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What’s In The Adrenaline Garage? Ask Jeff Harper

May 24, 2017

Tell us a little about your background?

In 2005, I was living in Colorado as a ski bum.  I landed there after working in Hollywood and discovering I hated it.  I have stories about being a producer’s assistant that make Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada seem completely reasonable.  I wanted to shoot snowboard films, but the market was heavily saturated.  Even worse, I was from Cleveland originally and didn’t know anyone worth shooting.

I had a hunch regional cable networks were desperate for cheap content. I thought it might be easier to sell sponsors on a TV show than another DVD.  So I shot an 8 minute pilot and sent it to Altitude Sports and Entertainment in Denver.  They said yes, in spite of the fact I had never produced anything more than a student film, let alone a full length TV show.  It was definitely an oh-s#!t-what-have-I-done moment.   

Looking to make the most of it, we began chopping up the show and distributing it via iTunes as one of the first action sports webisode series.  The show grew a small following.  Someone actually wrote Altitude about how pissed he was that he had to wait up until 3 AM to watch new episodes.  We racked up a couple hundred thousand downloads and some very nasty hosting bills.  As it turns out, however, very few brands were more interested in TV shows and webisodes than DVDs.  Fortunately, before we ran completely out of money, we caught the eye of FUEL TV and they asked us to produce a series of Firsthand episodes.

What set those series apart from most action sports content at the time was that we wanted to tell the story behind what was going on in front of the camera.   I’ve always thought that context makes a great sporting event.  Game 7 of the World Series is really just another baseball game.  However, when it represents a do or die opportunity to redeem 108 years of heartbreak, it becomes so much more.  When FUEL TV went away, and livestreaming became our full-time focus, I wanted to bring what I had learned about storytelling into live events.

How would you define Adrenaline Garage, and how has your experience in webcasting and the action sports industry helped shape Adrenaline Garage?

Adrenaline Garage, simply, seeks to combine classic storytelling with cutting-edge technology to create compelling, unforgettable live broadcasts that elevate events and brands.  

Over the years, action sports has been my primary source of inspiration.  Just one example--In 2013, I was sitting in the TV compound at X Games watching Men’s Ski Big Air.  Anyone watching that night will never forget Henrik Harlaut throwing his first nose-butter triple cork and winning the Gold.  It is perhaps the single moment that cemented Henrik’s status as a legend in freeskiing history.  Watching the line cut now, Henrik seems like a freeskiing god. Landing that trick feels inevitable. But that’s not exactly how it went down.  And the truth is better than what people saw on television.   

The eureka moment happened the next day when I watched a clip on YouTube that Tanner Hall had uploaded the night before.  The clip shows exactly how that moment came to be.  In the clip, Tanner--who is perhaps the original freeski legend, at that time in his twilight-- metaphorically passes the torch to Henrik seconds before he steps into the history books.  In reality, it’s Tanner, not Henrik, that conceives the triple.  Henrik, understandably, is cautious about doing a trick he’s never tried before.  As Henrik gets into the gate, Tanner keeps imploring him to make history, but you’re never certain what Henrik is thinking.  Of course, in the end, Henrik does what legends do and drops in and stomps the triple.  It’s unbelievable when you realize just how close that moment--which now seems hard to imagine never happening--came to never being.

Sitting in the truck, surrounded by millions of dollars of production equipment, watching that clip, I was pretty embarrassed.  ESPN has hundreds of cameras at X Games: Super Slomo cameras, wireless cameras, cablecams, 50’ cranes.  The best shot that night was caught on a $300 GoPro.  And we missed it.  Moments like that happen all the time at events, but you rarely see them on television or in a livestream.  Broadcasts show WHAT happened, but rarely show WHY it happened. For me, the WHY is the most compelling aspect of the story.  From that moment on, I knew we had to capture those moments.  It’s become our mission to expose those stories, by hunting them down and giving our audience a front-row seat to history in the making.

When did you develop a passion for storytelling, and how does that go hand in hand with Adrenaline Garage?

I’ve been interested in storytelling for as long as I remember.  But I had to have a series of happy accidents before I had the necessary insight to understand how to tell the right story in action sports.  The very first TV show I produced was about snowboarder Pat Milbery’s struggle with the recent deaths of his mother and best friend, Josh Malay.  Going in, I didn’t know that’s what we were doing.  Pat explicitly said he didn’t want to talk about it.  The story grew organically. At the end of the show, Pat is standing on a podium with Shaun White and Travis Rice (hard to believe there was a time when they were both competing in the same event) winning a best trick award coincidentally named in honor of his best friend.  It was an affecting story, for sure, but being able to witness a role model overcome their challenges successfully meant a lot more for members of our audience who were struggling with losses in their own lives.

