Threads: Century XXI
Monday, December 16, 2002
Last month I spent a week in southern California for ESPN's telecast of the championships of the WTA (Women's Tennis Association) inside the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles.
Now I don't know much about tennis, but fortunately I was working with a guy who does. And only a few hundred fans turned out for the early matches that were played on weekday afternoons, but fortunately we had decent attendance for the final.
The headquarters hotel wasn't in L.A. at all; it was near the ocean in Santa Monica. I had passed through there before and waved at the famous pier, but had never stayed there. So I was surprised to see downtown Santa Monica thronged with people at 7:00 pm on a Sunday (when we had one evening off from the tennis). I guess that's normal.
I did some exploring. Just north of my hotel was "Three's Company" territory, as I called it: blocks of three- and four-story apartment buildings that I'd always figured were the setting for that 1970s TV series.
Just west of the hotel, overlooking the beach, was Palisades Park, where a woman with a camcorder was interviewing an unemployed man with a hand-lettered sign. He was telling her, "The bottom line is, I know how to make an electric airplane! One that would be cheaper and more efficient than . . ."
I found a rustic Hawaiian hamburger and sandwich shop called Kua 'Aina.
I stood on the end of the pier and watched storm-whipped waves coming in.
It was an enjoyable break from my usual routine.
The storm was the lead story on all the local newscasts. Reporters stood outside and told us, "It's raining!!!" But to those of us on the TV crew who were from out of town, this "winter storm" wasn't really a storm. No thunder and lightning, no hail or damaging winds. It wasn't even really raining; it merely drizzled.
However, as you know, southern California doesn't get much precipitation. This was their first rainfall in ten months, so everyone got excited.
And they aren't very well prepared for wet weather. The sidewalks around the Staples Center are smooth concrete, and I had to walk carefully to keep from slipping. Cars were sliding around the highways. One woman reported that her BMW hit a slick spot on the freeway and spun around twice, which seems unlikely unless she was making an abrupt lane change at the time. Unable to dart from lane to lane as usual, the freeway drivers slowed down and added a few minutes to my daily commute from Santa Monica.
Sunday, December 16, 2007
Weather is always a consideration when one travels to Buffalo in the wintertime.
The regular Duet operator for Buffalo Sabres home telecasts was in Florida this weekend, so I was invited to fill in for last night's game against the Blackhawks, driving up on Friday and returning today.
On Friday, it took me six hours to cover the 230 miles, because I made several stops including one for lunch at an Eat 'n Park. (I don't like to drive more than a hundred miles or so without taking a break of some sort.)
The Sabres put me up for two nights at the Adam's Mark hotel, less than a mile from the HSBC Arena. With my car safely parked at the hotel, I preferred to walk to the Arena to avoid the problems of finding a parking lot there that would be open at midday on a Saturday.
I decided that walking a mile would not be a problem. And it wasn't. The ski mask and the heavy gloves kept me quite comfortable. I arrived half an hour before my 1:00 pm crew call time.
However, the truck had not yet arrived. Our TV mobile unit was still out on the road somewhere, headed towards Buffalo. (I never did hear exactly what caused the delay; apparently it was a combination of circumstances.) The crew had to wait inside the arena until the truck finally pulled up outside around 2:20. Then the engineers hooked up electricity to it, cranked out the expanding side, switched on the heaters, and reconfigured the interior furniture. Around 3:00, we could enter the mobile unit, but none of the electronic equipment was operating, because the engineers insisted that the racks had to warm up to 62° before the equipment could be turned on. So we returned to the building, where a free catered meal was available starting at 3:30 (somewhat earlier than we'd planned to take our lunch break). Then it was back out to the truck, where the monitor wall finally clicked on and buzzed into life at 4:20 pm, at least 3½ hours late. Only two hours and forty minutes remained before air time.
Surprisingly, we made it. I wasn't completely familiar with the MSG Network way of doing things. Among other things, we had to install Lyric 6.13 software on the Duet. But with the help of the paperwork and my coordinator, I was able to get us up and running quickly. The coordinator had a page of special graphics that we never had time to build, but other than that, we were in good shape when we went on the air at 7:00. Twenty minutes into the show, the relieved Director of Broadcast Services sent this message to all the crew members' e-mail addresses:
In the hockey game, Patrick Kane, a Buffalo area native who's now a rookie for the visiting Blackhawks, scored early in the first period, but the Sabres came back to win 3-1. The fans left happy.
