An Inside Look At SEC On CBS
Number one ranked Alabama visiting Baton Rouge this past Saturday was a covetous ticket for any Tide fan to obtain. But what if they were not so fortunate to be at the raucous Tiger Stadium? Where would they have chosen to view the highly anticipated homecoming?
One unlikely place on the wish list to observe the unscripted drama of Alabama 27. LSU 21 (in overtime) might have been the West 57th Street CBS studio in the heart of Manhattan, a few blocks from the Hudson River where the fast and furious activities replicate game day intensity. Even anticipating the events under a systematic approach does not account for the game dictating succinct decisions required to be executed within the contracted span of the play clock.
Sprinkled across the ceiling of studio 43 are brilliant lights resembling raindrops from the sky as only half are required to illuminate the spacious CBS set of College Football Today. Focused on studio host Tim Brando and lead analyst Spencer Tillman are two pedestal cameras one on each side, a steadicam hand held by an operator and a jib camera with pivoting capability extending at least 30 feet to broadcast all the angles. Brando's booming voice opens the show before deferring to the harmonizing melodious baritone of Tillman.
Housed within the studio desk are monitors for the two on-air talents to view games and replays. Always present within view are nine monitors encased in a moveable matrix tic-tac-toe box with three across and three down. Standing out of camera view is the stage manager, Kevin Burrows, equipped with a head set counting down the moments before the opening of the pre-game show or the cut-ins updating the college football audience with game highlights.
Located a first down length of ten yards from the studio desk is researcher John Kollmansperger known as "JK" who sits at his computer amidst a plethora of neatly tied cable wires numbering enough to lasso a herd of elephants. Four boxes of media guides are at his disposal and information for each conference is catalogued for easy access. Vying for a shoe contract would not be out of the question as he hustles back and forth from his desk providing phonetic pronunciation, coordinating highlight packages, confirming scores and touchdown sequences. Between every commercial and break he is handing off script changes from the writers along with all pertinent information to the studio host. Also seated to his left is the script writer, additional researchers and a person responsible for the teleprompter. Head sets in every operational room are as common as football helmets on a sideline.
Throughout the show updates drafted by writers are rehearsed by the host if time is warranted and read meticulously while the highlights are rolling. Occasionally Brando is spitting out information as the producer is talking in his ear because the significant play just occurred and there is no time for rewrite. During a dead moment the studio atmosphere is peppered with banter about a top ranked team being threatened by an underdog or a magnificent individual performance rallying a team in the unpredictable world of college football.
Even though the audience views only the two members seated at the desk, CBS has more than 100 people present to broadcast the special one hour pre-game show and ensuing contest. Production of a live college football broadcast requires preparation much like the game being viewed. "Most people don't realize the amount of work that goes into doing a show of that nature," said Vin DeVito, producer of College Football Today and the epicenter of all activity. He describes his task as "A job of meeting a thousand different mini deadlines during the course of the day." Precision, passion and people along with the latest in technology are the essential elements to broadcasting an SEC football game.
Behind the scenes is controlled mayhem yet just like a football team consisting of offense, defense and special teams integration of all the components is instrumental to a successful endeavor. Resembling a head coach, his head set is saturated with observations from trusted key people disseminating information where upon he makes an instinctual judgment to act. "A good head coach listens to assistants that he trusts," proclaims DeVito. The scope of responsibility ranges from balancing the editorial content to concluding the broadcast in a timely fashion along with presenting the obligatory commercials.
"You put on the headset and it's almost like your ‘Sybil' You'll have as many as ten voices going on in your head maybe not all at once but you learn this process through the years of selective listening," he declares. "Out of that crowd of people talking you can latch onto the voice you need to hear at that point to give you the piece of information you need at that moment or to know that they have a problem and fix the issue. You move on. It's a matter of doing it over and over and over again through the years and a lot of it you learn by trial and error along the way."
Crucial storylines for the day must be reported in a timely manner as they are advanced and the relevance beyond should be defined in the global context of college football. Judging a day's performance after twenty-five years of experience, DeVito believes, "Make sure that you've gotten the information on the air, you've gotten it quickly and you've gotten it correct." Similar to the inevitable turnovers in a season of football, a broadcasting error might occur during the pre-game show when a highlight package consisting of two plays is cut short by switching to the scoreboard.
The chief researcher is off in a room where all the feeds of upwards to two dozen games are viewed for complimentary highlights for updates which are filtered by individual loggers to compile game notes to be loaded on the scoreboard. DeVito requests briefings of comebacks and lead changes from the chief researcher throughout the broadcast. The tape operation room located downstairs employs one hundred video machines to capture and cut for highlights and updates. A special update section is the broadcast's version of the two minute drill as urgent highlights bypasses the normal path and instead they are distributed to the live feed.
The control room houses over fifty television monitors showing all the camera angles inside the stadium, games across the country, the SEC broadcast and some are used for replays. Numerically marked, the associate producers call out for the crucial highlight on a moment's notice or reference a camera view. Each highlight requires the precision of the video interspersed with the audio game notes and graphics to be in sync. Contests from across the country are religiously surveyed for any game changing moments that will be taped and queued for cut-ins to the current SEC broadcast.