As I work in the action sports industry, I become continually more aware of how things happening behind the scenes impact what is going on in front of the camera.  With the benefit of that context, what some athletes are able to achieve seems even more amazing.  I want viewers to have access to that.  There’s no technical reason we can’t connect our viewers with the athletes so our viewers feel like they are participating the best and worst moments in an athlete’s life.  As a matter of fact, I think that’s one of the things that makes watching live sports such a powerful experience.

Formula Drift 2016 -photo cred: Larry Chen. Capturing the emotional, storytelling moment of a victory.

Why is storytelling so vital during a live event?

NBC’s Olympic coverage is the gold standard in live event storytelling.  But they didn’t become the gold standard to win awards.  They developed their strategy out of necessity.  Each Olympics, NBC finds themselves with the same problem: They spent a billion dollars acquiring the rights, how do they get a nation which hasn’t thought about gymnastics or swimming for the past four years to suddenly care about athletes they’ve never heard of?  And yet every couple of years, athletes like Michael Phelps and Lindsey Jacobellis suddenly become household names.  How do they do it?  Storytelling.  

Yet, a lot of other events see storytelling as a luxury.  I think because when it’s done well, it’s completely transparent.  In reality, storytelling gives an event’s audience a reason to care, a reason to forgo surfing facebook and Instagram and commit a significant portion of their day to watching one piece of content.  

Whether it’s the Olympics or a small event, storytelling has the same benefits.  It’s what builds and keeps audiences--which is the most important asset any event can have.  Without storytelling, live events are praying for a perfect storm of fortuitous coincidences to cut through the noise and become memorable.  That rarely works out.

What’s the “stoke” behind a live streaming event?

For me, the “stoke” stems from nurturing almost insignificant moments in an event and making them memorable for my audience.  In Formula Drift, I’ve watched crowds give standing ovations when a driver did nothing more than pull to the start line--something that happens hundreds of times throughout the season--and seen stadiums stand rapt in silence while the track was empty and a driver fixed their car.  Little moments that could have easily gone unnoticed, but when we gave them meaning, they became the moments that our viewers were still talking about days later.  Saving little moments from being forever forgotten and turning them into lasting memories for our viewers have been some of my proudest achievements.

Colorado Freeride Festival pre-show. This shows Adrenaline Garage utilizing the “down town” of a live stream to pick-up viewers, encourage social engagement and build an audience, in lieu of the no streaming “Coming Up” content. 

What type of stories are you trying to tell?

We tell stories because we want our audience to care about the outcome of the event.  If they care about the outcome, they are more likely to tune in.  And once they’ve tuned in, they are more likely to watch until the conclusion.  I think it creates a better experience for fans and more ad revenue for our events.  To do that, we try to foster a connection between our viewers and key athletes.  Ultimately, we want our audience to feel like they are participating in the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

What has been the biggest challenge and most rewarding aspect for you in starting Adrenaline Garage?

In 2005, Adrenaline Garage was founded as just another action sports production company.  At the time, no one was producing webisodes, so that’s how we tried to differentiate ourselves.  That lead to working for FUEL TV.  At the time, live streams were just a hobby for us.  In late 2010, when it became apparent that the glory days of FUEL TV were done and MMA was about to take over, we made the jump to being a live broadcast-only production company.  In those days, it wasn’t obvious that you could ever break even producing livestreams.  Audiences were small, the quality was low and sponsors’ perception of the value of  live content on the web was even lower.  For a number of essential livestreaming tools, you had two options: buy expensive used-broadcast gear or jerry rig something together on your own.

Live multi-camera production demands a completely different skill set than single camera documentaries.  Learning the craft and making it work financially during the first two years after that transition was the the biggest challenge I faced.  As livestreaming became a more essential part of live events and the technology got better, things got a lot easier.

Watching audiences connect with content we produced is the most rewarding aspect of the job, especially when that moment isn’t the kind of thing you see covered in a typical action sports broadcast.  

What are you currently working on?

The largest challenge facing events is making livestreams consistently profitable.  There’s a limit to how much sponsors will pay and as a result more and more events are shifting to ad insertion as a revenue model.  In the past, we measured success in terms of eyeballs.  Now we’re measuring success in terms of how many ads we serve.  Keeping a viewer engaged once they’ve tuned in has become a much higher priority.

