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Threads: The Nineties (2 of 2)

Letters written by me, updated May 2005
to include the period 1990-1993

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Background:  I remember watching “rasslin’” on television as far back as the 1950s.  But The World Wrestling Federation, now known as WWE, inaugurated big-time wrestling events with its first WrestleMania in 1985.

I happened to be in Miami Beach at the time and went to see the closed-circuit telecast with my high-school friend Terry Rockhold.

Four years later, the WWF had increased its schedule to four annual pay-per-view extravaganzas.

Pittsburgh-based Unitel provided the mobile TV facilities and crew.  They hired me as the electronic graphics operator for SummerSlam at East Rutherford, New Jersey, on August 28, 1989.

(At right, The Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase defeats Superfly Jimmy Snuka during that event.)

I continued working live WWF shows for more than eight years, including WrestleManias VI through XIII.  Here are some more excerpts from letters that I wrote during that era, starting with a reply to a request to "send me a postcard from London!"


Sunday, October 11, 1992

Obviously, this is not "a postcard from London."  I was in fact there for the WWF SummerSlam on pay-per-view.  Went to London, did the wrestling show, came right back.  Didn't have much time for anything else.

To be precise about it, as I generally am, in 81 hours beginning on the morning of August 27 I spent:

32 hours traveling between home and the London hotel;
  3 hours traveling between the hotel and Wembley Stadium;
26 hours at the site;
19 hours at the hotel (three nights);
  1 hour being a tourist.

In that one hour I took a brisk walk from the hotel (in Cromwell Road, Kensington).  I passed a few landmarks:  the Royal Albert Hall, the edge of Hyde Park, and the Victoria and Albert Museum.  I got within sight of Harrod's, but unfortunately not of Big Ben.  Maybe next time.

I hope there is a next time someday.  The tiny slice of England I saw seemed very pleasant, and the people were civilized.

Of course, they have their economic problems; news stories kept referring to "redundancies" or layoffs.  And prices were about twice as high as they should be; the numbers they quoted seemed about right until I reminded myself that they were quoting pounds, not dollars.  But at least on this trip, I had to spend very few pounds.  There wasn't time for shopping, and all our meals were catered.

Well, almost all.  After the show the caterers had gone home, so the lighting guy Ferd and I went over to a concession stand next to the stadium and bought their last hot dog.  Enclosed is the 20 pence change.

According to the WWF, "Some 80,355 fans traveled from all over Europe to come to historic Wembley Stadium to witness the spectacular event live, while millions more fans throughout the world raptly watched on pay-per-view."

To work this show, I had to learn the basics of another graphics machine, the Chyron Scribe, but fortunately there was a Scribe at KDKA-TV for me to learn on.  I couldn't pass up a chance to go to England.

Back in this country, as I write this the Pirates are on the verge of losing their third straight National League Championship Series.  I hope this doesn't sour the city on the team.  "Why should we root for them in the regular season?  Even if they win the division, they'll fold in the playoffs."  But I'm a little out of touch with opinions about the Pirates, since our newspapers have been on strike for almost half a year now.

Baseball now being about over for the year, I'm working on the telecast of Pittsburgh's Columbus Day parade tomorrow (no Native American disruptions expected locally).  Next weekend, I join Ann Crago and others for an auto race in Nashville.

And I've scheduled a return visit to Chyron School.  You may recall that I'm an alumnus of the Class of '83, majoring in Model 4000.  This course the first week in December will introduce me to the Infinit.  Gotta keep up with the ever-changing technology.


Monday, November 23, 1992

Two FM stations in my area are identifying themselves to their listeners by using other stations' call letters.

WSHH in Pittsburgh and WWKS in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, refer to themselves as "Wish" and "Kiss" respectively.  Each station uses its proper call letters for legal ID's on the hour.  But several other times during the hour, between songs, they spell out the words W-I-S-H and K-I-S-S as though those were their call letters.

They aren't, of course.  The real WISH is an Indianapolis TV, and the real KISS is a San Antonio FM.  Granted, those cities are far enough from Pittsburgh that listener confusion is not a major problem.

But the long-established concept of identifying stations by a unique set of letters, already weakened by the widespread practice of substituting slogans like "Variety 96" whenever possible, has suffered another indignity:  substituting another station's call sign.  Is this prevarication to be permitted?


