Analogue Wayback, Ep. 16

Football. That’s where they play in quarters, right?

One of the fun experiences while in Birmingham was putting together the telecast of three football games. It was a brief moment in time when the original, upstart USFL professional football league challenged the NFL’s football supremacy during the spring season. Birmingham was one of several cities around the nation with a team, which was a great opportunity for the TV station.

Back then (and maybe still today) one way for a television station to shore up its revenue for the month was to bump a night of primetime network programming and replace it with its own. An affiliate lost that night’s worth of network compensation (the money a network pays the affiliate to run network programming). However, they were then able to fill all of the commercial slots for the night, which more than made up for it.

As long as an affiliate didn’t do this too often, networks wouldn’t challenge it, especially if this was for a strong local event. Furthermore, a broadcaster could promote this as a special event, like coverage of important away games that were normally unavailable. The station could charge premium ad dollars for commercial placement within the game, as well as other ancillary income, like sponsorship of the broadcast.

The station covered three away games being played in New Jersey at the Meadowlands, in Chicago at Soldier Field, and in Denver’s Mile High Stadium. The first two were split feeds. A split feed is when you are tagging onto another company or network that is broadcasting the game with a full production truck and crew. All the station had to do was book a smaller truck that would piggyback off of the main production truck. The main truck would send our truck a “clean feed” from their video switcher without their graphics or talent inserts. It also included game audio without their announcers. In the split feed truck, we added our own graphics, mixed in our own play-by-play announcer audio, and then cut to our own single camera whenever we wanted to see our sports reporter.

As production manager for the station, I flew in to produce the telecast, along with our reporter and graphics producer. Chyron (character generator) material, like logos, player names, and templates for stats pages, had been produced in advance. We hired local crew members, including a camera operator, technical director, audio engineer, and Chyron operator.

It got off to a fun start in the Meadowlands. Our New York-based Chryron operator was experienced with hockey games. Football – not so much. As we started to finalize the Chyron pages prior to the game, his first response was, “We’re doing football. Right? That uses quarters, right? OK, I get it.” Everything went off without a hitch. The Chicago experience went equally well, except the taxi driver was a bit confused about where the entrance to Solider Field was! In addition, the director in the main production truck seemed very “high strung” based on what we were hearing through our intercom connection.

Denver, on the other hand, was a completely different experience. We were the main truck doing a full production and not a split feed. This meant hiring a full 40-foot production truck, plus crew. We arranged all of it through a production coordinator who specialized in large sports events. It was fun producing a full-on sports telecast. However, you never know who the locally-hired crew are. The director was highly capable, but his main sports experience was baseball, which led to some interesting camera cutting. For instance, in most football game coverage, when the quarterback passes the ball the camera stays wide and follows the ball to the receiver without cuts. However, this director chose to cut camera angles during the pass. It worked fine, but was a bit different than expected.

I learned to appreciate such live productions, because when they are done they are done. There’s no post-production with infinite client revisions. All of the stress is during the build-up and the live production. No matter how good or bad the broadcast turns out to be, the end is truly the end. That’s a rather cathartic experience. When it’s over, everyone gets a high-five and you go out to a nice, late crew dinner!

©2022 Oliver Peters

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