The environment of a major remote sports telecast is, for the uninitiated, an intimidating and arcane place, one of those alien marvels of technology that impresses the senses but leaves no discernible improvement in one's ability to comprehend the magnitude of the miracle. Things like the control bridge of a nuclear submarine, the innards of a computer or the cockpit of a 707 have this same aura—vast complexity combined with virtual flawlessness. It leaves a run-of-the-mill imperfect human struggling in a sea of inferiority.
The routine feelings of awe generated by the presence of such faultless hardware are accentuated by the grand tension that builds as air time approaches, for you know that there are millions—millions—waiting out there for the transmission to begin. Thus you have overtones of an opening night, the old clam-my-palms-in-the-wings suspense of show biz on top of all that mystic electric paraphernalia around you. Will the microwave relay transfer to the proper coaxial circuit? Will the technician on duty know how to reroute the picture if a tie connection or crosspoint breaks? Will the automatic repeater station and the auxiliary standby power fail at the same time? TV technicians love to talk as if they are constantly living on the outskirts of disaster. "All it takes, man, is a 15¢ fuse blows and we go black...." They like to tell ghost stories about the dubious old days when their equipment broke down so often that their blackout placards—STAND BY PLEASE: BOXING—drew fan mail. They like to remember the 1952 Walcott-Charles heavyweight title fight that went off the air because a small boy stepped on a fuse-box lever as he climbed a utility pole. Or the 1958 World Series that went black for five minutes because a kid with a .22 shot out a microwave relay in northern Wisconsin. Or the crazed moments during the 1958 Colt-Giant sudden-death playoff for the NFL title when maddened fans pulled a vital cable loose under Yankee Stadium and a flying wedge of burly NBC engineers had to charge the mob to get in and repair it (with the loss to viewers of naught but one commercial).
Ah, but those things happened years ago. The transmission of TV sport has become a nicely machined part of the precision efficiency we now take for granted as a national institution. Seldom does the equipment fail. The refinements to improve televised sport are impressive indeed. Consider the advent of color to make the spectacles even more spectacular, of the slow-motion technique to accentuate the grace and power of our heroes, of the eye-popping lens that zooms in from a 40-mile-wide panoramic shot of a mountainside to an intimate view of the buckles on a ski boot, of video tape and instant replay and split screens and communications satellites.
The machinery of TV sport is magnificent, and it is used in quantities that shake the mind. CBS sends 20 cameras, 30 microphones, 8 trucks and 80 technicians to Augusta to televise the Masters; it costs a half million or so for five hours on TV. NBC sends 10 cameras and 60 technicians to do a World Series game. In the splashiest single sports remote yet accomplished, ABC spent $3 million to transmit the 17-day 1968 Olympic Games from Mexico City, a production outdone only by such momentous events as a President's funeral or a national election. There were 45 cameras, 250 technicians, eight control units and 95 microphones—including one eight feet from the Olympic torch that captured for the world the grand sizzle of the occasion. ABC approached its Olympic record at the 1969 U.S. Open in Houston with 24 cameras, 100 technicians, 75 mikes and untold forklift trucks, steel scaffolds and miles of thick black cable. The cost topped $250,000, and when the tournament was over a TV executive gazed at the enormous assemblage around him and said: "We haul all this to Texas and what do we get? Orville Moody. What a waste." Although these are among the largest single-telecast operations, CBS spends some $450,000 every Sunday to do its eight NFL games around the country. There is an endless caravan of television equipment and technicians crisscrossing the United States, the wandering minstrels of the 20th century.
Wondrous though the age of electronic technique may be, it still requires men to put real eyes behind the camera's eye. Thus, no matter how superb the circuitry or how nifty the transistor or how able the cable or how fine the line or how round the sound or how pretty-o the video, it is man who gives television both its perceptions and its personality. Yes, and once the human element has been let in, the antiseptic landscape of TV finally takes on some endearing features, for man injects the capacity for imperfection. Famed in his fashion is the World Series cameraman who was focused beautifully on the flight of a high fly ball at Yankee Stadium when suddenly the director saw grass on his monitor, just grass. The cameraman, a sporting type, had brought his fielder's glove to the game that day and when he saw that ball coming he just naturally jumped up and.... And there was the time during the telecast of a Chicago Cubs game when Announcer Jack Brick-house watched his monitor in bafflement as a home-run ball soared up, up, up...up...? The cameraman had a bird in his viewfinder instead of the ball.
