By Thomas Hauser
It’s two o’clock in the afternoon on Thursday, July 24. Four men and a woman are in suite 2427 at The Affinia Hotel across the street from Madison Square Garden. Frank Villegas, James Pilott, Camile Maratchi, Albert Kim, and Matthew Chase are in the final stages of editing a half-dozen segments that will air on HBO’s Saturday night telecast of Gennady Golovkin vs. Daniel Geale and Bryant Jennings vs. Mike Perez.
Twenty floors below, Cory Green sits in a room with an unmade bed. Green was up until four o’clock in the morning, editing video from the previous day’s press conference into 60-to-90-second segments for distribution to boxing fans via various digital platforms.
These people are at ground zero for a unit known internally at HBO as “The Delta Force.”
“We understand that we’re not Army Rangers,” HBO Sports senior producer Dave Harmon says. “The name ‘Delta Force’ is meant to be ironic.”
The goal of Delta Force is to bond with fans by capturing the pulse of fight week. The initiative had its origins in 24/7, which was launched to coincide with the 2007 mega-fight between Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather. 24/7 was premised on the belief that there are more stories to tell than the story of the fight itself and that telling these stories will strengthen the connections between HBO, individual fighters, and fans.
Face-Off, 2 Days, The Road To, Countdown, and Portrait of a Fighter followed in the wake of 24/7. All of these shows were created to engender interest in HBO Sports, increase viewership, and, ultimately, add to subscription buys. But there was room for improvement.
“We’d been doing features the same way for thirty years,” Harmon recalls. “Go to the fighter’s training camp. Shoot for a few days. But by creating our pre-produced features almost exclusively from that footage, we were locking ourselves in to what were sometimes old stories by the time they were on the air. And we almost always came up short where fight-week developments were concerned.”
The Delta Force fills that hole in the creative process. It’s a small agile production unit that can quickly shoot and edit high-quality video features. The first time it was utilized was for the 2010 pay-per-view bout between Manny Pacquiao and Joshua Clottey. But in recent years, it has become crucial, not just to actual fight-night telecasts, but also to the marketing of HBO World Championship Boxing and Boxing After Dark, both of which have significantly smaller publicity budgets than HBO-PPV.
There was a time not long ago when viewers were encouraged to watch fights on television through advertising and articles in the print media. Now pipelines in the digital and social media universe connect content-providers and consumers in remarkable ways.
Once a fight is announced, the Delta Force covers anything and everything: press conferences, gym workouts, weigh-ins, and the unexpected. It’s in the field in the moment, capturing the reality of what’s going on. Consumers – and in particular, young consumers – now want “real time.” Thus, Delta Force content is routinely packaged into shortform pieces and distributed to the public within twenty-four hours of shooting. At its best, it gives fans a deeper perspective on the fighters, the fight-week scene, and fight-related events.
The keys to the fulfillment of Delta Force’s mission are production and distribution.
HBO Sports exective producer Rick Bernstein is the titular head of production. But the hands-on point person is vice president for creative development and operations Bill McCullough.
The first priority for production is having cameras in the right place at the right time. That takes planning, contacts, and luck. Some Delta Force content is spur-of-the-moment, go-with-the-flow footage. But most of it evolves from pre-planned storylines.
“It all starts with the schedule,” McCullough says. “And we’re always up against the clock. We want to be as timely as possible.”
During fight week, a five-person Delta Force team arrives on-site between mid-Sunday and mid-Wednesday depending on the magnitude of the fight. The crew members are multi-talented. Each of them can shoot, edit, and do whatever else is called for to support each other in the moment.
The crew sets up a 24-hour-a-day editing facility in a hotel room near the fight site. With today’s technology, the ability to shoot and process original content is constantly being streamlined. The bulk of the editing is done on laptop computers. Most of the pieces are less than five-minutes long.
“The biggest challenge we face is time,” says Villegas. “People don’t understand how long it takes to cut and edit video. And we’re limited to a certain number of minutes per piece.”
“Sometimes you want to do more with a particular segment because the material is so interesting,” Pilott notes. “But usually, we only have a minute or two, so we have to make hard choices.”
Demographically, the pre-fight marketing material is designed to appeal to a young audience. Thus, most of the outlets on which it’s disseminated are populated primarily by a young demographic. And the content is provided when, where, and how young people want it.
YouTube is the primary distribution platform for Delta Force short-form pieces. Multiple HBO platforms (such as HBO.com and HBO’s Facebook page) funnel viewers to the network’s YouTube channel. The content is also distributed as “HBO Boxing News” to third-party media such as Yahoo, boxing websites, and various sports, entertainment, and news outlets, which sometimes embed the videos in online articles.
Fifty years ago, Marshall McLuhan wrote, “The medium is the message (i.e. the form of the medium by which a message is transmitted influences how the message is perceived).”
HBO’s Delta Force embodies that philosophy.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at [email protected] . His most recent book (Reflections: Conversations, Essays, and Other Writings) was published by the University of Arkansas Press.