It turns out that a significant chunk of any audience tunes out in the first few seconds.  It’s not hard to see why.  If you were creating a video for Facebook, you’d try to hook a viewer in the first few seconds.  In live video, most viewers jump into the action midway into the broadcast.  Nothing significant may happen for a few seconds.  The viewer experiences confusion as he or she attempts to understand what’s going on.  There’s some frustration when they realize that they missed a key moment.  A lot of viewers choose not to put in the effort and move on.

Digital video doesn’t have to be linear and it doesn’t have to be the same for every viewer.  We’re working on a way that we hope will hook more viewers into the broadcast.  Rather than just dropping into the show, viewers joining mid-broadcast will see a 15-30 second summary of what they missed, updating them on the most important storylines. I’m eager to see if it will help us reduce our bounce rate.  It’s a first step in exploring what live personalized video can do.

In the world of instant communication, where do you see Adrenaline Garage in the future?

Social media has changed our expectations of how we interact with action sports athletes.  Athletes used to be very distant.  You might get a sense of who they were from an interview or b-roll in a video part.  But for the most part, they were a name, a face and couple of tricks.  Now we know what they had for breakfast.

Largely, live broadcasts haven’t evolved to provide viewers with the access they’ve come to expect.  We still think of live broadcasts as being one stream of content, the same for everyone.  As we plan future broadcasts, we need to think how we can give our audiences a better sense of being in the middle of the action with their favorite athletes.  That will require producing a lot more content than what fits in a singular linear broadcast, so we’ll be coordinating storytelling across multiple platforms and figuring out ways to personalize the distribution for our viewers so they can easily access exactly what they want to see.

How are you utilizing the latest technology to get the most thrilling moments at an event?

There are two ways I’ve found to enable events to invest more in storytelling.  The first is to develop storytelling strategies that generate more revenue.  The second is to find new ways to do old things for a lot less money--and that’s where technology is having the largest impact in our productions.  For example, in the past, every member of the crew had to be on-site.  However, travel and lodging expenses don’t contribute anything to the quality of the show.  Technically, if you could hire the entire crew locally, you could save those expenses and still have the same production.  The problem is that it’s often more efficient to bring in crew members that already know the show than to try to train a new crew everywhere we go.

Over the past year, we’ve been experimenting with having select crew members work remotely on shows.  We can be in New Jersey and the graphics operator can work from Colorado.  This allows us to have the best crew possible without all of the travel cost.  As we get more confidence in the tools we’re using, more and more positions--even camera operators--can be moved off-site.

What are viewers missing out on when watching online highlights vs. live stream?

The problem with chopping up long-form content and making it available as clips, from the perspective of the event, is that it's harder to monetize.  In an ad-driven business model, overall engagement suffers as viewers pick and choose the best moments to consume.  Lower engagement means less impressions for advertisers and lower revenue for rights-holders.  From the viewer’s perspective, they’re missing out on a lot of the story.  I’ve never heard of anyone crying over SportsCenter, but I saw a lot of grown men blubbering uncontrollably at the conclusion of Game 7 of the 2016 World Series broadcast.

Of course, if you’re watching on a mobile device, as around 50% of our audience does, highlight clips are the preferred method of consumption. Full-length event broadcasts don’t readily transfer to mobile devices. Constantly having to worry about your battery and data plan is enormously frustrating and I think it creates a bad viewing experience.

It’s not much different than the problem facing the rest of action sports.  Why pay to download a video part when you can get so much content free through Instagram?

In order to retain that value for events, I think it’s our responsibility to create an experience that rewards long-form viewing.  We have to craft stories so good, so compelling that even if a viewer has seen the highlights, they’ll still want to watch the full event when they are in a more ideal environment.  Hollywood has been doing it for years.  In spite of the fact that there is more free content than I’ll ever consume on YouTube, they make movies so compelling that I’ll get out of my house and hand over real money to watch the latest blockbuster.  That’s the power of storytelling.

A broadcast that consists of only covering run after run--as many action sports broadcasts do--lends itself too easily to be consumed as highlights.  If we allow ourselves to go down that road, I think events will find themselves with continually diminishing returns.     

How does this open the doors for those in the action sports industry? What kind of opportunities can Adrenaline Garage introduce?

Good storytelling is good business.  There’s more action sports content being produced now than ever, but most of it is mediocre. It’s hard for any piece of content to cut through the noise and develop a monetizable following.  Content producers that have a solid grasp of storytelling have the solution to that problem.

As I mentioned, I think viewers expect significantly more depth and access than they get in a traditional action sports broadcast.  As events evolve and begin thinking of the live product extending beyond the broadcast, I think there will be many more opportunities for content creators to tell stories around events.  We’re already seeing large digital content teams working alongside the broadcast in major stick and ball sports.  I see no reason why that won’t happen in action sports as well.