It had started to snow while we were on the air, so when I put on my winter gear and trudged back to the hotel, there were about two inches on the ground. That was no problem, but another foot of snow was expected in the following 24 hours. Many churches had canceled Sunday services. Beginning around 2:00 or 3:00 Sunday morning, said the forecasters, the precipitation would become heavier and the winds would pick up, resulting in blowing and drifting snow and possible whiteout conditions. Blinded drivers might start crashing into each other, and the Thruway might have to be shut down.
I realized that part of this was the typical local TV Storm Disaster Center hype. Nevertheless, it appeared that I would have better driving conditions if I left immediately and got out of the area before 2:00 AM, rather than going to bed and leaving as planned after dawn the next morning when things would be getting really bad. So I checked out of the hotel and hit the road at midnight.
I hadn't traveled all night like this since I escaped a Louisiana hurricane in 1998. For the first hour, I drove about 35 mph on a snow-covered Interstate 90.
Outside the metropolitan area, there was little other traffic. With no lane markers visible and no danger of sliding into other cars, I felt safe in moving to the middle of the pavement and speeding up to 45 mph. For a time, I was cruising that way down a straight stretch of the New York State Thruway, the scene dimly illuminated by lights reflected from the snow on the ground and in the sky. There were no other vehicles in sight in either direction.
Gradually, the temperature on my car's thermometer rose to 34°, and the road condition improved from "snow-covered" to "wet." I crossed the Pennsylvania line and stopped at the Welcome Center for a cup of vending-machine coffee. I had escaped the worst of the storm, and from now on I'd be able to drive 55 mph, keeping an eye out for icy spots.
But now it was 2:00 AM, and my problem would be staying awake. I pulled over several more times in the next three hours, taking brief naps a couple of times. By the time I reached the Pittsburgh suburb of Cranberry, I was having trouble keeping both eyes focused in the same direction. I got off the highway and stopped for breakfast at a 24-hour Eat 'n Park. That did the trick. I was back in civilization now, and I only had to drive another 30 familiar miles through the rain to arrive home at 6:00 AM.
Overall it was not a bad experience, but an interesting one. If I'm asked again to work in Buffalo in the wintertime, I'll have to remember it.
Ah, the first day of the workweek! Time to get back to a regular routine. Yesterday was a total day of rest for me. The day before, I worked 16 hours straight, providing graphics for the telecast of four football games in freezing weather at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.
In other parts of the country, the event would have been the state high school football championships. Pennsylvania is different, because of history and geography. Around here, the regional championships are the big event.
Pennsylvania has two widely-separated main population centers. Seldom do the western and eastern halves of the state meet, especially on the gridiron. It's highly impractical for a Pittsburgh-area high school to load everybody onto yellow buses and drive 300 miles across the mountains for a Friday night in Scranton.
Therefore, each local school dreams of defeating its neighbors in the playoffs of the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League. The WPIAL has been awarding trophies in football since 1914. Since 1928 there have been trophies for multiple classes based on enrollment, because it's unfair to ask a school with only 100 potential football players to compete against a school that has 1000 boys to choose from.
Statewide playoffs were an afterthought that didn't begin until 1988. This year, the WPIAL champs in each of the four classes will join teams from the state's other districts for three additional weekends of frigid football, culminating in the PIAA title games on December 12 and 13 in Hershey. But those games won't draw as much media interest around here as the WPIALs.
During the brief nine-week regular season, local teams play a few "exhibition" games plus another half-dozen or so against the other members of their conference. Then the conference standings determine which teams (16 in each class) will begin the playoff campaign, which for the best teams will last an additional seven weeks.
This year, beginning Thursday, September 4, each week FSN Pittsburgh chose a game to telecast live, and I was in charge of graphics. Because these productions were on a smaller scale, I actually had two tasks, coordinator (planning the graphics) and operator (running the Duet computer to display them).
Early each week, after the producer and the play-by-play announcer talked with the athletic directors and the coaches, I received rosters and statistics via e-mail. They also sent along information for sponsored features like the starting lineups and the Keys to the Game. I organized all this data for on-air presentation.
This particular week would be the final week of FSN-produced telecasts, and it would require the usual preparation times four. The WPIAL titles were to be awarded by playing four games in succession to decide the champions of Classes A, AA, AAA, and AAAA.
I did as much work as I could in advance. With 11 offensive starters and 11 defensive starters on each of eight teams, the starting lineup graphics required 176 positions, numbers, and names. I collected "bios" (name, number, height, weight, year in school, offensive position, defensive position) for about 500 players. Fortunately, I'd already entered some of these into the Duet during the regular season. I printed my own forms to summarize, on a single card for each team, the key players and their stats green for the ground game, blue for the aerial game, red for defense.