Friday, December 18, 1992

I'm writing this letter in the showroom of the local Oldsmobile dealership, as I wait for my car to be serviced.  These notebook computers sometimes come in handy.

Much like the economy, life has been in a mild downturn lately, but now we're starting to see some optimistic signs.

All I have to worry about is getting to the airport or the arena a couple of times a week, and if someone else on the TV crew doesn't do her job, that's not really my problem.  So I'm fortunate.

Apparently one way I've been dealing with what stress I have, which seems more like nervousness, is to grind my teeth while I'm asleep.  I've never noticed myself doing this, of course.  After all, I am asleep at the time.  But the back teeth in my lower jaw have become worn down.  So I'm in the process of having eight crowns put on.  By the time I'm done, I'll have spend about a thousand dollars per tooth.

Earlier this month I had another major expenditure, a week-long trip to the Chyron Corporation factory on Long Island for instruction in their latest machine for television graphics, the Infinit.  (They like to spell it iNFiNiT! but that's too hard to type, so I'll eschew the fanciness.)  The Infinit makes noticeably better pictures than the older Chyron IV that I usually use; but it costs a great deal more, so most of the broadcasters that I work for don't own it yet.  But the major networks have gone to it, ESPN will have it by about 1994, and the small networks and individual stations for which I usually work may follow eventually.  So this training should be a good investment for the future.

At the moment, though, I don't have any Infinit work scheduled, just a couple of possibilities.  And until recently, even my Chyron IV schedule had a lot of holes in it, there being no baseball telecasts at this time of year.

Then a week ago Thursday the big storm hit the Northeast.  Here, we got 15 inches of snow.  Since I wasn't working that day, I went out with a shovel every couple of hours to remove another couple of inches from the sidewalks and my car. 

I'm not used to that much exercise.  And we aren't used to that much snow around here, as the past several winters have been very mild.

But then things started to get better.  Some more basketball games have been added to my schedule in cities I have not yet visited, cities with names like Normal and Evansville and Terre Haute.

Moreover, the 15 inches has now melted, except for the remnants of piles where it had been shoveled or plowed.  We've had a little sunshine, and we've had some rain.  It looks like we're on our way here to another typical gray Christmas.

So life is back to normal:  some ups, some downs, a little drizzle.  Season's greetings!


Television sports viewers were becoming accustomed to graphics created on Chyron's new Infinit character generator.  For better legibility, the Infinit usually displayed text on top of a solid or partly-transparent background chip.  (Click here for a fuller explanation of this concept.)

But we at KDKA-TV were still using the older Chyron 4100 for Pirates telecasts. 

The machine displayed letters directly over the video without using a background (as here).

The 4100 could do background chips, but inefficiently.  If you wanted to change from one prerecorded "MGM" background to another, it typically took about six seconds to read the new one from the hard disk — too slow for an unscripted sports telecast.

After many design attempts (from BOXES in September 1992 through STENCIL in November to GRASK in January), I finally worked out a way to use only one carefully-designed MGM background for the 1993 Pirates season.  Here's a reconstruction of the way it was laid out.

The diamond bar at the top was shifted to the bottom of the screen for most lower-third player graphics.

The rest of the MGM consisted of 12 tiny grids of various shapes.  I called these little grids "microfiches" because I could magnify them by a factor of four, giving me backgrounds for scoreboards, weather, umpires, and so forth.  Some of the dividing lines on these grids were only two pixels thick, but I didn't get the blocky appearance you might expect from the 4X magnification because I avoided using diagonal or curved edges.

It was difficult to put a subtle glint on the black part of the diamond bar.  I had only eight shades of gray available.  So I wrote a computer program to generate the random numbers necessary to create a dithering pattern like this, using only two shades of gray.

By cleverly stretching capabilities until we could afford more modern equipment, I was able to persuade the 4100 to do more than it was designed to do.


Wednesday, March 24, 1993

KDKA-TV is using a fairly complex Chyron system for baseball this year.  It's designed to give the 4100 some of the advantages of the Infinit while still allowing speedy use by an operator who's had a chance to learn the complexities (usually me).

But now apparently you, dear reader, have been called in off the bench to operate this system.  So let me try to explain the tricks.

First copy a message disk into Drive A.  Our usual message disks are marked X, Y, and Z, and they represent the last three shows we've done (not necessarily in that order).

