Michigan has pulled away from Iowa in a Big Ten quarterfinal game. It’s 65-44 with 7:23 to play. Going to commercial, the Big Ten Network shows a few hero shots of Ignas Brazdeikis flexing. Michigan’s breakout freshman has just made a few fine individual plays.
“Well, we talk about iso-ing on the floor, it also works on TV,” play-by-play man Brian Anderson says. “Keep the camera on that guy.”
But there’s already someone on that. Several someones, it turns out. They’re far away in the bowels of the United Center, inside a production truck. Producer Bart Fox and his crew are working hard to create the best broadcast possible. They’ve been at it for hours, being the guys behind the guys.
“The announcers are the swan above the water, and we’re what’s below,” Fox says.
As producer, he is the point guard. In more poetic terms: the symphony’s conductor. In mechanical: the driver who gets all the moving pieces headed in the correct direction.
There are a dozen people in this workstation, essentially a trailer built out to serve as the nerve center for something far more complicated than the average viewer at home can comprehend. Buttons begat more buttons. Hundreds of dials, flashing lights, and monitors combine to create an intimidating bombast of information. It feels as though something is about to launch up into — or fall down out of — space.
It’s sensory overload, but the professionals seem completely comfortable.
The swan analogy is apt. An iceberg would work too. In that case, the production team is there to make sure the Blue Star Line customers have a pleasant experience. In a best-case scenario, the viewers never think about what lies beneath.
“How can I make it better for Joe in Ohio to observe and enjoy it?” Fox says of his approach to a show. “How can I best serve him?”
Seated next to Fox is director Andrew Bloustein. Nothing happens on the viewers’ television without him pushing a button. On the other side is associate director Sean Meehan. He’s the link to the studio, and deals with commercial timing, as well as handling the promotional cards and sponsored items that must be included. There’s also a technical director, a graphics operator, an associate producer, and a scorebug operator in the room.
Seated in an adjacent area is the tape team, which handles replays and editing. Tucked into a corner is the audio room. Each person has a distinctly different job. All are working toward the common goal.
“It’s all about the team concept in whatever you do,” Bill Raftery, Anderson’s partner, says. “If somebody doesn’t pull their weight, not that it drags the show down to the ground, it just gets a little out of sync sometimes. When it goes smoothly, sometimes you take it for granted because it goes smoothly more often than not. It’s an acceptance of responsibility, a trust that evolves.”
That trust is of paramount importance. Live television is a high-wire act without a net. There is one shot to get it right. The goal is to do that as often as possible. But a slip-up — and there were a few minor ones on this Friday night — is not a free pass to dwell. Things move far too quickly for such a personal privilege.
Broadcasting sports is part pop quiz, part open-book exam. The preparation starts long before warmups begin. Raftery and Anderson have both gone over a few things with Fox before showing up at the United Center in Chicago. Big picture stuff on both teams.
There’s a tacit understanding among all the best-laid plans will change.
“We rehearse with the tools, so we know how to properly use them,” Anderson says. “Be prepared, but be pliable. Go in the direction of the game.”
Tonight’s action features four teams with expressive coaches — Minnesota vs. Purdue (Richard Pitino and Matt Painter) and Iowa vs. Michigan (Fran McCaffery and John Beilein). Fox knows he wants the team of camera operators to hone in on reaction shots, to let the emotion — both verbal and non-verbal — carry the day.
Anderson arrives in the truck nearly two hours before tip to go over notes. The team discusses planned graphics, which are edited and discussed. One is too cluttered. Another could be clearer. Of all conceptualized, maybe five or 10 percent make the air. Still, it’s best to be prepared.
A half-hour out, Fox goes over a few things with Anderson and Raftery at the announcing table. They then rehearse the intro. Things are loose but everything has a purpose.
Ten minutes before the Boilermakers and Gophers tip, there’s heightened focus in the truck. Each minute is counted down, then every second. Six, five, four, three, two, one … it’s showtime.
This is the Big Ten Network’s Super Bowl. For the second consecutive year, they have the first 10 games of the tournament. BTN has been one of the rare success stories when it comes to regional networks. Two of the major reasons will be on display tonight.
One, the passion and zeal of the Midwestern fans. They’ve descended on the city wearing all manner of team spirit and hope.
“We’re working toward this week for months,” senior coordinating producer Alex Bertsche says. Like it is for the teams playing, this is the culmination of BTN’s basketball efforts.
“We’re constantly asking ourselves how we can improve our on-air presentation every year,” senior VP of production Mark Hulsey says. “It’s something that we spend the better part of our summers, just asking how can we get better? I know if you look at who we’re putting on air during the tournament this season, some of the most accomplished, popular announcers in the country and you combine that with equally accomplished people behind the scenes, we feel we are better than we’ve ever been. But we’ll continue to get better every year.
“Our audience needs to know that we know the Big Ten better than anyone. When you watch our games, you should immediately know that we’re embedded with these teams all year. We need to provide the most insightful coverage as possible. No one should know the Big Ten better than us.”
A deep knowledge of the conference is necessary. Two days ago there were two games. Yesterday there were four. Same with today. Familiarity breeds comfort.
