Q&A with SNY’s Chris Famularo: Working in Sports Media during COVID

The entire world has changed this past year amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. One of those aspects of change has been working in the world of sports media. Chris Famularo is a Robotic Camera/Jib operator at SportsNet New York (SNY) and a recent graduate of Seton Hall University. Throughout the global pandemic, Famularo has worked as part of the crew for SNY and has had his job impacted greatly. I spoke with him about the ups and the downs, and his overall experience of working in the sports media world during a global pandemic

Liam Plate: Can you give us an overview of your position at SNY?

Chris Famularo: Sure. So, I’m really…in the business, I would really be called a utility operator, but primarily, I do a lot of camera operation. Both robotically and on a piece of equipment called a jib. But I am able to do a number of different positions between camera operation, I’m a stage manager, an audio assistant. I am a playback operator, a dyno operator. I can do a number of different positions, but primarily I am a camera operator.

LP: I know you had an internship there, but when did you get started at SNY?

CF: I started as an intern in January of 2019 and spent the whole semester there from January to May. Then, in the end of June is when I started as a member of the crew as freelance, and I started as a stage manager and A2 (Audio 2). And was really only doing that for the first half of the summer. Then, the second half and closer into the fall is when I got into camera operation.

LP: How did SNY handle the hit of the COVID-19 pandemic?

CF: It was…we’ve all been joking about and saying it, but it’s about a year now since everything happened and immediately, we knew something was up when New York was shutting down incredibly fast. New York City alone really exploded in March and it was a little nerve wracking going into work those last two days. That Thursday and Friday, I worked before we shut down for what we thought was going to be a two-week hiatus. That’s how we began as many people did. “You know, you’re just going to be home for two weeks. Clear out the air. Clean some stuff.” Then three days into that two-week hiatus, we learned that this is going to be going on for an indefinite amount of time and as someone along with a lot of my colleagues who have to be on location. Our positions: we cannot make television from home. So, we knew that this was going to be rough. Nobody knew when we were going to be back. Everything we were based on with SNY being a regional sports network and the primary television provider of the New York Mets. We were waiting to hear what MLB was going to do and when MLB was going to allow for baseball teams to play again, where they were going to play, and how it’s going to be handled. So, we were just idly waiting for MLB to drag their feet to any conclusion. And granted, this was also going on with contract negotiations with the Players’ Association. So, not only were we dealing with COVID, but we were also dealing with the fact that the players and the league weren’t able to make up their mind on how they were going to handle the situation, and rightfully so. That’s a very delicate subject. It was handled with, I’m sure, the utmost care but we had to wait until July. It was Fourth of July weekend, actually, when we went back to work because we needed to give ourselves two weeks to prepare for the opening of the “revival” or the true release of the baseball season. And we came back with a lot of precautions. We had to wear masks just as much as anybody does. We had to wear mask the entire time, still do. We have to follow a traffic flow. We have to send in a temperature awareness thing before we go to work every day to make sure we don’t have any symptoms, any fevers, stuff like that. It’s basically just following all the precautions laid out by SNY and SNY has done a very good job of making sure that we all stay safe.

LP: MLB definitely took the longest out of any major sports league to figure out what they’re and I think they didn’t handle it the best, what did you think?

CF: I would agree MLB was the slowest and least likely we thought something was going to come. It was like they had a meeting. It didn’t go well. They’re going to have another meeting in a week, that meeting doesn’t go well. They’re going to have another meeting, Oh, we might not have a season. Oh wait, we might have a season. It might be closer to regular length. It might not. It was just a bunch of hearsay and then you’re waking up every day like “man, when am I going to be able to go back and do what I want to do and make television?” Plus, baseball season is it for SNY. It is what we pride ourselves on. Not that we don’t pride ourselves on every production that we make, but it’s baseball season. We are the primary providers of the New York Mets. We do pre- and post-game shows, we get exclusive interviews. We have exclusivity for this team. So, you want to get back in there and get to work and do what you can do. But basically, the month of May and June was just “they got a meeting, we’ll hear what they say. It didn’t go well. They don’t know what they want. We’ll let you know.” That’s what it was.

LP: Were you guys able to do any virtual work?

CF: Realistically, no. Since I am on the crew with my colleagues, the ones that I closely work with, I’m colleagues a lot of people like on the edit and production team. But for my close colleagues on the crew, there was nothing for us to do. We were just waiting for our superiors to let us know when we can get back in the studio because we have to get ready for this new environment that we are going to be operating in. My job that I got hired as a stage manager. It was a stage manager/audio assistant position. So, I was directing floor traffic, but I was also preparing audio equipment, I was miking talent up. The pandemic eliminated the position. It is no longer a thing anymore at SNY because you can’t get within six feet of people. You’re not supposed to be physically interacting with another person. We all had to learn how to properly clean all the equipment, sanitize stuff, and being weary of how close we are to one another. Our pre-show meetings now are done wither separately or over headset. That’s completely different from how it was before. Before, we would have pre-show meetings before every single one and people would be interacting with one another. It’s affected how everybody works, how we interact with each other, how our daily job is done now. We have to clean-touch-clean every single thing that we do, and we have to keep social distance, and keep our masks on all the time. Everything is done for our precaution but it’s obviously very different from when I was introduced in the world of television-making. It’s the world we live in now, so I guess there’s no changing it.

LP: You might have touched on it a little bit, but what are the biggest differences between doing your job pre-COVID compared to now?

