From drones to distances, Fox takes tech to US Open coverage
Producing a golf tournament has a certain rhythm to it. The telecast cuts from hole to hole, often joining a player just as he is about to hit a shot.
That timing is being upended for this year’s U.S. Open, and new broadcaster Fox is imposing that on itself.
As part of its pitch to the USGA to wrest the event away from NBC, Fox promised innovation. Upon winning a 12-year-contract in August 2013, network executives found themselves in the unusual — but helpful — position of a very long lead-up before airing the tournament for the first time.
A year and a half of planning has resulted in plenty of technological bells and whistles, though the executives behind them hope they don’t come across as bells and whistles but soon leave golf fans wondering how they ever lived without them.
The gizmos include the Rangefinder, where the live shot of the golfer is overlaid with graphics showing how far he is from not just the hole but the bunkers. There is also the Shaded Green system, which creates virtual shadows to show the undulations. Cameras will capture the action from new angles — including drones — and glide up and down or alongside the course for shifting viewpoints.
“The great thing about golf is it’s a different canvas from a flat football field or a flat tennis court,” said Mark Loomis, the coordinating producer of Fox’s U.S. Open coverage.
Loomis had previously produced 3-D coverage of the Masters, and while 3-D broadcasts of sports never took off, golf proved to be one of the best fits. The slope of the green, the distance to the hole — perspective that was lost in two dimensions — could suddenly be seen at home.
Technological add-ons now offer the chance to capture those details on a television screen. That Chambers Bay, site of this year’s tournament, is such a new course could also make the gadgets and graphics especially useful because fans are so unfamiliar with it.
Its layout is a good fit, too.
“Chambers Bay has been a perfect starting point,” Loomis said. “There are so many different ups and downs, twists and turns.”
Michael Davies, Fox Sports’ senior vice president of field and technical operations, said that brainstorming new ideas started with the premise of “Wouldn’t it be great if ...”
The first hurdle was finding out if the items on the network’s wish list could be accomplished by its vendors, said Zac Fields, Fox Sports’ vice president of graphics and technology. But just because something was doable technically didn’t mean it was feasible to use on a broadcast.
“The emphasis was not just on looking good, but making sure it was easy for production to use and the workflow was seamless,” Fields said.
Much of that involved golf’s need for quick cuts from hole to hole. Many of the new technologies require time to set up, so there’s no chance to use them if the producer switches to a player the typical 3 seconds before a shot.
With practice and preparation, Loomis believes these novelties can become more boon than burden. He’ll have a sheet of paper in front of him to offer reminders of which holes he’ll need to cut to 10-15 seconds before the shot.
“We had to figure out exactly what we can do without shooting ourselves in the foot and without slowing down,” Loomis said.
There will probably be more opportunities to use the technology on Sunday than on Thursday, as the number of players who need to be shown dwindles. But even on Sunday, the frequency could vary depending on how many golfers are in contention. If the tournament comes down to the two players in the last group, there will be plenty of opportunities. If six different guys are in it, that becomes more difficult.
“You have to be OK with not using it that much,” Loomis said.
Fox tested out the technology at Chambers Bay in March, but it’s impossible to replicate a real tournament. Inevitably some tools will work better than others, and viewers will get to see the network’s learning curve live on their TV screens.
“There are going to be some ups and downs,” said John Entz, Fox Sports’ president of production.
As networks have tried new technologies across all sports over the years, Entz acknowledged, “probably more have been unsuccessful than successful.” The holy grail of innovations is the yellow first-down line in football.
“The best ideas,” Entz said, “are often simple ideas.”
One of the simplest ideas for Fox at the U.S. Open is putting a microphone in the holes to capture not just the sound of the ball rattling in but the golfer roaring and high-fiving his caddie. Imagine if there had been one when Tiger Woods made his birdie putt on the 72nd hole at Torrey Pines in the 2008 U.S. Open to force a playoff.