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On-spot sports broadcaster feeds growing appetite for live coverage

| Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A crew assigned to cover the Super Bowl from one of NEP Broadcasting's mobile TV production trucks measures the job in days, instead of hours.

The basic football game telecast hasn't changed much in recent years. "But the pre- and post-game shows have exploded," said George Hoover, chief technology officer for Harmar-based NEP Broadcasting LLC, which runs 47 trucks fitted with high-definition cameras, video and audio recording and graphics equipment.

"Ten years ago, we would go on the air two hours before a game. Now, it seems like we go on the air at 9 a.m. the day of the game and don't go off the air until Jimmy Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel have the winning quarterback on their shows, originating from the game city."

For the Super Bowl halftime show, a truck spends several days at a college stadium close to the venue. "They'll rehearse for a week or so to get all that choreography done, then move to the Super Bowl stadium a couple days before air," Hoover said.

NEP's behind-the-scenes role in delivering major sports events and live entertainment programs to TV viewers worldwide is rapidly expanding. The company has grown by 300 percent over the past 10 years through internal growth and acquisitions, said Kevin Rabbitt, who became CEO in January. Privately held NEP doesn't disclose sales figures.

"We are in some way, shape or form part of the vast majority of major sporting events in the U.S.," Rabbitt said. Every truck is on the road much of the year, especially in the fall as college and pro football get into full swing, baseball teams compete for a World Series title and the first hockey games are played.

A headquarters expansion completed late last year added maintenance space for the fleet. Equipment for new trucks is installed nearby in the University of Pittsburgh Applied Research Center, or U-PARC.

Two trucks just joined the lineup. One assigned to NEP's Supershooters division debuted for an NBC "Hockey Day in America" telecast last month, covering a St. Louis Blues at Chicago Blackhawks game. The other, in the entertainment-focused Denali fleet, worked at the Oscars.

The Pittsburgh area is a logical hub. "It's convenient for getting to the highest concentration of our shows, which are in the Northeast or in the Midwest and Chicago areas," said Michael Fernander, president and general manager of US Mobile Units.

The company provides mobile units, core equipment and engineering staff for ESPN's "Monday Night Football," the network's premier program, and NBA basketball, X Games, NASCAR, Major League Baseball broadcasts and the Olympics.

"NEP is the backbone, technically, for a good portion of our major remote events," said Chris Calcinari, vice president of remote operations for ESPN.

"They really have been on the cutting edge of technology for us. When we moved from standard definition to high-definition, NEP was the company we worked with on that," he said, and the company provided guidance for the network on three-dimensional broadcasts.

ESPN is working with NEP to build a new mobile unit for "Monday Night Football" that will roll out in fall 2013. The new truck, the "first of its kind," Calcinari said, will be fully equipped for higher-resolution 1080p broadcasts.

"There are a lot of 1080p TVs now, but not a lot of content. We currently transmit in 720p," he said. With 1080p, "You'll be able to see things behind the field of play, letters on the shirts and the backboards and even the logo on the ball."

NEP says it has the biggest fleet of mobile TV production studios in the industry, but it started small, as a spinoff in 1986 from WNEP-TV, a family-owned ABC network affiliate in Wilkes-Barre.

Tribune Co. of Chicago purchased WNEP in 1984 from the Shelburne family. Tom Shelburne started a mobile production business using trucks he built to enable the station to cover local events, ranging from Lehigh University basketball to pinewood derby races.

In 1987, NEP merged with Total Communication Systems of Pittsburgh and moved to this area. In 1995, NEP acquired NBC's mobile broadcast fleet, and American Securities, a private equity firm in New York, became the majority owner in 2007. Shelburne was unavailable for comment.

Rabbitt, who used to produce trade shows, wanted to join NEP because it "was a combination of a very successful business with a history of treating people well."

NEP builds and equips its trucks to suit the needs of clients such as ESPN, which sign long-term agreements to use them.

A standard truck with a dozen or so cameras might cost $7 million to build, while a bigger unit with 30 cameras suitable for "Monday Night Football" or major golf or NASCAR events might run $20 million, Hoover said.

NEP had 24 mobile units at the Super Bowl, some comprising five tractor-trailers. "The count I did was around 77 trailers in Indianapolis," Hoover said, with certain units devoted to specific purposes such as international feeds.

On the more scripted, entertainment side, NEP is involved in broadcasting "almost every awards show, and permanent studio shows such as 'The Daily Show with Jon Stewart' and 'The Colbert Report,' " Rabbitt said.

Trucks used in live entertainment need top-notch audio equipment, because they handle music. "Think about the opening number of the Tony Awards. There are 180 people with wireless mikes, and they all need to be tracked. And the orchestra is going on, too," Hoover said. "One guy in this very large audio room (in a broadcast truck) is doing that whole package of things."

Additional Information:

About NEP Broadcasting LLC

What: Builds and operates mobile TV production trucks and fixed-location studios and other equipment.

Founded: 1986

Headquarters: Harmar, with facilities in Allentown, New York City, Los Angeles and London.

Top executives: Debra Honkus, chairman of the board; Kevin Rabbitt, CEO; Michael Fernander, president and general manager of US Mobile Units; Steve Jenkins, managing director of UK operations; Gerald Delon, chief financial officer.

Employees: 700 in the United States and United Kingdom.

Divisions in U.S.: Supershooters, remote production for sports, other events; Denali, remote production for entertainment events; New Century Productions, client-specific production services; Sweetwater, remote production, control room and video display for entertainment industry; NEP Studios, production services in Manhattan; Premiere Entertainment, webcasting and digital media; American Hi Definition, video products for entertainment industry; Live Power, power generation and distribution for sports and entertainment.

Owners: American Securities, a private equity firm in New York, and NEP management.

Revenue: Not disclosed.

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