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Behind the screens: Third team has control of today's game
Sunday, January 23, 2011

Your job today is easy. You only have to look at one television screen.

Sitting in a trailer plugged into the back of Heinz Field will be Lance Barrow, producer of CBS Sports' telecast of this evening's AFC championship between the Steelers and the New York Jets. He and director Mike Arnold will be leaning forward on their consoles facing 21 flat screens that can project more than 180 images.

They decide what you will see on your TV.

The game action, the instant replays, file footage, close-ups and assorted graphics flash before them on feeds from more than 40 camera operators and various technicians.

"Mike Arnold will be calling the camera shots showing the live action," Mr. Barrow said. "As the producer, I'm in charge of getting you the rest of the broadcast. My main focus during the game is watching videotape and graphics."

The two men have been with CBS Sports since the early 1980s and have more than a dozen Emmy Awards between them. Game broadcasters Jim Nantz and Phil Simms are the faces of the show. Mr. Barrow, Mr. Arnold and more than 250 other men and women help them tell the story.

Their headquarters is a behemoth truck that they haul across the country.

Today's telecast is the final one of the season for CBS -- Fox will televise the Super Bowl this year -- and Sean McManus, president of CBS News and Sports, said the network is looking to make it something special.

That means more equipment and more operators than at any other game this season. There will be 20 microphones and 32 replay machines. And cameras. Cameras everywhere. In addition to all the standard positions from the field to the broadcast booth, there will be handheld cameras and high-speed cameras, skycams and Steadicams, robotic cameras on the goal posts and one fixed to the wing of a plane overhead.

"We use all the cameras to get as many reaction shots as we can and whether the ball has crossed the plane of the goal line, all those things," said Mr. Barrow, who also is responsible for the replays that the referees view. Today they'll have a Steadicam strapped to a cameraman along the sideline who will run with a play to capture the movement smoothly, he said.

"We want to make sure we have every angle possible to show what is happening."

The crew in Pittsburgh this weekend is the one that does the one game designated for a nationwide audience out of the half-dozen or so CBS televises each week during the regular season: The same broadcasters, the same technicians, the same truck.

"This is our truck, no matter where we go, from Week One to the AFC championship this year or last year to the Super Bowl," Mr. Barrow said. "This truck was built for our NFL games. It's the most expensive and the biggest truck in television production.

"We try to keep it quiet in here, but sometimes the energy level can get a little bit out of control. Everybody in this truck can listen to four or five or six different voices at once." The people inside the truck are connected to the broadcast booth, the camera operators and other people in the field.

Built for the network's telecast of Super Bowl XLI in 2007, the truck is as large as a tractor-trailer.

The equipment is state-of-the-art, but otherwise it's fairly sparse inside. There's a coffee-maker on the counter.

Last week the truck was in New England. Last month it was in Pittsburgh for the Steelers-Jets regular-season game, one of many visits it has made inside the gates behind Heinz Field.

"We do a lot of Pittsburgh games, either here or away, so our crew knows the Steelers, and we know this stadium," Mr. Barrow said. "We know our way around here. The Steelers are always good and they're always in a big game."

The familiarity makes for a comfort zone. The crew knows the people, the hotels, the restaurants. When they need something, whether its high-tech wiring or hand-warmers, they know who to see or where to go.

Mr. Barrow, 55, is a clear presence in the truck. A solid man from Fort Worth, Texas, he is the personification of a network sports producer, so much so that he was cast in the golf movie "Tin Cup," sitting in the broadcast truck wondering what Kevin Costner's character was trying to prove.

He doesn't believe in luck. He stresses preparation. If one of his people gets a great shot, it's because that person was talented and doing his or her job.

They choreograph many elements of the broadcast ahead of time. "If it's snowing Sunday night, I might show a super-slow-mo replay of somebody handing the ball off where it doesn't really show much of a play but the way the snow looks," Mr. Barrow said.

They meet with players and coaches to discuss the game and spend hours brainstorming.

At the same time, he knows they can't work from a script.

"It's not a show, it's a football game. It's live television," Mr. Barrow said. "I don't know what's going to happen from one moment to another. You've got to be able to react.

"On every play, everyone will have an assignment on what they're supposed to do. Last week, for example, we got [Jets coach] Rex Ryan running down the sideline. The camera operator, Jim Kimmons, was isolated on him. Obviously, he didn't know Rex Ryan was going to start running down the sideline." The operator took off after him. "He got a great shot that will be shown for years and years to come, long after we're gone out of the business.

"Those are shots that great camera operators will get. And every few weeks they get run over by a player who goes running out of bounds."

And when they get the great shots, they try to sell them, he said.

"It's my decision on replays. It's my decision on graphics. It's other guys' job to sell me a graphic or a replay. Same thing with camera operators. They're trying to sell Mike Arnold a certain shot that they think is good," he said.

The specialization goes down a fine level: one guy's main job is getting in and out of commercials, he said.

And during those commercials, the work never stops.

"There's literally a thousand things that can happen in a minute and 50 seconds," Mr. Barrow said. "You have to make a snap-of-the-finger judgment that you want to take that shot or not. That's what makes this job so exciting.

"I can't wait to be with our crew each week. It's like traveling with your family. I can't wait to do this game. I can't wait to do our next Super Bowl. You get in this business to do the No. 1 sporting event, and that's what you prepare to do.

"I don't worry about our team. Our team will be prepared. Now, we have to see if the two teams on the field live up to how well we're prepared."

Dan Majors: dmajors@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1456.

First published on January 23, 2011 at 12:00 am
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