Driving Toward Success
From The Creative COW Magazine|
Denver, Colorado USA
©2009 Philip Garvin and CreativeCOW.net. All rights reserved.
No matter how unexpected and varied the routes, the roads to success are often marked by customer service, attention to detail, and the imagination to see that success is even possible.
Philip Garvin got his start as a still photographer after earning a B.A. and Master of Fine Arts degree at Yale. In the 1970s, he became a producerdirector- cameraman at WGBH, Boston's PBS affiliate, eventually working for shows including CBS Sunday Morning and "The MacNeil/Lehrer Report."
He later returned to Connecticut, where he taught filmmaking for a year at Yale. He also created a video production company to serve clients in the nearby New York City area.
"But I had always wanted to live in Colorado, so that I could work on ranches in my spare time," he said. "When 'The MacNeil/Lehrer Report' became the 'Mac- Neil/Lehrer Newshour,' I became the Managing Producer for the show's new Denver production center."
Relaunched as Colorado Studios, Philip's production company expanded from serving MacNeil/Lehrer "to a multitude of other companies," he says. "One of these jobs involved editing for the Denver Nuggets [NBA franchise]. So, when the mobile unit company in Colorado decided to get out of the business, I decided to found Mountain Mobile Television, to fill that void," says Philip. "And I bought a couple of trucks."
Here's what he told us about what happened next.
We began with two trucks. There were years where we built four trucks in a year. Now, we're building one or two per year, and will have a total of 24 next year - all but three of them are high definition expandos. [ed. note: See sidebar, "Inside the 25HDX Mobile Unit."] The company is now called the Mobile Television Group, and is the second largest mobile unit provider in the U.S.
We have focused almost entirely on, and continue to focus on, regional sports networks. For example, when the Red Sox play the Angels, we're doing that game for Fox West.
We do approximately 4000 live sports a year, and it's one of those deals where there's no room for error. If you're going to do 4000 live sports events, you better have 4000 pretty good broadcasts - and 3995 really GREAT broadcasts.
In the regional sports business, you can only add a client when a contract between a network and the mobile company expires. The incumbent gets renewed 90% of the time, unless they've messed up. We have bids in on a couple of these right now, so we'll see if we expand any more in the near future.
But it's interesting that the mobile company that was once the largest in the United States, with over forty trucks, went out of business this year. Yup. From forty to nothing. See? You can really blow it.
Maybe they grew too fast. Maybe they grew in the wrong way. I assume that they made some bad decisions along the way, but we don't have the inside scoop. If I knew what they did wrong, and then did the opposite, I'd be in great shape.
In general though, I think people's attention is sometimes dissipated. Our solution is to focus, really focus, on regional sports networks. Some of our competitors go after big national events in addition to regional sports networks. I'm not saying that that's wrong, but it can be wrong.
If you have a contract to do a game on a NESN in New England, or Fox West, Fox South, Altitude or any of these networks, as a general practice, you try to dedicate a mobile unit to them.
[Ed. note: the truck in this article's title graphic was built by Mobile TV Group for use by the Big Ten Network, which is dedicated to covering the Big Ten college sports conference.]
Then every time they show up, these regional networks have the same truck that they had before. They feel comfortable with that.
The next day, you might get a call from a national network, and they say "Hey, can you hand us this great big truck to do this great big national event?" If you are lured to pull a truck from the regional guy, that's bad. I think that this company that went out of business did that.
The priorities of existing customers - that's all I'm focused on. That comes before business. That is business.
Especially these days, you have to be super customer- oriented. That means great service every day, reliable service, being attentive, bringing in new technologies on a regular basis, constantly upgrading the trucks.
We also have a policy of no deferred maintenance. In a truck with literally thousands of parts and pieces, you can't guarantee that none of them will break. But what you can guarantee is that they'll be fixed before the next event.
Now, that is a very expensive policy. It means that if you can't fix that particular piece of equipment, you have to go rent one. You can sometimes spend ten percent or more of the entire revenue on a particular event on rentals or replacing things - so there goes the profit for that day.
You just have to have that attitude toward service. This is not a business for the faint of heart when it comes to spending money.
The GVG Kayenne HD Switcher - 96 inputs, 48 outputs, switchable 1080i or 720
THE NEW NEWS
The old news is that everything has to be in high def. The new news is everything that was high def needs to be refurbished with more current high def.
One of the things you look for when you upgrade is whether there are better and less expensive ways of doing something that you did a month ago with a more expensive device.
Looking at different products or brands, we have a zero base towards everything. We're constantly evaluating. Of course, you can't review everything every time, or you will never get it done. Still, when you're building a big truck, there are thousands of pieces, tens of thousands of connections, and every time you build something new, or order something new, you ask yourself, "How can I do this differently?"
Sometimes upgrades are just the new version of the same camera. For example, we are converting to the new Grass Valley LDK 8000 cameras from earlier models.
