The Inside Story

Bob Bonnell is at home behind the camera. So when the ESPN college-football producer took center stage, it was a kick. The occasion: the CBA College Football Kickoff Classic between USC and Virginia Tech. Twenty-one cameras captured ESPN's team in action, and ESPN2 fans got a through-the-looking glass glimpse of the intricate ballet that is live sports production.

"Our fans want to go as in-depth as possible," says John Wildhack, ESPN senior vice president, programming.

The behind-the-scenes broadcast of a football game was preceded by a behind-the-scenes look at SportsCenter the night before. Shawn Murphy, producer of the telecast, says the goal was to capture the broadcast frenzy while illustrating how the production crew works. "Seeing the dynamics of the announcers and the eight people in the broadcast booth is amazing," he says.

To enhance the experience, Murphy used quad–video-splitting technology. Dividing the screen into four parts gave ESPN2 viewers a look at three behind-the-scenes feeds plus the game feed. That and the intrafield broadcast audio feed that the production team uses to communicate with each other enabled viewers to see and hear the organized madness.

Jeff Willis, ESPN coordinating technical manager, began work on the production about a month before telecast. ESPN telecasts typically use two production vehicles from New Century Productions, one for HD production and another for the pre-game, halftime and post-game. The ESPN2 production team was housed in the second truck.

When it came to pre-game prep, Willis says, the biggest obstacle to overcome was audio delays. Because the ESPN production is done in HD rather than SD, it takes longer for the video and audio signals to be transported throughout the truck and, ultimately, to the viewer.

"The challenge was keeping the audio and video signals in sync," says Willis. "We had to put a four-second delay into the HD downconversion to make sure the SD broadcast had proper lip-synching."

Then Willis and his team decided how to place cameras and lighting so the HD production team wasn't distracted. Nine Toshiba and Panasonic point-of-view cameras and four small robotic cameras were placed in the HD production truck and studio. They measure 2 x 2 inches each.

Some of the cameras were placed directly in front of the talent, others were tucked discreetly away. Adding to the pressure, it was tape producer Cathi Cappas' first game in a new role—and she performed it on camera to Bonnell's satisfaction.

"Once the ball was in the air, I was able to tune out the cameras and lights," says Bonnell. He and his team understood that viewers wanted to see them in action, which meant keeping a lid on non FCC-approved language. The energy and pressure of a live telecast, says Bonnell, can result in colorful curses.

Similarly, pre-interviews had to be scrapped. One included Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) discussing the controversy surrounding Virginia Tech's conference changes. Although fascinating to watch, it resulted in a clampdown. Pre-interviews and the potential to air a comment never meant for public consumption quickly became off-limits.

"I was very happy with how it went," says Murphy. "The show carried itself." Some of that ease was due to three freelance point-of-view camera operators. Located in a small trailer complete with oak paneling reminiscent of 1978 and newspaper covering the windows, Bill Tynan, Rick Cypher and Lance Lalonde controlled the robotic cameras. They operated joysticks to move the cameras, zoom in and out, and focus. "These are all skill cameras," says Tynan.

Pleased with its efforts, ESPN is considering another behind-the-scenes telecast. Murphy says that if he gets a crack at another football game, he'll change a few camera positions. For example, he would put a camera over the shoulder of the talent in the booth, giving viewers a chance to see how the commentators use boards to identify players on the field.

At the end of the night, Murphy and team ESPN declared themselves pleased. "I thought watching TV guys work for more than three hours might start to drag," Murphy says. "But, for the most part, the pacing went very well."