CF: Well, it’s interesting because sometimes there are finite differences where it’s like you can’t be within six feet of each other, you have to keep a mask on. It’s not like anyone has any problems with that because we all understand why. It kind of changes how we worked with one another. It felt a little bit more close-knit. I was able to interact with the talent a little bit more because miking someone up, it’s intimate in a professional sense of like you are close with another person. You get to talk with them and just kind of ask them how their day is. That doesn’t happen really anymore. I still do stuff on the floor when I’m the jib operator, but even then, I’m just staying by where my jib is and I’m focusing on that and talking to someone from across the floor. That’s kind of it, but even now anytime we have a change of season or new content that comes in, we have to do rehearsals and pre-show meetings and stuff like that. Now, positions get merged or they get eliminated or we’ll have to get put into new positions and we have people learning new stuff. It changes even how when you’re training someone. I know it’s crazy to think, but I’m at the point now where I’m training people on positions. Even then, it’s like we have room occupancy limitations like we can only have a certain amount of people in the room to keep that social distance. Then when you’re trying to teach someone a position, I have to be on this side of the room and they’re of there and I’m trying to teach you how to operate a camera robotically. I would love to just show you what I’m talking about, but I can’t. I think that’s the finer details that’s really change because ultimately the job has not changed. We’re still making television. We’re still putting stuff on screen and trying to entertain and inform our viewers, but the finer details…the behind-the-scenes stuff is what has changed. On-screen…I mean sure our talent are six feet apart now and people wear masks in between on commercial break. And you see it everywhere whether it’s on location for basketball, people have plexiglass in between them or the NFL broadcasts they were doing remotely. That’s the kind of stuff that you’re forced to see because we still want to see those talent. At the end of the day, the job has not changed. It’s just kind of how we operate has changed.

LP: Out of all the changes, what has been the most difficult adjustment to working in the pandemic?

CF: I think, more so it’s…I don’t know what the greatest challenge would be. I think it’s more so…it’s weird to say right? Because technically the pandemic is still going on, but for me I have been back to work since July. It’ll be, what, eight, nine, or 10 months at this point. So, it’s weird because we’re in a sense of like when are we going to reach that sense of normalcy? Because we’re still operating on the restrictions and stuff like that that have come in place early on in our return to work. You would assume the longer you go and the better the situation gets in your workplace that things would evolve with the changes, but mostly, I’m assuming, for precautions we’ve stuck with the rules that have been set since day one when we returned. Flow of traffic around the building: it sounds reasonable at first, but then when you work in the television industry, you understand that your breaks can be as small as one minute and say those are your only time to problem solve or you got to replace a battery on a microphone or something else. Troubleshooting a camera or anything really. A minute is not a lot of time so, say you need to go get something out of a closet that you can fix this with. You have to follow the rule of traffic all the way around the building to get back to your studio. I guess that might be the biggest issue is the fact of like when it comes to troubleshooting or problem solving and having to abide by this flow of traffic that was put in by our company to ensure our safety. That’s a pretty small thing to complain about.

LP: Kind of looking at the flip side, do any of the procedures make your job easier than before or is it just different?

CF: Yeah, it’s just different. I think it’s kind of limited…going back to the miking up part talent, right? That was one of the primary functions of a stage manager and A2. Preparing the microphones and making sure you give yourself enough time to mic all the talent you have in the studio. Now with COVID restrictions, we’re only able to have a certain number of people in the studio at one time, but at most we have two talent in the studio and maybe one person in a remote studio that we have down the hall, right. So, that’s three people you have to worry about. You don’t have to worry about miking them physically anymore. They do it themselves. They were instructed. We had to instruct them how to do it. They learned how to do it. So yeah, that might be considered easier than prior because before COVID we had to be ready pretty much 30 minutes beforehand and have everything set up. We had to do a facility check, make sure it’s all working properly, and then get people miked up with at least 10 minutes before going on-air regardless of maybe they’re having signal frequency issues, or the microphone doesn’t sit right. A lot of that problem-solving happened with the last 10 minutes of a show. So, now we don’t entirely have to worry about that, but we have to be able to problem solve without actually getting in there and solve the problem. It’s more so, everyone’s communication now has, I think, gotten better because now we’re able to elaborate to all of our co-workers or with our superiors about what’s going on or changed. If that’s the easiest thing, then I guess that’d be it because of COVID some job’s responsibilities have been minimize.

LP: With a lot of places opening up and vaccines becoming more readily available, has SNY said anything about making changes to return to some kind of normal in the studio?

CF: No, no. There have been people that have been vaccinated at SNY. It’s not even an SNY policy, it’s a building policy that SNY resides in that you have to wear a mask at all-time. Once you enter the building, that mask must be on. We’re required to still take temperature-checks and make sure for symptoms. I think the greatest easing up that we’ve had at tbe company is that we’re able to use a coffee maker now. That’s really the only thing. That’s the big change that has happened from July to now is that we can now drink coffee in the office like that’s it. And I don’t know maybe other things will change like being able to use like a snack wall or something or something to make the office feel like it’s not so like not alive, I guess. Because prior we were still able to go to the break room eat and like take our mask off to eat, but even when we get up like when you go to a restaurant, you can sit down take your mask off and eat, but if you go anywhere, you have to have a mask on. It’s the same thing. So, I personally don’t see things changing because it’s just easier to stick with the blanket statement of “we know this works. We know this is protecting us. Just stick with it.” It’s the safest option from a company standpoint. Sure, personally, I want to be able to use a microwave in our office and if I’m in a room by myself, I should be able to take my mask off. I would like to not have to walk in the same pattern every single day even if there’s nobody around, but you do what you do so you’re following the rules but you’re ensuring anyone’s possible safety. Even if you don’t notice it, you’re still ensuring people’s safety and you want to be as socially responsible as you can.