Sitting in the front row of the control room is director Linda Malino who can react at the drop of a hat due to the trust between her and DeVito. The second segment of halftime highlights were scrapped in favor new ones. "I bark out and it's like calling an audible at the line," DeVito explains. She calls out the camera shot, controls the audio people, dictates the musical additions and manages the announcers.
Malino also instructs the switcher, Keith Koslov, the technical director seated next to her who physically pushes the button for the correct tape and dissolves to the next screen. Associate director Melanie McGowan aides Malino with the tape location and sequence along with setting up the graphics accordingly for perhaps a BCS discussion or a coach on the hot seat. Sitting next to the associate director is production assistant Lauren Hall acting as a clock manager cognizant of the length of the highlights when queried. She also quantifies segments for DeVito so as to get off the air on time.
While the remote is playing live in Tuscaloosa, coordinated shots of coaches on the field, players warming up and local attractions are being gathered for use during the pre-game show. Often the best shots are spontaneous as DeVito reveals. "They fed in the shot of Nick (Saban) getting off the bus at Alabama which is a terrific shot for the top of the show which is what we're looking for a few moments before we went on the air. We knew we were going to have it because we've developed this great teamwork through the years with Craig Silver (CBS coordinating producer of college football) and his crew doing the games. We trust each other and we know when to tell them that something's important and move it up and we also know when to sit back, and say I'm going to wait on this. I have an update for you but it's not critical to get in. Finish telling your story at the game."
Sporting event graphics act as a crucial appendage to the game, featuring statistics, analysis and trends while advancing storylines. Juliana Barbieri, graphics manager for CBS Sports, scrutinizes the design aspects of the on-air graphics, in-house personnel and designers besides assigning remote operators. Scoreboards at the bottom of the screen, the ticker with scores running across and the scoreboard at the top of the screen called the eye box are creations assigned to her staff. Replay wipes to and from the replay and any transitional animation encompasses the graphics department responsibilities too.
The animated information is meant to be digested by the audience but coordinating the timing of the graphic to appear on screen before the team is ready to snap the football is always the challenge. An aesthetically pleasing presentation distributing correct information is the goal. The show's opening with the themed music, fonts, color schemes and logos are some of the elements completed in advance during the summer months. Preparation addressed during the week might be specific information a producer desires or statistics from a press release the announcer requests.
Game days find Barbieri in more of an observing role unless something malfunctions. "Did something happen to fast? Did they put a period where they weren't supposed to? Are they telling the story with the right graphics and putting them in at the proper time?" she explains. "Are they selling the graphics to the producer at the correct moment?"
Typical allotment for SEC games consists of eight hard cameras stationed around at all levels of the stadium, two hand held mini cameras on the sideline to catch close ups of players, bench shots and coaches being interviewed. Robotic cameras able to spin around are on the goal posts and jib cameras with arms extending 60 feet capable of booming sweeping shots of the crowd like a movie are on the sidelines.
"During the week we talk to the producer and the talent about the storylines whether its injuries or suspensions or the "Saban Bowl" making sure we have support for that whether its video tape or interviews or graphics. We talk to the director about certain shots we are looking for during the game to support those story lines," said Harold Bryant, coordinating producer for CBS Sports at the time, since promoted to vice president, production, CBS Sports.
A continual challenge each week is the dynamic nature of college football as interjecting highlights from games across the country requires timing so as not to interrupt crucial moments of the SEC game being broadcast. "We want to make sure we are covering not only our game but keeping everybody abreast of the big picture because college football is not only about the individual but the product as a whole," stated Bryant who during the game monitors quality control for the audio sound in New York, video and audits the graphics being received. Additionally during the week he manages story lines, delegates assignments for production people and pursues the latest technological equipment.
The SEC is celebrated for their passionate fans and the broadcast team shares those sentiments. "We broadcast it with passion. We do a lot of research and spend time with the teams, the coaches, the players, the SIDs, the ADs because we're really proud of the package," Bryant unabashedly replied. "We're really proud we have the SEC and we want that to be displayed on the air. We're not for any one team, we're for the SEC."
Exploring the pageantry and nuances of the game are prime concerns each week. "We've added different cameras along the way to show different angles. We are big into audio. There is a lot of texture and sound that goes with the SEC so we've added different kinds of microphones that can pick up on that audio. We've added more color to show the passion of the SEC whether it's walking through the Grove at Ole Miss or something going on "Between the Hedges" at Georgia. For this game (LSU-Alabama) we have the sea of red panning the crowd with the jib. We want to add all the energy and excitement that is going on around the game because sometimes unless you have been to an SEC game you don't know feel it on TV so we try to add that every year."
"For every announcer you hear on TV, there are probably 50 people behind the scenes working on that broadcaster. There is always a lot going on behind the scenes. People think it is a simple operation," Bryant explained. "Put some cameras up, put some announcers in a booth but it's a very intense, technical production but it's very exciting." Just like a football program, Monday is the day to review the previous week's broadcast with a conference call and then proceed immediately to the next week's contest. They are always reviewing and critiquing, taking notes and reviewing tapes with the intention of improving the finished product. Maybe they want to enhance the audio, show a few more crowd shots or emphasize the importance of first down.
