By B. A. Philips
Many are familiar with the 80/20 Rule; it’s been applied to everything from wealth to work.
It’s not uncommon to hear things like: “80 percent of the wealth is in the hands of 20 percent of the people;” or “80 percent of sales come from 20 percent of the customers;” or even “80 percent of complaints are generated by 20 percent of the people.”
But for John Servizzi, president and CEO of WebStream Productions, in Indianapolis, the 80/20 Rule misses the mark. That’s because the key to his company’s success can be credited to a business philosophy best described as the 90/20 Rule.
Servizzi has built a successful sports production business by offering clients like NCAA.com, Turner Sports, collegiate athletic conferences and individual colleges and universities turnkey game production and webstreaming services. The secret to his success—the 90/20 Rule—boils down to offering clients 90 percent of the production value the public is used to seeing on network television sports coverage for 20 percent of the cost.
“Really what you do is you watch television and work with television people, and you determine what they are doing,” says Servizzi. “How they are doing it isn’t really relevant. It’s watching what they do and seeing the innovation they bring to the table.
“It’s almost reverse engineering. It’s figuring out how I can achieve the same thing they are, or at least 90 percent of what they are doing, at 20 percent of the cost. That’s where the creative engineering begins.”
That strategy has served Servizzi well since founding WebStream Productions in July 2006. Since then the company has produced streaming coverage of fencing, water polo, bowling, golf, track and field, cross country and, of course, the twin mainstays of college basketball and football. “The expectation is there that universities will provide—especially at the Division I level—a video stream of their events, especially if they are not on television,” he says. By offering production values that approach the best that television has to offer at 20 percent of the cost, Servizzi is creating value for his customers, which have rewarded the company by booking WebStream Productions for more than 500 events over the past year. Offering value, based on the 90/20 Rule, to clients has made WebStream Productions a zero-debt operation without outside investors that’s profitable and self-sustaining, he says.
Value-Based Production Technology
What makes it possible for Servizzi to deliver on the 90/20 Rule is a perspective on technology that sees it as a means to an end, and having a clear understanding of the goal that is trying to be accomplished.
“You know the major networks do some things that I’m not sure the casual sports viewer ever notices,” says Servizzi. Pointing to the St. Louis Cardinals-Texas Rangers World Series, Servizzi says that cutting-edge production tools, like the FOX infrared “Hot Spot” camera are innovative, but he wonders how much the casual viewer—the same sort of viewer he targets with his streaming sports productions—notices.
“There is a lot of money being spent and bless them for doing that because they are the innovators of the industry,” he says.
Such costly innovation, coupled with a view held by many in the sports production community that only certain brands of video production technology can deliver a quality product, creates a sweet spot for WebStream Productions, which is willing to employ significantly less expensive alternatives. “I have never walked onto a job site and heard anyone demanding a Craftsman hammer,” he notes.
At the core of the production technology Servizzi deploys in WebStream Productions’ Sprinter production truck, its pair of production trailers and fly-pack, is the NewTek TriCaster production switcher. “We’re using TriCasters in every flavor that’s available,” he says.
The NewTek TriCaster, which is offered as six models, is a production solution that packs the switching, graphics, character generation, recording and audio mixing tools needed to produce live network-quality HD or SD video, such as sports, into an affordable package. For WebStream Productions, its integrated support for directly streaming to the Internet is an added benefit that helps Servizzi to meet his clients’ production and distribution expectations at an affordable price.
Another critical piece of technology, central to delivering on the 90/20 Rule, is the NewTek 3Play slow-motion replay system. “The 3Play 820 has really given us the ability to do nearly everything that those larger replay systems do,” says Servizzi.
The 3Play 820 is a 10-channel slow-motion replay system offering two simultaneous, fully independent switchable playout channels, up to eight simultaneous record channels with 200 hours of HD recording.
WebStream Productions employs the 3Play 820 to add instant replay of slow motion clips, assemble packages, put together half-time highlight reels and even provide game officials with access to instant replays of questionable calls—something that normally would be reserved for the relatively small number of college games that are produced using high-end production trucks.
When the game is over, the 3Play 820 plays an equally important role. “At the end of a game, we want to be able to deliver raw highlights, and we want to be able to maintain raw footage on all of the plays—clean high-quality video,” explains Servizzi. “The 3Play enables us to do that in a very simple workflow. It allows us to build a library of assets, and then moving forward when we see the same team three weeks down the road, we have great video for our pre-game show.”
