The viewing room at Phoenix Communications looks suspiciously like a high school foreign language lab. Eighteen carrels, separated by wooden dividers, are pressed up tightly against the walls. Perched in front of each is a straight-backed chair. But inside each carrel, instead of a bulky reel-to-reel tape machine and headphones, is state-of-the-art video equipment, including a color television set and two VCRs the size of Hyundais. Through these TVs, each of which is linked to eight satellite dishes, passes every major—and some not so major—sporting event in the U.S. Each carrel has one additional item: a professional viewer.
"Viewers are our entry-level positions," says Geoff Belinfante, a senior vice-president and executive producer at Phoenix Communications. "And they have to watch a lot of sports."
Located a punt or so from the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, N.J., Phoenix is one of the nation's largest independent sports-production companies. It provides an assortment of taped sports highlights for local and network television stations across the country and produces a variety of its own syndicated programs, including Pennant Chase, Power Stick Hockey Week and its flagship, This Week in Baseball, as well as home videos and highlight tapes that are shown on big screens in stadiums and arenas. At Phoenix, every frame of footage must be viewed as events are happening, and to be a viewer is to watch and watch and watch sports—eight hours every day and as many as six days a week.
Not so bad, right? Pop open a cold one, prop up your dogs and watch the Browns play the Dolphins—for money. The starting salary is $18,000. But before you board a Jersey-bound Greyhound, remember real work is involved. Phoenix has 15 viewers, most of whom are recent college graduates who aspire to produce, write or direct one of the company's sports shows. When they watch a broadcast, their laps are loaded, not with Doritos and Twinkies, but with clipboards, on which they keep track of the action with a unique shorthand that allows a producer to put together a highlight package by simply scanning the view sheets and selecting the most appropriate snippets.
Take one typical viewer, Sue Van Bernum, 27 (who was recently promoted to assistant producer), and one typical game, between the Royals and the Twins in Kansas City. During the game Van Bernum scribbled out several sheets in shorthand. In the top of the seventh, Royals shortstop Bill Pecota dropped to his knees to field a Brian Harper grounder and then made a tough throw to first baseman George Brett, who dug the ball from the dirt for the out. Van Bernum wrote "great play" in the left-hand margin of her view sheet, followed by one star, with four being the top rating. On the right-hand side of the page, she wrote out details of the play. An inning later Pecota fumbled with a Dan Gladden short hop, reaching into his glove and hobbling the ball several times before blowing the throw. This time, Van Bernum wrote "blooper" in the margin, again followed by a star and a description.
Even those amusing scenes of comic relief that are shown as part of highlight footage—like a dugout hotfoot—are noted by the viewers. Because the feeds are usually direct from the satellite, the broadcasts that viewers see normally don't break for commercials, and it's during this time that much of what's fun and unexpected occurs. If a producer wants footage of players or fans fooling around, Van Bernum's notes will make it easy to go right to that spot on the tape.
When a game is finished, the tape, with the view sheet wedged inside the case, is logged into Phoenix's enormous video library. Tapes are saved for about a year, unless the event is especially significant—a no-hitter or the like. In these cases, the tapes are stored permanently. "We have more than 40,000 videos of 10 or so different sports," says Belinfante. There is also a large film library. "Our oldest piece of identifiable footage is a 1905 shot of John McGraw parading his team around in an open car."
"People don't care about most of the footage until it affects them," says former senior vice-president Terry Kassel, who now runs her own sports media sales company. "It doesn't matter until it matters. There was a lot of stuff on [the late baseball commissioner Bart] Giamatti, but it didn't become significant until he died."
Significance, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. Phoenix gets as many as 25 calls a day with a variety of footage requests. "Just this morning I heard from Today, ESPN, CBS and Real Life with Jane Pauley," says Julie Krug, who handles most queries. Prices vary for tapes, depending on whether the clip is to be used on network television; it's $75 an hour if some fan in San Francisco just wants a copy of a game in which a wandering camera caught his mug at Candlestick Park. Phoenix also has an exclusive deal with the Blockbuster Video chain, and many of Phoenix's most popular titles-World Series highlights, baseball bloopers and greatest-moment packages—are now available at Blockbuster stores.
"Our most requested clip is probably one of the classics, like Carlton Fisk's home run [in Game 6 of the '75 World Series]," says Mike Kostel, director of baseball programming. "But that doesn't make it the Indiana Jones of clips. It's not asked for that many more times than another video."