Behind The Chutes – Larry Isaac

By: Kacie Albert  Monday, July 6, 2020 @ 11:46 AM

Larry Isaac has been the Producer of the PBR Canada Monster Energy Tour telecasts on TSN since 2016. Photo: Larry Isaac.

NEW YORK CITY – At any given PBR event, while all eyes are focused on the jaw-dropping feats of athleticism witnessed on the dirt by both riders and bulls, numerous event staff are hard at work behind the scenes working to ensure the high-level of production.

In the series “Behind The Chutes,” will profile these staffers, giving fans an inside look at who is responsible for the operations of their favorite events, and how they came to the western sports industry.

In Volume 9, we catch-up with Larry Isaac, Producer of the PBR Canada Monster Energy Tour telecasts on TSN. As the Producer of the PBR Canada telecasts, you hold an interesting role.  Can you tell us how you came to producing as a profession and walk us through your career thus far?

Larry Isaac: While growing up in the American Midwest and then Ontario, I was always a sports nut. I remember at the age of 12 telling my parents that I would end up in sports television one day, thinking it might be as an announcer.  Our family moved to Vancouver prior to my last year of high school, and the next year (1976) a new independent TV station opened up, and I took my scrapbooks to CKVU-TV and the Executive Producer of Sports hired me instantly to do research and stats.  Within two years he was teaching me how to produce and direct small telecasts like junior hockey, lacrosse, soccer, and university football and basketball.  I moved to BCTV in 1980 and got involved with their Vancouver Canucks production, and this spring I finished my 39th season of producing NHL telecasts, 30 of which have been Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames games for their markets.  While I was with Hockey Night in Canada, I was fortunate to have been the producer for 11 Stanley Cup Finals, which included the last seven Canadian champions (Montreal the last in 1993). 

As a freelancer all these years, I have been able to work with all networks and on so many international sporting events.  I've worked at 11 Summer and Winter Olympics, and by having worked on 24 different sports in my life, I've been so lucky to get to 26 countries for working on what I consider an extension of my boyhood hobby.  Three co-workers shocked and honored me in 2013 by nominating my name for the BC Sports Hall of Fame, and that year I became the first TV producer or director to enter the Media Wing, joining so many great announcers, newspaper writers and columnists. 


PBRC: You joined the PBR Canada team in 2016 with the launch of the Monster Energy Tour, how did that come to be?

LI: I had been producing international host feed telecasts under the IMG umbrella, including the World Skins Golf Game for 15 years, the Tour of Alberta week-long cycling races and all of Team Canada's World League Volleyball matches for five years.  Peter Sisam of the IMG Toronto office called me in January 2016 and asked me if I would be interested in producing telecasts of the PBR for Canadian television, which would be starting late August in Ottawa.  Shortly afterwards, it was arranged for me to fly to Sioux Falls, South Dakota to observe the three-day April production being shown on CBS.  The Producer and Director at that time on the American coverage had worked with me before on both NHL and Olympic Games, so the friendly relationship from day one allowed me to ask all types of questions, plus absorb the various aspects of how they were cutting down the two-three hour shows on some nights and making them into a one-hour telecast.  Two months later I was working for CBC at the Calgary Stampede, and needless to say, paid more attention to the bull riding competition each night than the rest of the rodeo events.  Early August I was down in Rio working on the Summer Olympics Beach Volleyball world feed, and when my assignment ended, I made the transition from Copacabana Beach to PBR Ottawa in a 72-hour window.  And it's been a great five-year relationship since starting this project from scratch.


PBRC: What goes into producing a PBR Canada Monster Energy Tour event telecast?

LI: We are basically doing three telecasts out of our control room when we are on site.  We have the live RidePass telecast that we do, which incorporates the show that is being done for in-house big-screen production as well.  I work with the Event Manager Pete Gebraad on his needs for in-house coverage, and with the talented technical crew from Feature Productions, we accomplish what is needed on both fronts. At the same time for the TSN delayed telecast, I am making ride-by-ride notes that will help in the post-production edit process including head shots, ride coverage, TV graphics, post-ride interviews and announcer on/camera openings and closings. 


PBRC: How is producing a PBR event, similar and/or different from other sporting events like the NHL, MLB or CFL?

LI: The pacing in PBR is completely different than most sports.  When there is a whistle or stoppage of action in most sports, the telecast shows various replays or flashback packs or stats-boards, and there isn't much of a chance that TV will miss live action.  In the NHL for example, changes in rules have made for a faster game, so there are many times when play goes for four-five minutes without a stoppage, and you now cannot do any replays because you have to go to commercial.  Football and baseball are sports where you have continual stops and starts during the action, which is great for replays, updated stats graphics and story-telling. 

Bull riding and any rodeo event has a fair bit of prep by the cowboy, and you never know when the chute may open.  Sometimes an antsy bull and/or rider re-pull means that we may be in the chutes for close to two minutes, while other times we finish one rider with his replays and score, and the next rider is ready to go sooner than we are anticipating.  Much like golf, you do one or two good replays, and then come back with the updated scoring, and move on to the next rider.  As well, we also are trying to spotlight the other half of the equation which is the bull, as there are so many great stories with these impressive animals over the years. 


PBRC: Walk us through what a normal event looks like for you and your team?