We have also been using the Kalypso production switcher from Grass Valley, which has been the industry standard. They have recently come out with the Kayenne - we had the first one in the United States. We're adding more of them, and each of them is very expensive: over a half million dollars. The tradeoff is that they offer so many more options for TDs, to be more flexible, and to provide a better experience for viewers.
Blackmagic Design is one of the companies that we look into whenever we evaluate new options. We've recently started using their HD-SDI to fiber optic converters. We don't use fiber optics inside the truck, but we are increasingly using fiber optics between the truck and the announce booth.
Up until very recently, anything over 300 feet was done with regular coax. HD-SDI isn't practical past that. Yet the announcers' seats in a sports venue can be literally thousands of feet from the truck, so there was no way to get HD from the truck to the booth. Announcers were complaining that people at home were seeing details in high def that they weren't seeing in the booth. Those details weren't making it into either play by play or color, and it was a problem.
Bkackmagic Design DeckLink Optical Fiber 3/4
First, we had to wait for the stadiums and arenas to run fiber internally. Once that started happening, we could start converting the HD-SDI to fiber. HDSDI coming out of our router is converted to meet the venue's fiber at the truck, which leads to the announce booth.
There have been some units that could do that, and they have been fairly pricy. Then Blackmagic came out with HD-SDI to fiber converters that were less expensive, and two-way, so we can now send a signal up and a signal back on a single strand of fiber. The benefit for us has been the ability to add extra low-cost "booth" camera to an event without charging our clients extra.
The other big innovation is much better monitoring. High def monitoring was a challenge five or six years ago. Today, it's all LCDs and quad splits and multi-viewers. You can tell instantly when you're walking into a truck built in the last two years versus one that was built five years ago, six years ago. It's a totally different feeling in the truck.
Weight is also an issue for us truck guys. We always hit that 80,000 pound limit of a tractor trailer, so we're always looking for lighter equipment. There also comes a time when you just have to replace the trailer itself.
We're also looking for energy efficiency. We'd like to see LCD displays that are a little cooler - they're still running pretty hot these days. While a minor thing by itself, we are still looking at LED lighting versus other kinds of lighting, because they run cooler, and don't take as much air conditioning.
EVS Replay Tape
HDNET AND HDNET MOVIES
I met Mark Cuban, the owner of the NBA Dallas Mavericks, back in 1999, when my trucks worked his games. Mark and I were both interested in high def, so we decided in 2000, "Hey, let's not mess around. Let's start the first all high def network in the entire world."
It wasn't just, "Okay, to pull this off, I'm going to be in the production business," or I'm going to be in the editing business, or the master control business, or the transmission business, or the cable or satellite business delivering stuff for the home. We had to figure out that whole string. We had to become experts in all of it.
To get there, we had to invent everything from the ground up. For example, there was no such thing as a master control system for a 24/7 network. We built the first all-HD server-based master control - very common stuff today, but when we went to manufacturers at the time and told them what we wanted, the reply was always, "We don't have that."
We told them, "We know you don't, but you have something kind of like it. Maybe you can modify it THIS way. We think it will work." Those conversations happened again and again and again. There were some companies that helped us, and some that couldn't.
Pretty soon, we found out that nothing worked exactly the way that we wanted, because nobody had ever asked for it before. So I said to my brilliant seniorengineer, Glenn Valenta, "Well, let's make it work anyway."
One day Glenn came to me at lunch and said, "Oh man, we blew it. We just spent something like half a million dollars, and we made a mistake. It's not going to work." This was on a really basic problem - managing local black-outs for sporting events - that, once again, nobody was dealing with in HD. There were no manufacturers we could go to, nobody we could ask for advice.
I said, "This is bad, Glenn. This is our first really bad, dumb mistake." It wasn't entirely our fault, but we hadn't thought this piece of the puzzle all the way out, and it was entirely up to us to fix it. "Tell you what," I said to him. "I know you can figure this out. Go into your office. Close the door. Turn off the phone. Don't come out until you figure it out." Five hours later, steam coming off his head, he had come up with a solution.
We literally dreamed the whole thing up, and steps like those are how we pulled it off. We came up with solutions on our own, one at a time, as HDNet grew from five people to approximately 150.
So, no, I don't think I think big. I'm not a big vision kind of guy. I just keep plugging away in my business, staying focused on doing what I do, taking care of one problem at a time, slowly but surely.
You might say, "Wow, you're doing great!" but I've been producing television since 1973. It has taken me 36 years to get here. Actually, you can add another ten years before that that I'd been looking through a viewfinder as a still photographer before producing TV.
That's 46 years of trying to do the same thing. You'd like to think that, in that amount of time, you might have accomplished SOMETHING.
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Denver, Colorado USA
Philip is the president of the Mobile TV Group and Colorado Studios, as well as the Chief Operating Officer & General Manager of HDNet and HDNet Movies. He is also the author of "Religious America," and "A People Apart: Hasidism in America," both of which were nominated for National Book Awards.
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