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NMT gets ABC mobile fleet

ABC has finally gotten out of the mobile truck business. The network is selling its three field production units to Seattle-based National Mobile Television (NMT), the country's largest mobile-truck vendor. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

The network has also signed a four-year deal with NMT under which it will lease NMT trucks for its domestic sports production work, such as coverage of Monday Night Football, college football, horse racing, the Indy 500 and PGA Tour events.

ABC was the last major broadcast network to own field production units; NBC off-loaded its trucks in the mid'90s, and CBS sold its fleet in September 1998 (Fox has always used vendor trucks for the relatively short period of time it has been covering big-league sports). But the cost of ownership, including the expense of trucking the units cross-country and ongoing maintenance, had become prohibitive, according to President of Broadcast Operations and Engineering Preston Davis.

"Two trucks in the fleet were at an age where we were considering major capital expenditures to do an upgrade," he says. "It was an appropriate time to get out of the business."

ABC has already been using a fair number of vendor trucks to cover live events, particularly when the time between events makes travel time tight. The trucks that ABC will lease from NMT won't necessarily be the ones it used to own.

"Our trucks will be reconfigured, as they tended to be specialized for ABC applications," says Davis. "They're going to be more universally configured and will be part of the larger NMT pool."

The three mobile units actually comprise a total of nine vehicles, he adds. Each "unit" consists of multiple trailers (NMT is also getting a tenth vehicle, a utility truck). The trucks had previously been based at ABC's field operation in Lodi, N.J., and traveled nationally. ABC will keep the property in Lodi, Davis says, the home of wabc(am)'s radio tower.

The ABC trucks won't have far to travel, at least initially. NMT will base them at its Somerville, N.J., location, says NMT Chairman and CEO Steve Clifford. The company, which owns a total of 47 mobile units and has more than 200 employees, also has locations in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Honolulu, Dallas, Houston, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Orlando, Fla., in addition to its Seattle headquarters.

"It's a very exciting opportunity to work with ABC on their entire schedule," says Clifford, who estimates that NMT provided ABC with mobile units for 20 or 30 events last year. "We're looking forward to a long relationship."

Although the ink is dry on the deal between ABC and NMT, the network will continue to use its trucks through mid-June, when they will be transferred to the mobile vendor. The first sports event ABC will produce under the new leasing arrangement will be the FedEx St. Jude Classic on June 24, a PGA Tour event in Memphis, Tenn.

One question remaining is whether ABC will have a high-definition mobile truck lined up to produce Monday Night Football in HDTV this fall. Although ABC had a 720p production truck at its disposal last season, thanks to a subsidy deal with Panasonic, the two companies haven't been able to come to terms for the 2000 season. The $6 million truck has been sold to The Ackerley Group [B & C, May 22].

"We are still pursuing an HDTV solution for Monday Night Football," Davis says, adding that ABC is talking to several consumer-electronics manufacturers about a subsidy for the 2000 season. He is also talking to NMT about whether it can provide a 720p HDTV truck, either by converting one of ABC's three 1080i trucks or building a new truck that could support both the 720p and the 1080i formats.

Two of NMT's HDTV trucks are based in New York and spend most of their time producing HDTV sports for MSG Network. A third truck located on the West Coast handles both entertainment and sports work.

"They are busy, but we're not building any more right now," says Clifford, who had no comment on ABC's high-definition plans.