Archive for Thursday, October 18, 2007

Commentary: Gaining a new appreciation for television broadcasts

October 18, 2007

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Two-thirds of the way into the Dollar General 300, wrecked race cars are being dragged off from all around the Lowe's Motor Speedway track in Concord, N.C.

ESPN has covered the multicar wreck six ways to Sunday. Replays, interviews and analysis all been done, and now the network needs a break. As in a commercial break.

"One to go," someone yells.

"What?" coordinating producer Rich Feinberg says. "There are wrecked cars all over the track!"

Just to Feinberg's right, producer Neil Goldberg scans a dizzying array of video monitors. Embedded into the table in front of him is a computerized monitor, customized to keep up with vital information about the race that's going on and about the television show being done to cover it.

A clock is ticking on that screen. As it reaches 14 minutes for the current race segment, Feinberg and Goldberg exchange a glance. There's a story to be told. There's also business to be done. Every tick of that clock puts these two tasks further into conflict.

Welcome to the production truck, the nerve center for ESPN's coverage. After I criticized some of what the network did at a race at Richmond in September, Feinberg invited me to come watch the inner workings of a telecast firsthand.

It's been said that if you like eating sausage, the last thing you want to do is to see it being made. I am not sure that's so for live sports television, however. Those who constantly complain about NASCAR broadcasts might develop more appreciation for the task if they could see what I saw last Friday night.

The best analogy I can come up with is to imagine sitting on stage during an orchestra's performance. You're so close that all you're really hearing is sound, but it still makes you appreciate how amazing it is that all of the elements come out as anything even resembling music.

The main production truck, one of several semi trailers parked in the compound just behind the frontstretch grandstands at the track, is linked by dozens of cables to other trucks containing equipment to marry sound, pictures, replays and computer graphics.

The conductors sit in the main truck, which has more television screens than your average Best Buy and enough computer equipment to land the space shuttle. When the race begins, it turns into sensory overload, a complete audio and video cacophony.

If you could hear everything booth announcers Jerry Punch, Rusty Wallace and Andy Petree are being told while they're trying to talk on the air, you'd be impressed that they can get a word out edgewise.

Nothing you see on the screen - no picture, no camera change, no graphic - appears without somebody calling for it and deciding to put it on the air. People yell, a lot. They talk over the top of each other and across each other.

"Some nights, it all works out just like it's supposed to," Feinberg says. "Some nights, it doesn't."

Good grief, I think. I thought my job was hard.

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