SI Vault
William Johnson
January 19, 1970
What goes on behind its crane and camera, mike and monitor, switch and socket as television brings Super Spectator his electronic sport, and sometimes a little Swiss girl, too
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January 19, 1970

Towering Babble And (sob) Heidi

What goes on behind its crane and camera, mike and monitor, switch and socket as television brings Super Spectator his electronic sport, and sometimes a little Swiss girl, too

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Connal kept Ellis on one phone and Lindemann on the other, one on each ear, and leaned back to enjoy the rest of the game with his children. "Just for kicks, I told Don to put up the score on the screen," says Connal, "and then I told my kids, 'See? See how Daddy controls the network right in the palm of his hand?' " The time was now 6:59 plus. Suddenly Scotty Connal sat up very straight. All he had in the palm of his hand was sweat, because there was music issuing from his television set, the theme music to mark the end of the game! But the game had not ended. Scotty cried into the phone to Oakland, "What the hell's going on?" Lindemann bawled something at Connal in the other ear. And, faintly, Connal could hear the sounds of panic begin to build in the Oakland control truck—first a quizzical babble of conversation, then shouts, then louder shouts, then anguished shrieks from the assistant director: "Hey! They're counting us down! They're counting us off the air! They're counting us.... We're off the air!" Connal watched his screen, stunned—"Oh God"—a commercial rose up where the Jets and Raiders had been locked in battle. Then in his ear came a bellow from Don Ellis: "Scotty! Scotty! Oakland has just scored!"

"I died. I just died there in front of all my kids," Connal recalls. "If only Oakland hadn't scored—twice. If only the phone had worked. If...."

What went wrong? It was absurdly simple: the message that Julian Goodman had okayed the game to conclusion was promptly and properly relayed into the Burbank studios, but when an assistant director there passed it on to New York (via a direct line), he said quite airily: "The guys in the truck at Oakland say we should keep the game on." Well, time was being measured in microseconds by then and NBC Broadcast Operations Control is not accustomed to mutilating high-priced, prime-time specials like Heidi on the say-so of' 'the guys in the truck." So they counted the Jets and Raiders off the air.

Perhaps the surprise is not so much that such high-tension pratfalls and human higgledy-piggledy occur in television as that they do not occur more often. This is a demanding, maddening world of split-second decision and instantaneous creativity, and it is booby-trapped with a hundred chances every show to make a humiliating and costly mistake. Constantly occupying the hottest chairs of all are the directors and producers. The distinction between the two differs from network to network but, put most simply, the director determines the specific views, shots, angles and special effects that actually appear on the screen, while the producer has the broader responsibility of monitoring the overall thematic content and flow of a program. The names of these MassCom heroes swarm by at the end of each telecast, and if you collect them for perhaps two weeks you will have almost the full Who's Who in TV production, for this is an astonishingly small band of men. A disparate breed, they combine something of the swagger of hot pilots, the intensity of avant-garde painters, the glib wit and restless mien of traveling salesmen. They are creatures of their medium, and if they hit upon a brilliant creative stroke at the peak of a crisis in a game, it is a thing of the instant, a bit of electronic lightning. Nothing they do is lasting. Their craft is like painting with smoke. There is no body of art or literature in television sport. No museums, no Halls of Fame. But the director and the producer are the eyes and the ears of Super Spectator. They contrive from their own sense of esthetics, reflexes and knowledge the television version of an event, and for millions that version is the event. Reality is only what appears on the tube. Anything the camera does not capture never happened.

A fair enough example of them all is Tony Verna, a top CBS director, the man who invented the isolated-camera techniques and, at 35, a well-respected member of this rare profession. You can get Tony Verna in focus as he comes to work at the Kentucky Derby in Louisville last May. He is tanned, his dark hair is long and curling at the neck and he looks splendid in fawn trousers, fawn turtleneck jersey, fawn-and-umber checked jacket and buckled shoes. He has flown in from Los Angeles 24 hours before, and he will be gone again in another 24. His life is one of violent transience—countless hours at 40,000 feet over Nebraska or West Virginia or Vienna, sipping ready-mix 11-to-l martinis and eating ready-mix steak washed down with ready-mix table wine. He drops down for a span of perhaps six meals in one of dozens of different cities, and they all seem alike because he sees only the airports and hotel rooms and restaurants and stadiums. In this whirl of itineraries a disorientation sets in, a kind of place-and-time confusion that once led a crew of ABC's Wide World of Sports to search all over a Moscow airport for a Hertz rental counter. Verna logs 150,000 miles or so each year; home, when he sees it, is Malibu Beach.

But now Verna is at the Kentucky Derby in May 1969. This is his fifth time directing it, and he has 12 cameras, 30 microphones and 70 technicians scattered about the venerable acreage of Churchill Downs. The centerpiece of these MassCom components is five hulking vans, each bearing on its side the almighty sleepless CBS eye. They are packed with the fragile baggage needed for TV transmission, and one contains the control panel and monitors where Verna sits to direct the Derby telecast. The vans are placed like outsized shoe boxes around the track's brilliant flower beds. Thick cables curl among the flowers. Engineers toting portable cameras and announcers trailing mike wires tiptoe through the. tulips. As usual, television is trying desperately to be unobtrusive, but the bulk and dazzle and complexity of it all make it a bit like having Moby Dick in the parlor: very visible and slightly fishy.

Verna settles down in his chair at the console board in the control truck to interpret and transmit the drama and brilliance of the Kentucky Derby for waiting millions. And here is a study in new surrealism if ever there was one. It is difficult to imagine anything more thoroughly isolated from the clash, crowd and color of a sporting event than the seat from which a TV sport director views the action. Verna claps a double headset over his ears, then faces a wall of a dozen small monitors, each flickering with a picture from some part of Churchill Downs. Once the van door thuds shut (giving off the fine suction sound of a hermetic seal), those tiny monitors are the only visible sign that there is other life on the planet.

But there is life. It shows on the monitors with pictures from Camera 1 and Camera 4...the infield is teeming with people and the grandstand is jammed...sure, you can see it there on the monitor for Camera 7...horses prancing into the paddock. Verna sits, a mike at his chin, chattering calmly to his troops, calling the camera shots, rolling the precut tapes. Yes, and there is a race—see it on the monitors for Camera 3 and 4—and now it is over. Verna is cutting in the isolated-camera coverage of the winner, Majestic Prince. In no more than the span of minutes, he reruns a detailed close-up of the entire race—in slow motion at that, followed by articulate commentary from the winning jockey, Bill Hartack. It is sound, even scintillating journalism that Verna and the CBS crew have contributed to the Derby. You'd almost think Tony Verna had been right there to see it in person.

Ironically, the image of TV sport most familiar to the public is the one created by announcers. It is ironic because most sensitive people inside the TV-sport business agree that announcing and commentary are easily the least advanced elements of the art. ABC Sports President Roone Arledge says, "Announcing is our weakest link." A CBS executive says: "Compared to the technological advancements we've made, our announcing is like having an old iron gargoyle stuck on the front of a new skyscraper."

The work of the TV sportscaster is an odd job indeed. It is neither art nor science, neither common labor nor honored profession. The sportscaster is not quite journalist or carnival barker or orator or interlocutor or master of ceremonies or trained seal. Yet he is all of them. Sportscasting is a dispiriting career, for a man is always doomed to displease. Inevitably, he will talk too much, too little, too loudly, too softly, too sharply, too blandly, too fully, too briefly, too knowingly, too naively. Name your poison and your friendly neighborhood sportscaster will deliver it to you sooner or later.

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