LI: The crew from Feature Productions arrive at the arena the day before the event, so they can begin setting up all the cameras, microphones, platform for the jib camera, and the big screen behind the chutes, and configure our control room to what we need for the group of six of us who are not on the arena floor. Event Manager Pete Gebraad and I work together on what each of our needs are, so we both appreciate what each is trying to accomplish, and how to do all of that together. Sixty minutes before the doors open, we record some rider interviews for TSN, as well as event previews & analysis by Jason Davidson and Scott Byrne.  Over the years, we built into the nightly program some stoppages where we can do post-ride interviews with the cowboys, so that fans on-site and on TV can get to know these great personalities, even when they are upset after being bucked off.  At the end of the night, we make sure everything that was recorded, plus extra post-event items for the editor are all put on XFile Drives that will be shipped off the following day.


PBRC: Once the event is finished, your job isn’t done. Tell us a little bit about what remains to be done once the bulls are done bucking?

LI: As mentioned above, the TSN telecasts are on a taped-delayed schedule, since the yearly 10-stop schedule is spread out over 11 months.  For viewer and storyline continuity while building momentum from show to show, we've had the spring events run one week after another in June and July in past years, while the fall events go to air weekly in November and December.  Everything that was recorded is sent to Toronto, and my edit notes on site determine who is put into the telecast based on scores, great buck-offs and unique Canadian rider storylines.  When I get home after each event, I spend two-three days deciding each element, graphic, ride, interview and musical vignette that will go in the telecast. 

Once again, the three-hour arena show is edited into a one-hour format, which actually is only 48 minutes when you get rid of the commercial content.  While the show is being put together, our production editor Ryan Ferguson will let me know if the final product might be five-six minutes heavy, or sometimes three-four minutes light. Then I'll go back to the notes and determine who gets taken out or whose ride gets shortened, or suddenly we may have to add two-three rides to get the show to the correct time for TSN. I then get in touch with announcers Mark Lee and Scott Schiffner, who were not on site, and I send them my notes as to what the show content is, so they can begin preparing for voice-over sessions before we send the final product to TSN. 


PBRC: Given the current COVID-19 pandemic, the completion of the 2020 shows in Calgary and Lethbridge were a bit unique. Walk us through what that was like?

LI: Having lost the Regina tour stop the week that COVID-19 shut down all sports in mid-March, and then seeing our Ontario and Atlantic Canada spring stops also cancelled, we were thankful that both Calgary and Lethbridge had been two-night events when they were held.  So once the 4 shows were edited, the dilemma was how to do the post-voicing, since Mark Lee lives in Ontario, Scott Schiffner lives in Alberta and I live in Vancouver.  In past years, the three of us are all together in an audio production suite for three-four days in Toronto the week after the last Atlantic Canada event takes place, as I stop there on my way home. 

Our audio mixer Damian Kearns in Toronto, and Chris Cooke of Feature Productions, whose offices are in Lethbridge, put their heads together and worked on a system with minimal audio delay between announcers.  Mark drove to the Toronto studio, Scott drove to the Lethbridge studio, and I set up two laptops in my Vancouver home so I could see the camera feeds from each site on one laptop, and then had the edited show with time-code on the other laptop, so via my headset, I could count Mark and Scott to each rider, to each interview, to each graphic, and to each commercial. Mark and Scott could also hear the arena sound, and by recording each announcer on their own track of audio, we could slide some of their comments one second or more if needed when there were audio delay gaps. It was a very tough undertaking that meant more stops and starts, and a few more re-do's than normal, but the two-day session worked, and kudos again to Damian and Chris.


PBRC: What is your favorite PBR show you have ever been a part of?

LI: It would have to be the inaugural Global Cup back in November of 2017, held in Edmonton. Not only were we doing the two-day event for TSN, but our feed was being seen in the USA, Australia, Mexico and Brazil plus being edited down for international distribution. The entire event was such a thrill for the entire television production and announcer group, because we got to be part of a new venture in PBR, with the first edition of Global Cup being held here before moving the annual event to Australia and the United States in the years since. Having worked on so many sports, and the international telecasts around the world that involve patriotic pride wherever I've gone, the symbolism here of each country's dirt being encased in one of the five horns that wrapped around the trophy was so unique and special for us all.


PBRC: What is your favorite PBR moment that you have ever brought to life in a telecast?

LI: I would have to keep it with that 2017 Global Cup in Edmonton. The reputation and strong depth made the American team the favorite of course, but Canada's team had the lead after the opening night, and Rogers Place was just electric as night two began and for the next two hours.  In the end, Canada finished 3rd, but the team pride regarding the calibre of Canadian bull-riding was evident in the telecast, and we took pride in our coverage of that special weekend.


PBRC: How have you been keeping busy during the shutdown?

LI: Right now in the first of July I would be producing the Calgary Stampede daily telecasts, and at the end of this month I would have been in Tokyo producing the Beach Volleyball venue again as I did in Rio, so it's a completely different summer than envisioned.  Every few weeks, more and more sports are coming up with new start-up plans, yet the television coverage limitations will be severe due to bubble locations and/or hub cities, with so few stadiums and arenas in use.  Whenever a friend, TV co-worker, or family member says "have a good weekend", I reply: "what makes Saturday any different than a Tuesday, or any day?"  With virtually no TV Sports coverage in Canada for almost 4 months now, our entire industry of technicians, production personnel and announcers are just sitting at home.  So many of us refer to each day of the week now as "Blurs-Day."  So I have a lot more dog walks, yard and landscaping projects, office and storage room clean-up, plus three-four phone calls a day to various single friends and co-workers to touch base and see how they are coping with this isolation.  For close to 35 years, I have been on the road approximately 20-22 days a month, and now I've been in my own bed every night since March 12th