Then we had a "set day" to get ready in the production truck at Heinz Field, followed by the big event on Saturday, November 22, when we signed on at 10:30 in the morning. At halftime and between games we were able to return our viewers to the FSN studio, but we didn't finally sign off from the stadium until 10:53 that night.
I had worked the same job in 2007, so I was prepared for my long hours behind the keyboard. For example, coffee is not allowed inside TV production trucks because, if spilled, it can really gum up some expensive equipment, so I brought along some Vivarin. Around halftime of each game, when I began to yawn, I took one of these caffeine pills to restore my concentration.
It's a big thrill for local teams that normally compete in front of a few thousand fans to play their title game on the home field of the Steelers and the Pitt Panthers. That's true even when the temperature never gets out of the 20s and there are 50,000 empty seats, as was the case Saturday.
The first game wasn't a big thrill for me, at least the way it started out. Clairton's quarterback Andrew Currington (#5 above) had been injured the week before. He hoped to play in the title game, and we'd been told there would be no changes in the starting lineup. But when Clairton took the field, the fans were surprised to see the starting tight end, Troy Webb (#2), taking the snaps. He had thrown only five passes all season, and we had to scramble to plug him in at quarterback. Fortunately for Clairton, Webb played very well.
When the other team, Monaca, ran its first running play, #34 carried the ball. Then he carried it again for a 37-yard touchdown. The only problem was that there was no #34 on the official roster. As a Class A school, Monaca had no public-relations staff or sports information director to identify this mystery back. We eventually learned he was the team's regular fullback, Zach Garber. Having torn his usual #40 jersey, he had been forced to don another number. Now I was forced to change his data on my computer.
But once we got past these surprises, things settled down, and we settled in for the long haul.
Of course, it was "only" high school football, so we could use only a fraction of the equipment and personnel that one expects for a Heinz Field telecast. But the people on our crew are all professionals. We regularly televise pro and college sports, and we always give our best, regardless of the "importance" of the event. I think we presented four first-class telecasts after we figured out who #34 was.
Sunday, September 13, 2009
Last night marked my fourth encounter with a football broadcast from Allegheny College, a small school in northwestern Pennsylvania. The previous time was way back in 1975.
The story begins ten years before that. On October 2, 1965, I was in my first month as a freshman at Oberlin College in Ohio, listening to Oberlin at Allegheny on our ten-watt college radio station, WOBC. The broadcast was coming to me live, all the way from Meadville, Pennsylvania! It sounded like so much fun that I volunteered at WOBC the next month. The month after that, I found myself traveling to Michigan to announce a basketball game.
Chapter two of the story: Oberlins next football visit to Allegheny was in 1967. By then I was WOBCs sports director and regular play-by-play announcer, and I led my broadcast crew to Meadville. The four of us (engineer Bill Hart and announcers Jeff Hanna, Lee Beckett, and myself) racked up a whopping $32.50 in travel expenses for this out-of-state adventure. Unfortunately, my voice gave out during the game, and I had to turn the microphone over to my broadcast partners.
The third chapter came eight years later, when I was working for a cable TV station in Washington, Pennsylvania. We followed the Presidents of Washington & Jefferson College up to Allegheny College, where we would record their encounter with the Gators in black and white for later cablecast.
That year, we were assigned a few square feet on the roof of the pressbox for our single camera and our two announcers. Unfortunately, the roof of the pressbox was also the location of the loudspeaker horns. Although these public-address speakers were pointed away from us, they were still loud, and they didnt make our job any easier. Analyst Chuck Ream was uncomfortable with the situation all day. I ignored the PA and kept talking. Perhaps, like Ray Scott, I used fewer words than usual in my play-by-play. The viewers could see what was happening without further descriptions from me.
Although Ive forgotten the names of the players, I recall one particular W&J scoring play (a pass to the far sideline) that I described in minimal fashion like this: Smith back to pass. Going deep, for Jones ... touchdown!
Why do I remember that? When we got home, Washington radio station WJPA was running a promo that featured their coverage of the same play. The announcer stumbled around trying to identify Jones, used far too many words, and obscured the drama of the moment.
The most recent chapter was written last night. I was the graphics operator for the FSN Pittsburgh coverage of Alleghenys game against another Division III school, Westminster College. This telecast was live and in color!
Oh, and speaking of full size, heres another change since 1975: have you seen the size of some of these football players lately?
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