“I think really as far as things go, the 3Play 820 has been a major game changer for producers at our level,” he adds.
Delivering on the 90/20 Rule requires more than simply finding powerful, yet affordable alternatives to higher priced production technology, says Servizzi. It also requires experience and judgment to know when it makes sense to spend a bit of extra money to achieve what viewers expect.
Nowhere is this more evident than with the cameras Servizzi deploys for football and baseball coverage. Typically, Servizzi uses prosumer-level cameras with HD-SDI output. However, this level of camera—while capable of producing remarkable HD imagery at a low price—suffers from one limitation that makes it unsuitable for certain camera positions at baseball and football games.
“There is a problem of glass,” explains Servizzi. “If you want to get a good shot from distance, you are going to want to get a bigger camera, because frankly none of the low-end prosumer cameras have the kind of glass you’re going to need.” Often for big football stadiums, Servizzi will field a higher-end HD camera that accepts interchangeable lenses so he can rent a 40x lens with a doubler.
Knowing where to spend a little extra money keeps viewers and clients happy and maintains the goal of the 90/20 Rule. “If you are trying to do a baseball game with a 20x lens in centerfield, you are in trouble. That’s just the reality,” he says.
“If that camera in centerfield can’t zoom past second base, boy, the people at home are going to know that. They are going to know that’s not what they are used to seeing. So we have to raise the ante a little bit on those shows.”
Beyond the technology, there’s always the expense of hiring a production crew. But here too the evolution of lower cost technology used to stream video on the Internet is having a surprising and welcomed effect on WebStream Productions’ staffing costs.
In the mid-2000s when Servizzi started his company, streaming video on the Web was a rarity on college campuses. “We would frequently go into places that had never streamed video, and in a manner of speaking, we became evangelists for streaming,” he recalls.
Servizzi spent a lot of time talking to athletic departments and working in some respects as a consultant to universities and conferences to educate them not just on the benefits of streaming, but also on how to add that capability on campus. “So now, five years on, we walk onto those campuses, and they are currently streaming. The infrastructure, it used to be like pulling teeth just to get enough bandwidth. Now we walk in and can have a reasonable expectation that the infrastructure is going to be in place. Man, has that made things easier.”
As a consequence of adding streaming, these same universities have been developing a pool of video production talent to support their efforts that WebStream Productions can draw upon as crew for its sports productions.
“We have looked at all of these universities that have begun streaming as an opportunity, because when we go into these campuses to produce games, we have a competent crew that is working throughout the year and knows what it is doing that we can draw upon,” he says.
The Other 10 Percent
If WebStream Productions is able to deliver 90 percent of the production value of a big game produced for television, what’s missing? In other words, what elements make up the other 10 percent?
According to Servizzi, that 10 percent is a rather random collection of pieces, including such things as the on-field down and distance, the electronic line of scrimmage and first-down line in football. However, he believes lower-cost tools are on the way, and it should take between 18 and 24 months before they become available. There are other missing elements, too.
“Generally speaking, graphics are a little stripped down,” says Servizzi. “We don’t always animate on and off the screen. We don’t have the situation where a three-pointer in basketball is hit and the number flips and sparkles. But again, the causal viewer won’t notice these things are missing.”
Servizzi cautions, however, that this balancing act he performs with technology, price and meeting viewer expectations isn’t about low-balling the competition. “On shows of this level, it’s not a matter of us bidding against a major production company,” he explains. “Our business model has never been to go in and undercut the big guy.
“You know, they’re doing it for $45,000; we try to do it for $2,500; and we’ll blow them out of the water. The reality is the shows we are doing simply wouldn’t get done if we weren’t doing them.”
More commonly, WebStream Productions is faced with a situation in which a university or other enterprise is trying to get something produced and streamed on the Internet for a certain price. “They can’t spend a dime more,” he says, “so we are faced with answering, ‘How are you going to make that happen?’”
“We are very strict on one thing—and I am adamant about it,” he says. “If we do an event, our coverage will be done well, and it will be a TV experience. Frankly, if I don’t think I can deliver it on the budget, I don’t take the job. That is one of the things that differentiates us as a company. We do say no.”
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