cameras then plug into a production van and we have access to a low-cost satellite transmission to deliver low-bandwidth video through the Internet. The van costs $1,000 per weekend. You have the technical producer. You have the guy switching the cameras. You have a guy hooking into the public address system. You have the satellite time.  And then you need an Internet provider,” a service he said in all likelihood can arrive at no cost through an in-kind trade.

As a low bandwidth production, Bendien and Pacific acknowledge their product is not made for big screens, but they said it’s of high enough quality for smaller screens in hospitality chalets and elsewhere at the show. Their $20-40,000 starting price doesn’t include in-cockpit video or using cameras that would classify as high quality by purists, but those upgrades can be added at additional cost. They view this approach as a scalable product that puts live video within the reach of just about all air shows.

Bishop is a pioneer in Internet streamcasts, and likewise sees tremendous potential in this medium. While his Indianapolis show falls into the higher end of the video production spectrum, he agrees with the notion that Internet streamcast presents an efficient, inexpensive delivery channel ripe with sponsorship opportunities to offset the overall costs of a larger production. “There’s high quality and low quality in terms of production and then there’s high-bandwidth and low-bandwidth delivery and the two are not interlinked,” he said. “Our original goal was to get the show to a local children’s hospital that we benefit. I took the next step and wanted to broadcast it over the Internet.”

To Bishop’s delight, he found an engaged audience of more than 20,000 users on the Internet, who, on average, spent more than two hours watching his air show. “We sent our transmission out through the DoD and our stream reached Camp Phoenix in Afghanistan and the [nuclear submarine] U.S.S. George Washington. It’s a patriotic appeal with our service men and women seeing what’s going on at home.”

So, while Bishop delivers a high-bandwidth transmission to big screens in Indianapolis with all the bells and whistles, he simultaneously is delivering a low-bandwidth version to anyone who might have an interest on the Internet. From there, he sees additional opportunities to sell enhanced features from the show at low price points to air show aficionados and thus create an entirely new revenue stream to offset overall costs.

At this level of production and with audiences in the tens of thousands for each show on the Internet, Bendien and Pacific see a viable business model, but also a tool with which the industry can expand its footprint among spectators and sponsors alike. “You’ve got the ability to accept video outputs from the jet teams. You’ve got the ability to roll in video advertisements,” said Bendien. “If Toyota wants to do it, we can roll in video commercials, but we also can insert clickable video ads over the webstream. We can insert a graphic or a ‘little bug’ promoting the sponsor, maybe the Air Force. There’s really not much of a difference between this and a typical broadcast sports event.”

Big Screens

Over the past five years, the application of LED (light-emitting diode) technology in large-unit displays has transformed the entire concept of outdoor video. Previously, the use of video in large, outdoor venues was limited by stubborn environmental conditions such as sunlight and rain. But, today, the only limitations of LED displays now appear to be the imagination of the user. That and a hefty price tag.

“It is only within the last five years that big-screen technology has gotten to a point where you can use it at an air show,” said Knight. “The LEDs have become really bright. The picture tubes on the old screens were not good enough. As they got better and better, in the past five years, they finally made the light-emitting diodes so powerful that they can be used in blazing sunlight, near water or next to a runway…whatever nature gives you.”

The versatility of big screens also adds to the allure. Artinger’s company, Screen Works/NEP, has big screens mounted on trucks. “They look like a 50-foot trailer with a screen coming out of the top,” he said. “We can turn it any way we want.”

In addition, the screens have a 130-degree viewing area and can be watched from great distances, meaning one screen, situated correctly, could effectively serve an audience of tens of thousands of people. How much might that be worth to sponsors who could run TV commercials throughout the day on the displays and signage around the displays at which 30,000 people will direct their attention for four hours? It’s probably a big number. And it would have to be to justify the considerable expense of these technological wonders.

“There are several pricing options, based on size,” said Artinger. “We own nine truck-mounted screens. Those are truck-mounted, completely self-contained. Then you go to modular screens and that becomes a little more expensive because you have a generator and a structure to build, and then chain motors to rig it. The 20-by-27 screen (that’s feet, not inches) for a Thursday morning to Sunday is $25,000; a 17-by-22 screen is $21,000, and a nine-by-twelve is around $14,000.” And a 40-foot-wide screen can run as much as $40,000 for a weekend.

Ouch.

Maybe, though, like any technology, the cost is going to come down over time? Yes, but not as fast as they might have in a non-recessionary economy, according to Gary Kayye, a North Carolina-based audio-visual consultant. “The prices already are half of what they were two years ago and every year you’d expect a 25 to 50 percent decrease,” says Kayye. “But you won’t see them come down to $5,000 a day any time soon. It’s a very specialized market and there aren’t a whole lot of them out there. The economy is killing demand and, whereas that might normally reduce the cost, the manufacturers aren’t likely to produce enough [new units] to reduce the price until the market comes back.”

Managing Expectations

Whether air shows are considering going all in with a video extravaganzas that includes full-scale production, in-cockpit video, and big screens, or whether they want to go with a lower entry point with hand-held cameras and an Internet streamcast, meeting the expectations of sponsors and the audience is of paramount importance.

“There was an occasion last year where a group made a valiant attempt to streamcast one of the shows,” said Bishop. “The effort was good, but they tried to serve so many different formats of end users simultaneously that they bit off more than they could chew. The new Internet community of spectators had read the hype and were committed to it, and they were disappointed when it underperformed.”

Likewise, when larger productions have failed based on a lagging economy and/or unrealistic expectations, the entire concept of video in the air show business has taken a hit. “What’s most important for the video producer is that they concentrate on the robustness of the signal and deliver on the promise,” says Bishop.

Perhaps a recessionary environment isn’t the best moment for an air show to dive into an expensive new venture that requires large new sponsorship commitments to succeed. Or maybe it’s exactly the right time for air shows to take a deeper look at video as corporations re-think their marketing strategy and seek low-risk, high-impact marketing opportunities that an air show might be in a unique position to deliver through video.

One thing is for sure, 30-plus years ago when Bill France, Jr. and his cohorts at NASCAR happened upon the magic of on-board video, many of these same obstacles were in their way. If history is any guide, getting past these obstacles and finding ways to take the air show “to the fan” through video on a larger scale has the potential to lift the entire industry to new heights.

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Jim Cudahy
Jim Cudahy runs Stanardsville, Virginia-based Marcomm 7, a strategic planning and marketing consulting agency.