Also restore two MGM graphics to the hard drive, called MARCH*25 and PORCH*2.

There are two flavors of system disks:  W-3 and W-4 are used when the Pirates are playing an opponent from the National League West, and E-3 and E-4 for the East.  On each flavor, seven different font IDs each contain the large logo of an opponent.

Once your fonts are loaded, select Drive A and read 250, which sets your edges and reads the MGMs.

What you see on the screen is MARCH*25.  It's the only MGM background you'll be using, you've just read it off the hard disk, and that should be the last time you'll have to do that.  So there's no need for the waiting associated with "control-record-G."

MARCH*25 is manipulated in position, size, and color to produce the various backgrounds we need in the show.  At the top is a diamond-and-shaded bar construction which will be used with most lower thirds.  Below that are scattered tiny flickering grids, which will be magnified 4x for use.

Here are autodisplays to manipulate the MGM.





Lower-third scoreboard



On The Bench



Game summary


Runs-Hits-Errors scoreboard


9-inning scoreboard

For example, try 35.  The diamond bar is now at the bottom of the screen.

Try 36.  A grid of nine rectangles has been magnified and placed center screen.

Try 37, 38, and 39 as well.  Each of these is used with various forms of scoreboard.

But the colors aren't right.  Here's where we use the Palette Animation autodisplays, which call up the proper "frames" from PORCH*2.

Reach 35 again and then read 16.  That's more like it.  Below the gold line, notice the black bar, visible on your edit monitor only because there's a dark-gray glint running across it.  This black bar does not come all the way down to the bottom of title-safe area.  It's designed to have only one row of text on it.

Now read 17.  The black bar now does reach the bottom of safe area, and two rows of text can go on it.

Read 36, then 19.  The rectangles are arranged in groups of three, with the remaining rectangles invisible. 

Autodisplays 20 through 29 light up various other combinations.

In particular, if X=2 through 8, then autodisplay 2X will light up one black rectangle and X green ones.


Read 37, then 30 through 34.  This is for an end-of-game summary.  If X=0 through 4, then 3X will light up X rectangles for listing home-run hitters.

Read 38 or 39.  These grids will look correct no matter which Palette Animation autodisplay you have used, so you don't have to call up any of those autodisplays explicitly.

So we can affect the position and size of the MGM with 35 through 39, and its colors with 16 through 34.

There's a third manipulation:  hiding MARCH*25 entirely.  Autodisplay 0 will set the CCM so that only channel 1 appears.  Then autodisplay 1 will bring the MGM back, by setting the CCM to channel-1-keyed-over-MGM.

In a worst case, in addition to calling up the appropriate text you'll have to use all three levels of MGM manipulation.  For example, 125 is the text for the players remaining on the Pirates bench.  36 postions the MGM, 27 colorizes it for seven green bars, and 1 makes it visible.

But that's a worst case.  Most of the show is less complicated, and certain autodisplays called "beta calls" perform all of these functions at once.

Most information about individual players goes into a full-screen "file," stored at address 1PN0, where PN is a two-digit player number.  For Pirates with uniform numbers under 60, the PN matches the uniform number.  Opponents have PNs from 60 to 99.

Autodisplays called "getters" simplify the manipulation of these files.  The notation ^ denotes an autodisplay that expects a PN.

For example, 5^ waits for two keystrokes for the PN, erases the screen, calls up address 1PN0, and positions the cursor to update the batting average.

Among the "getters," autodisplays 11^ through 13^ produce lower thirds for various situations.  In the case of 11^, you're asked for the player number and then for a third digit, also on the address keypad, to indicate the position at which the substitute is entering the game (for example, 6 for shortstop).

Beta call 89^ gives the pitcher's stats with a fade down/fade up effect [shown above].  It's all automatic, including the MGM part.

The beta call 3 is called BSOR.  It invites you to type in digits for Balls, Strikes, and Outs, and then to punch a digit on the address keypad for Runners on base.  A menu appears on your preview channel to give you the code, from 0 for bases empty to 7 for bases loaded.


Every three months, the WWF presented another pay-per-view wrestling show with newly-designed graphics.  This was one of their bolder looks, which I had to modify if I wanted to fit in "Macho Man Randy Savage."

Below, some of our crew poses in the ring before WrestleMania IX in April 1993.  We were in Las Vegas at Caesars Palace, so many of the guys wore Roman garb.


