A Sports Instant Classic Story
Imagine a job where every decision you make has to be the right one, where no gray area exists and if you make the wrong decision not only will the guy or gal (Director) sitting next to you most likely start yelling at you but millions of people watching TV at home will witness your mistake instantly.
That, in a nutshell, is the life of a live sports technical director. I can speak with some authority on this topic as a large part of my career in television has been in the technical director hot seat.
Unlike other broadcast positions on a live event; a camera can be slightly panned or tilted off center or can even be slightly out of focus on occasion. An (A1) audio mixer can have his microphones or music too low or too high. A video operator’s cameras can drift to be too bright or too dark and on it goes. Each broadcast technical position has some “wiggle room”. Not the TD.
This unforgiving aspect is what drew me to the job when I began my television career in the mid 80’s in news in Boston at WCVB-TV. The two elements that attracted me were first, that it was a challenge and second, you could not BS your way through it. The modis-operendi was “you’re only as good as your last show” and that certainly holds true today. During my tenure at that station, I recall before the newscasts, the audio man would drop by my area of the control room, put his hand on my shoulder and say with a grin –“good luck we’re all counting on you” and stride back to the safe confines of the audio booth.
Moving on to New York City in the 90’s, I technical directed mainly entertainment programs but did dip my toe in sports along the way; The Sports Reporters with Dick Schapp, Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel and Inside the NFL with Len Dawson, Nick Buoniconti, Jerry Glanville and Cris Collinsworth. In addition, I launched ESPN’s first game show 2-Minute Drill with Kenny Mayne in the summer of 2000. And for you trivia buffs, I also technical directed the New York audition, in 1993, of a fresh-faced female sports anchor who, WOR-TV, in their infinite wisdom, passed on. I am confident Suzy Kolber is much happier and wealthier reporting from the sidelines on ESPN’s Monday Night Football.
I have to admit, I had avoided live sports along the way turning down numerous calls for football, baseball, hockey you name it. The stress combined with the lower pay made it doubly unattractive. In 2004, however, I got a call from SFX Entertainment, which was crewing, for NBC network. The network was planning a live telecast from Woodbine racetrack in Toronto as part of the Breeder’s Cup series and needed a TD badly. Most of the regular NBC sports crew was away at the Olympics.
I had come highly recommended (what they always say to persuade you to take the job) and their first technical director had, in their words, “chickened out”. I was intrigued. The woman on the other end of the phone continued. “Yes, our first TD wasn’t as familiar with the type of digital switcher in the truck and when he found out it was (A director who shall remain nameless) our first TD decided to bow out”.
This was just the sort of challenge I couldn’t resist, an unfamiliar sports truck with a legendary director whom I had never worked with and whose “reputation” preceded him. Like John Belushi in Animal House I naively said, “Let’s Do it”!
On the plane to Toronto I was certainly having second thoughts that this gig might be tougher than I imagined. Little did I know how difficult. Upon arrival at the race track, which was also a casino, I found the big red “Hockey Night in Canada” truck – Canada’s premier live sports truck and started getting down to business. Early on conversations with the Canadian tech manager revealed that the NBC broadcast was not only live to the United States but being fed internationally as well. Multiple millions would be tuning in as the race featured a million dollar purse. NBC expected huge ratings from around the planet.
Later in the day the director finally arrived in the truck and the first thing he said was, “So I hear you’ve never done sports, huh”. I had told SFX Entertainment that I wasn’t a sports TD but an entertainment TD when I agreed to take the job as if that was some sort of “out” if I screwed up. So the director and I were not off to the best start. Part of the psychology between a director and a technical director is their perceived confidence in you and as a TD. You have to instantly make the director feel at ease. He most definitely was not. He had never worked with me and he knew I had never done live sports. I knew I’d have to draw upon every resource to win his confidence. I decided right there, that no matter what was thrown at me, somehow I’d handle it. I knew what was expected, that I had to perform flawlessly – live sports experience or not.
This particular director had not only done Monday Night Football for twenty years but also directed the Kentucky Derby for years and this little horse race in Canada was going to be MNF, The Kentucky Derby and The Academy Awards all rolled into one – at least in his mind.
First off, there were 17 cameras –every angle you can imagine including POV’s everywhere. This would be fine except the switcher did not have enough inputs! As we began building the graphics for the program, the, by now frazzled, Canadian tech manager had to fasten a sub-router switcher into the console in front of me. He, as well, had expected a simple little five-camera horse race.
