Item: To avoid the high cost of union labor, the networks are farming out the production of more and more events to nonunion outside technicians and cameramen. Some of the independent crews are as skilled as the networks', but in a number of cases the result has been a circus of missed shots.
The networks generally assign their own producers and directors to work with the outside crews. Everybody else, from the sound man to the replay man to the guy who runs the graphics machine, might as well be from Jupiter. Without the requisite teamwork, breakdowns occur. What armchair quarterback hasn't noticed missed camera cuts, out-of-sync audio and video feeds, late returns from commercials, misspelled or incorrect graphics and technicians' voices being fed out over the air?
Last month CBS, which in this case was operating with its own technicians, was coming up on a rain delay during its coverage of the U.S. Open tennis tournament when a disembodied voice, apparently that of a cameraman speaking to the director, came over the air loud and clear. "Hey," the voice asked, "do you want a shot of Neal Pilson and friends getting out [their] umbrellas?" It's bad enough that cameramen feel compelled to earn brownie points with the boss. For us to hear them trying to earn them is downright unseemly.
NBC used outside crews even before the current strike of the National Association of Broadcast Engineers and Technicians forced the network to put secretaries and midlevel executives on some of its cameras. NBC has learned that it can survive without the unions. The productions might not sparkle (a game in Boston this summer ended in a pickoff play at second that the cameras all but missed and consequently no replay was shown), but the games are on, and viewers don't seem to be whining.
Item: CBS has gone from using nine cameras and six tape machines on national NFL games to eight and five, respectively. Regional games have gone from five and three to four and two. On important NBA games, CBS has dropped one camera and one tape machine from its total of six and four. CBS has also cut back on the number of telestrators (the gadget used to draw diagrams on the screen) and Chyron graphic generators (the gadget that flashes data on the screen) on NBA telecasts.
During an NBA game last April, the network was showing a replay when Mike McGee of Atlanta punched Boston's Kevin McHale. McGee was ejected, but CBS never came back with footage of the incident. Would an additional tape machine have caught the fisticuffs? Almost certainly, but a machine costs $2,400 per game to operate.
Item: NBC showed all four of its 1987 CART auto races on tape delay. Reason? A clause in NBC's contract with NABET stipulated that events produced by outside technicians could not be aired live. (The network made the decision before the NABET strike.) NBC was determined to save money by using nonunion technicians. Moral of the story: Commitment to economy clearly outweighs commitment to live TV.
The races were packaged and produced for NBC by CART So, in effect, the network got a free high-speed ride. Says one exec who asks not to be identified: "I think what you may have five or 10 years from now is no [network] staff at all. You may have an executive producer I in charge of the sports division] and one or two coordinating producers [responsible for individual sports]. Everybody else you'll hire on the weekends. It's just a natural progression. You can see it happening."
On the whole, the CART races were well produced. However, because the budget was tight, the broadcast booth was not atop a tower, which would have afforded an unobstructed view of the track, but a few feet above ground level. Hence, the announcers could see the cars for only two seconds each lap.
Item: At the Pan American Games in August, CBS had only one network camera crew to cover 27 sports and 26 televised hours of competition. "It's tougher now," says one producer. "It used to be that the quality of your coverage was the first priority. Now, going in, you're given a dollar figure."