Tim Brando is a broadcaster of national reputation for 20-plus years but embraces his southern heritage and recognizes the reverent role he plays each week as the voice of the conference he's witnessed since childhood. He accepts the inherent task to objectively cover every aspect of college football. "You have to always guard against being perceived as a shill for the conference. I've often said to people, we're all from somewhere. It seems that those of us that are on national television from the South have to answer that question more than people from other parts of the country. I don't know why that's true but I definitely think that it is a fact. That being said I take great pride in being from the South and I let everybody know that because you are what you are and you've got to admit that."
People nationwide consistently view CBS's broadcast of SEC football regardless of the outcome because the product is so good, he feels. "The game is not just a game, it's a happening. It's a happening in six different locations every Saturday afternoon and night. I don't know that in other leagues you get that same quality of depth in terms of the atmosphere and the competitiveness of the league. You measure the strength of the conference from the bottom up not the top down."
Brando, the buoyant host of College Football Today must contend each week with self-editing during the broadcast. "There's this conglomeration of information that is in my head that a lot of it in my mind I think is important but my producer Vin DeVito is quick to point out what I think is really important versus minutiae," he confesses. His role changes when guest analysts such as former Ole Miss Rebel Archie Manning or The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Tony Barnhart are in the studio along side Tillman, becoming more of a traffic cop and less of a contributor of information.
He relishes the impact he has on the people viewing the game. "When the red light goes on, I'm just as happy as anyone could possibly be," said Brando, the Shreveport native who's Dad was in the broadcasting business locally. "The level of adrenalin and joy that's comes through my body is indescribable." During the airing of the show the studio is graveyard quiet as Brando and Tillman must create their own energy by raising the decibel levels of excitement with their delivery.
He feels uniquely qualified to be the host. "You can't really prepare from week-to-week for my role. You have to have lived it. It has to be part of your soul. It has to be part of who you are as a human being. If I were not doing this for a living, I would be just as engaged and just as excited as anybody else might be," he explained. "I have no issue with objectivity because I am having so much fun doing what I am doing and I have to recognize that it is my profession. I've never been a fan but I've always been a college football and college basketball historian. I just love it. I would follow it whether I was doing this or not." Doing his daily radio show from his home has him immersed in college football during the week.
Fans never shy away from stating their opinions to this son of the south. "Regardless of how objective I feel I am, fans never believe that," he said. "They always think you have built-in bias feelings. It is their passion. If they didn't feel that way, they wouldn't be as interested therefore I wouldn't have an audience that was sitting at the edge of their chair each day so I have to understand that too. I have to learn to endure."
He yearns for the respect of coaches, conference commissioners and athletic directors because as he stated, "I don't take myself too seriously but I attack what I do very seriously. It's important to me that I have their respect. To this point I've felt I've always had that."
Spencer Tillman, the loquacious CBS lead studio analyst for College Football Today who quotes Shakespeare and Kierkegaard, still loves to perform. Preparing for the broadcast and attempting to perform in real time provides the adrenalin rush and excitement similar to his playing days. "Not knowing what exactly is going to happen when you throw caution to the wind is the most enjoyable for me. Real time communication in your ear from a producer is exciting for me." The former Oklahoma halfback relishes the instant feedback. "In that regard it's like playing the game. Come back, review the tape, critique and get better the next week. Vin DeVito our producer is not shy about telling us what we're not doing right."
Tillman shoulders the perceived obligation as a minority on the national stage. "I view my role here probably more seriously than I should. I should have more fun with it but I don't. I think sometimes it affects more performance. We live in a world of images and impressions. As one of the few African-Americans doing this I have become representative of everyone. It's one of those weird things with minorities how your actions become representative of a larger group. I'm very much aware of it," replied the straight talking introspective former NFL performer.
He has been challenged by coaches who have contacted him to voice their displeasure about a story or his sources. "I'll never say something where I don't have a quality source." Fans opinions do not faze him as he speaks his mind with bold commentary and analysis. "There may be as much praise from fans as criticism but the only people I really care about are the folks here." Tillman sermonizes about the intense commitment of the people at CBS. "There is a connection here and an awareness of the SEC and its rich tradition that I don't see matched anywhere else in the country. A lot of it is because other people don't cover it as much as we do but Tim lives and breathes it and I have grown to appreciate this style of ball. We're passionate about what we do."
The SEC game broadcast live each week by CBS entails hours of preparation to insure the cavalcade of information and entertainment expected in college football. Storylines accompanied by graphics are the instruments interlocking the milieu with the action of the game providing the spiritual ritual for the devout nation of southern football disciples. Personifying passion is the SEC's gift to the college football kingdom and the faithful folks expect reciprocal coverage from those who are entrusted with documenting the history of a proud and prestigious athletic entity transcending a game they love.
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