Saturday, May 22, 1993

While you've been not driving, I've been traveling all over.  Baseball season started in April, and pro basketball and hockey moved into their post-season playoffs, so there's been lots of work for an electronic graphics operator who doesn't mind being away from home.

On the day your shoulder became sore, I was on my way to San Diego.  I spent nearly a week in California doing baseball, then eight days back home doing four baseball games and two hockey.  Then I went to Atlanta for one baseball game, from there to Houston for three more, and from there to Los Angeles for two NBA games.  A baseball game in Pittsburgh on May 8 was followed by four games in Chicago (two NBA, two baseball) and an NBA game in Cleveland May 17.  Over 36 days, I worked 21 events, spent six other days traveling and five off days between events, and had just four free days at home to take care of such chores as laundry and picking up my mail.  That mail included your letter of May 10, which is why it's taken me nearly two weeks to reply.

For NBA games, including the two Los Angeles Clippers home games that I worked in the 1993 playoffs (that's right, the Clippers), Turner Sports generally put us up in the same hotels as the visiting team.  Here's the view from the balcony of my room at the Ritz-Carlton in Marina Del Rey, California.

However, I have had time to ponder certain miscellaneous ideas.

As you probably heard in one of Mr. Weinstock's physics classes, the British pronounce the last letter of the alphabet as "zed."  We, of course, call it "zee."  This set me to thinking.

The names of the letters were apparently chosen arbitrarily, or at least under several different procedures.  [The chart on the right is from Thomas Haynes, Oberlin College Class of 1971.]

Most consonants are named by taking the consonant sound and adding a vowel, but which vowel?  And before or after?  The letters we call "dee" and "eff" could just as logically have been "edd" and "fee."  And this rule was not followed at all in naming "wigh" and "dubbulyoo."

Well, if the names of the letters are arbitrary, why not change some of them?  Let's do it in a way that gives the alphabet a 26-syllable metrical structure, including a rhyming pattern.  Children could learn such a poem more easily than that silly "ABCDEFG" song.

Ay Boh Cee Doo,
Ee Foh Gee Hoo,
Igh Jay Kay Ligh Mee;

Nee Oh Pee Qyoo,
Ree Soh Tee yoU,
Vigh Way eX Yigh Zee!

During last year's election campaign, a "return to traditional values" was much touted, especially for "urban areas."  In particular, this meant that the family unit should be a mother, a father, and their children, all living in one house.  But whose tradition does this represent?  European farmers?  Isn't it possible that other ethnic groups, in particular hunter-gatherers such as the Plains Indians, had other traditions?  Maybe the children were raised by their mothers and grandmothers while the menfolk spent much time away from the village waging war, hunting food, and so on.  Might this have been the tradition for some African families?  Then whites kidnapped the Africans, abolished family life by enslaving them for a couple of centuries, and made them second-class citizens for another hundred years.  Isn't it being Eurocentric to expect their family traditions to nevertheless match those of Europeans?

Anyway, I'll be getting myself aboard a plane tomorrow for a two-day trip to Baltimore.  Then it's three games in Pittsburgh before I set off next Sunday for Denver, San Francisco, Miami, and St. Louis (11 games in 16 days).


Wednesday, June 2, 1993
on postcard from Rocky Mountain National Park


I think you've been here before; this was my first trip.  We had a day off today between our telecasts from Denver and San Francisco, so four of us from the Pittsburgh TV crew drove the Trail Ridge Road.  We saw moose, elk, bighorn sheep, numerous chipmunks, and other fauna, and reached 12,304 feet — the last 200 on foot (puff, puff) on a path over the still-partly-snow-covered tundra, as a little graupel began to fall from the rapidly-changing sky.

I sent this note on a postcard, but with a different picture than the one you see above.  That photo was actually taken by my producer Bill Shissler.  For more of Bill's pictures from our Colorado trip, click here.

"Graupel" means snow pellets.


Monday, June 14, 1993

As I continue to travel around the country with the Pirates, I've caught up with your May 27 letter inquiring about accommodations for Thursday evening, August 5.  Unfortunately, at that time I'll be en route from Chicago to New York, so you'd not find me at home.  That's probably just as well.  My apartment is sized for one, not six, and setting up your tent on the sidewalk probably would not be practical.