Harry Coyle, NBC's senior sports director, who has done more than 1,500 major network telecasts, recalls with horror the Arkansas football game in which he asked a cameraman on loan from a local station to swing over for a shot of the quarterback. The camera swept about and stopped on an end. Surprised, Coyle mentioned the quarterback's number, but the cameraman misheard and landed on a guard. Coyle said, "Look, put it on the guy standing behind the line," and the monitor filled instantly with a shot of the fullback. Angered, Harry snapped into his intercom, "Get the damn quarterback—the guy who handles the ball on every play!" That did it. The cameraman focused beautifully on the referee.
Certainly, some of television's most daring plays and hairbreadth thrills take place off screen. Pan the camera for a moment to the Sunday evening of Nov. 17, 1968 and focus in on the circuits and channels of the National Broadcasting Company. It is a few seconds before 7 p.m. (E.S.T.). The New York Jets are squeezing out a 32-29 victory over the Oakland Raiders, and there is a mere 50 seconds left in the game when—what's this?—millions of good red-eyed TV football fanatics suddenly find themselves gazing in befuddlement at a screen that has somehow emptied of professional football players. It is filled instead with a little Swiss girl and her old grandpa and.... But the game? The game! In the time it took to do a commercial and cue in some little-Swiss-girl theme music the Raiders scored twice, the Jets lost 43-32 and the switchboard at NBC was overwhelmed with so many calls from enraged football fans that the entire Circle-7 exchange in Manhattan went pingggg! and gave up. The most monumental gaffe in the brief history of TV sports was on the books. Only now is the NBC grimace smoothing out to a reflective grin. Here is how Heidi happened.
In the gloaming of that November Sunday, as darkness fell over suburban Connecticut and lights went on in the homes of Carl Lindemann Jr., vice-president of NBC Sports, and Allan (Scotty) Connal, manager of NBC Sports programs, there was no inkling of the chaos to come. Scotty Connal, a gentle father of eight, had the sports-department duty that evening, which meant he was to monitor the telecast from a set at home and keep in touch with the NBC crew in Oakland should any problem arise. "Of course, we knew it would be bad if the game came up toward 7 o'clock," says Connal. "But I phoned Carl about 6:15 and we decided there was no strain—we had 45 minutes to go for the last quarter alone." Then about 6:40 Connal began to sense the birth of a crisis. "It was a terribly slow quarter," he recalls. "I phoned Carl again and said I thought we just might be heading for trouble. We have a policy that we never cut off a sports event until its conclusion, but we also must have a final O.K. to run overtime from Julian Goodman [NBC president]. The approval from Goodman is relayed to our New York control room. It's a simple routine. So Carl decided he'd better get Julian's approval just in case. Carl said he would take care of it."
Connal relaxed again, watching the game and watching the clock. Soon he was surrounded by all of his eight children; they trooped in to assemble before the set so they would be ready to watch Heidi. Connal saw the time was 6:55, then 6:57, and he was a little concerned because Lindemann had not called back. "Just to be safe, I dialed NBC in New York, and I got nothing at all. No ring, no busy signal, just dead air. Later I found out this was caused by a million angry mothers calling to ask if we were going to keep our dirty old football game on instead of starting Heidi. I hung up and a second later my phone rings and Carl tells me I should call New York and tell them Goodman has said the game must stay on until it is over."
Since Connal knew he couldn't raise New York, he told Lindemann to hang on one phone while he used another line to call the NBC control truck in Oakland. Connal quickly got through to Don Ellis, the producer of the show, and said to him: "Now, Don, listen to this and do not get it wrong. Repeat it after me. Julian Goodman says we are to continue the game to conclusion." Ellis repeated the message. Connal told him to pass the word along to the NBC studios in Burbank, Calif., and to have them pass it on to Broadcast Operations Control in New York. Ellis said he would.