Because we had so many cameras, I had to literally assign my fingers to different cameras zones. Most technical directors do this but with 17 cameras and ten fingers you need “stoppers”. There is no time to actually look at the buttons on the switcher during a live sports telecast so after the sixth camera, I put a “roadblock” up in the form of a piece of elevated masking tape. I knew that when my hand bumped into it, that was as far as my left hand could go. The last camera on the left side of the tape would be Number-6 and the first camera on the other side of the tape would be Number-7. My right hand would be assigned to cameras 7- 12. I put up another roadblock at the 12th camera. Cameras 13-17 would be on the right side of that “roadblock” and if we went to those, my right hand would jump the masking tape roadblock and my left would float for the rest.
Most NFL games have 17 cameras or more and many technical directors use this technique but many people watching at home don’t realize how fast a game is cut. Just for fun, next time you are watching an NFL, game count the number of seconds between camera cuts and tap your finger each time a new camera shot is taken. This will give you an excellent idea of how fast things are moving inside a live sports truck and how many “one-second” shots are actually used in a broadcast.
Part of a sports TD’s job is also to act as crew chief and make camera assignments. The camera folks here were a pick-up crew from all over the United States so I asked them to choose the camera they felt most comfortable with and if there was a conflict to decide between themselves. By the looks on their faces they had never experienced this amount of freedom or in retrospect “lack of guidance”. But I had no choice I had to get back in the truck to continue the pre-production.
Almost every graphic you see on a sports telecast is pre-built from the player intros to stats. It all has to look visually cohesive and a technical director works closely with the graphics operator in the truck. Sports graphics folks are among the unsung heroes in a live broadcast. They have to be razor sharp, creative and on high-alert all during games. They normally work with a sports graphics producer but the graphic operator has to make it all happen. The next time you are watching a live sports event, focus in on how quickly the stats, scores or downs change in relation to live action. You’ll realize immediately how fast these folks are moving.
A sports TD not only has to be concerned with the camera and graphics but the highly specialized razzle-dazzle that has, today, become an expected and critical part of any live telecast. This horse race in Toronto was no different. We had telestrator (think John Madden’s scrawl on screen), seven digital tape decks, two super slo-mo replay machines and a DVE (digital video effects) device in the switcher itself.
Most of these elements had to be fed through the DVE to “fly” on screen at the right time. Today most of those DVE “moves” are accompanied by a triggered sound effect for added excitement. If you want to appreciate how far live sports has evolved - just watch an old NFL or MLB game on a classic sports channel. There is no comparison. Watching those almost quaint NFL broadcasts you’ll soon get frustrated looking for the super-imposed yellow first and ten-yard marker.
At about a half hour to go before the broadcast with racing graphics complete, our sports truck went live on the bird (satellite) with color bars and the countdown began. These last few minutes prior to live broadcasts provide the critical but all important bathroom break for most technical directors. They know they’ll be locked in the chair for the next three hours and I as well certainly took advantage of this window of opportunity.
During this calm before the storm a technical director will rehearse and rehearse in his or her mind the way they will execute the show almost imagining in advance how all will unfold and where they need to place their hands. At this time a TD also needs to confirm everything is still working and every department can still hear you on headsets (Camera, Tape Video, Audio). During most live sports events the camera channel is usually the chattiest. I tended to keep this channel low as to not get distracted by the humor. Most camera folk are born comedians and they are always hunting for “money shot”. There are reels and reels of shots from games that never makes air and for good reason. You can just use your imagination on that.
With two-minutes to go before our horse race, the director confirmed all was ready and wished everyone a “good show”. After that he turned to me and said “You ready for this?” Without hesitation, and as firm as I could sound, I said, “You bet, let’s go”. He looked at me a moment and shook his head and said, “OK…good, you’ll be fine”.
Most of the live broadcast was a blur except for the one time the director asked to go to something via a method that was impossible. We dissolved instead. It was as near flawless as I could have hoped for and at the end of the program the director turned with an outstretched hand and said “Great Job” with a look almost of disbelief on his face. I took that look as a compliment. The network producers all felt the show went very well and backslapped each other. Right then, one of the associate producers turned to me and said, “this was great Rob, I’ve got a Miami Heat game I’d love you to come down and do next week”. With a smile, I told him I appreciated the offer but no thanks, this was just a cameo for me. There was no doubt I was pleased it all went well with a heady feeling of accomplishment and the almost addictive adrenalin rush it provided. But I knew at that time I did not want a life on the road with young children at home. That’s what live sports technical directing is – constant travel and constant excitement…hey on second thought.
In a job where your first mistake can be your last, with millions of people watching each button push, give thanks for our talented, hard-working live sports technical directors who fearlessly bring you your favorite teams and games each weekend. They are the true iron men and women of the broadcast sports world.
(This article was originally written for Eye on Sports Media and published on Dec. 19, 2008. That same day it was picked up by the Number-1 Sports Blog in the USA – Deadspin)