In New York, we stayed at the Pirates' team hotel next to Grand Central Station.  Afterwards, I was glad to proceed to Philadelphia, where the hotel was adjacent to historic Society Hill.  A picture I took there is shown below.  I felt much more at home in this relaxing old neighborhood than on the streets of Manhattan.

On November 20, 1993, I traveled to Amherst, Massachusetts, for the Preseason NIT quarterfinal game between Towson State and UMass.  This was one of the very first shows on the new ESPN2.

In the beginning, the idea was that the new channel would be hipper than ESPN, less tradition-bound, trying new things.  We pretaped an opening segment using a single hand-held camera.  Standing behind our two announcers were two players, one from each team, facing away from each other.  As the announcers discussed each player in turn, the cameraman circled around to close in on his face.  The graphics were weird, too; among other things, they mixed uPpeR & LowEr cASe ranDomLy.

Nowadays, however, ESPN and ESPN2 look just the same.


Monday, December 20, 1993

I don't blame you for letting the Macintosh print out your holiday notes, so that you had to write them only once.  Putting 1993 on one sheet of paper makes it sound like quite a year, indeed.

As a non-medical person, I get a little uncomfortable hearing about all this pain; I like to forget that such things happen, so that I can pretend that nothing similar will ever befall me.

That goes for the resignation, as well.  For 17 years I was an employee; in the background there was always a fear that my boss, for whatever reason, could make a decision that would adversely affect me.  Now for six years I've been self-employed, working for a number of different clients.  Of course, I could still have a falling-out with one client, or another could have to cut back on expenses; but no one boss has total control of my livelihood.

We like to believe we're invulnerable.  We know better, of course, which is why we take precautions; but we can't spend all our time worrying about the various parts of our bodies that might break or swell or otherwise malfunction.  So we believe that everything's going to be just fine, although we know that there's a chance something will go wrong.

A recent example:  a PBS documentary on "facilitated communication."  Facilitators earn their living by showing parents that if they hold their autistic child's hand, the child's finger can be made to point to letters which spell out meaningful words.  The parents are thrilled to tears.  They have always wanted to believe that their child, this miniature of themselves, does think and feel like any normal child but is unable to express those thoughts due to something like insufficient muscle control.  So when they hold their child's hand and the child's finger spells out "I love you, Mommy" or even writes a poem, nothing can shake their belief that these thoughts do come from the youngster.  But in reality, it's the "helper" whose eyes are on the letter-board, while the autistic child looks blankly in another direction.  If different objects are shown to helper and child, it's the name of the helper's object that the child's finger spells out.  As with a Ouija board, it appears that the helper is guiding the pointer without even being aware of doing so.  Yet the parents desperately believe that this is not so.

[See also this letter.]

When you were in Pittsburgh last summer, you may have noticed our local family restaurant chain, Eat 'N Park.  (These restaurants were originally drive-ins with carhops; they were going to call them Park & Eat, but that name had already been taken.)  Eat 'N Park has been running a certain commercial at Christmas time for probably 20 years now.  It's a simple 30-second piece of animation, but it's a local classic.  Although it could be understood as a theological parable, it's more of an inspiring little fable.

The scene is a wintry field.  Next to an evergreen tree, a cute little white five-pointed star stands in the snow.  The star has no face, but two points serve as arms and two as legs.

He tries to jump up onto the top of the tree, but the leap falls short.  (The sound of a flute accompanies his efforts.)

He brushes himself off, backs up, and takes a running start, but again the jump doesn't make it.

So he tries a third time, flapping his arms vigorously, but can't quite reach the top of the tree;

he runs out of momentum and strength and just flutters down to the snow like a falling leaf, landing flat on his back, panting.

At this point on the sound track, the strings begin to swell.  Unexpectedly, the tree bends over,

picks up the star on its top, and lifts him up.

As the tree straightens up, the star changes from white to gold, the brass begins playing "Lo, How a Rose E'er-Blooming,"

and light showers down from the golden star, covering the tree with candles.

Some of the light continues on to form the restaurant logo below the tree while an announcer says, "We hope the special lift you get this Christmas lasts all year long.  Merry Christmas from Eat 'N Park."

I expanded my 1993 letter in 2008 by adding these still frames to this website.  Perhaps the parable could be called "The Miracle of the Unanticipated Condescension."  You can watch the commercial on YouTube, although the announcer's words have been changed in recent years to eliminate the explicit Christmas reference.





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