What’s jaw-dropping is how sheltered the viewer at home is from it all. There is so much thought, so much energy, and so much work being put in to everything. And if it’s done right, the seams don’t show.
The first thing viewers see tonight is a Big Ten Tournament bracket, which was pared down 90 minutes ago. One of those million decisions. Raftery hammers home the fact Purdue has struggled in neutral site games, as expected. All is going according to plan.
Then it isn’t. The precise countdown to public address announcer Gene Honda’s introductions is obscured when a referee walks into frame.
“Get out of the shot,” someone in the truck says, half-kidding. But truth be told, it would be good if the zebra didn’t show his stripes at that particular moment.
The truck affords a glimpse into all corners of the court and stands. Each camera has a purpose. There’s a consensus that the best stuff usually comes away from the hardwood because there’s very little that happens on it that a person hasn’t seen before.
One of those cameras is the snoop cam, which shows a shot of the broadcast team. Anderson can be seen giving Raftery a friendly tap when the legendary color man drops his signature “man-to-man” line.
“Radio is like a person playing an acoustic guitar and singing,” Anderson says. “Television is a symphony. We’re working in concert, all trying to lead the analyst. When he’s the star, it’s always great.”
After a Jordan Murphy dunk, the tape room gets to work providing replays to roll when time permits. The package ends milliseconds before a free-throw attempt. There’s an admission that this was a particularly close call.
Doctors have the Hippocratic Oath reminding them they should do no harm. Fox tells me the number one rule in the truck is to miss no action.
There’s a linguistic rhythm inside the truck that takes some getting used to.
“X throw time to mo, then X roll time mo is next also on the Y real time,” is a close approximation. Basically, this means three replays are anticipated. It’s a type of code meant to save time, like a reporter feverishly scrawling shorthand in his notebook.
The tone can occasionally be terse, but that’s because there’s not much time for pleasantries. Things need to be done and done now. He who hesitates makes others lose out on the opportunity.
During a timeout, the cameras are afforded access into Purdue’s huddle. Painter is frustrated and his language reflects that. Some of it is unusable. None of it will mean particularly good television. The decision to roll a previously buttoned-up Tom Izzo package upon returning from commercial is made.
Carsen Edwards, Purdue’s heart and soul, is limping. Sideline reporter Andy Katz is dispatched to figure out what’s going on. A dogged search to find the moment it happened is underway. This is why every inch of the court is covered. One never knows which shot will be important.
In this case, the most indelible image comes from a camera mounted in the hallway. It has captured Edwards limping in the hallway. It’s a great payoff for hustle and forethought.
In the truck, the devil isn’t in the details. Salvation is in the details. Hyper-attention is rewarded and distraction punished. Instincts are key and honed through years of experience. They are privy to so many details.
Some can turn it off and experience a broadcast from home without analyzing it. Others can’t. Still others try, but break out of that spell when something particularly good or bad happens. They can anticipate when something is going to go right and, conversely, when something is going to go wrong.
We go on like this. An exciting ending is in store. It’s 75-73 Minnesota. Purdue has the ball with 5.1 seconds remaining. Edwards’ corner triple try missed the mark and the Gophers march into the semifinals.
There is no rooting in the truck. There is certainly hoping though. A buzzer-beater is the white whale and we came so close. Still, the stories must be told.
They’re told this way:
The night is half over. More work is to be done.
Iowa-Michigan begins and it’s a different dance. Both teams come out of the tunnel firing. John Beilein’s huddle embed must be shot from a certain angle. He is far less fiery than Painter, but that makes sense. His team is playing better. The crew identifies some usable sound and turns it around immediately, allowing the viewers inside access.
The Wolverines put some distance between themselves and the Gophers with a big sequence in which Zavier Simpson sinks a hook shot, there’s a big block, and Jon Teske throws down a ferocious dunk.
Fox and the team must decide which of the three plays is better. Can they show all three? Which is the best angle? They do, in fact, opt for the more is more approach.
“Quite a flurry we’ve had here,” Raftery says as the package plays.
The game is out of hand. Michigan will be playing in the semifinals. Iowa will be going home. But this is a content business. An eyeball business. What can be done to keep them?
Well, Simpson is flirting with a tournament record for assists. Graphics are ready. The note is given to the announcers. It’s something to watch for. Anything to keep watching for at this point is helpful. Katz is called in and more big-picture tournament stuff is bandied about. The broadcast is breathing, stretching its legs before it heads out the door and into the chilly Chicago night.
Simpson is yanked from the game. There will be no record tonight. The final seconds tick down. The 136th Big Ten Network basketball broadcast is in the books.
Let’s talk about storytelling. The timeless art. The best ones present as simple and easy to follow and still possess a deep undercurrent of meaning. What people see on their television is a basketball game, a simple thing in which the most points wins. But it’s more than that, so many times, with all the primaries bringing in their unique stories.
That’s easy to comprehend. What’s harder is just how much goes in to making something look simple. There’s so much effort involved in making it look like something is just happening.
The act of watching is passive. The act of broadcasting is intensely aggressive. Things don’t just happen. People — highly skilled and poised — make them happen.
Fox says that 85-90 percent of his job is to listen and let the announcers lead. To give a picture to their words. The other part is to nudge, to lead them in a direction with the imagery. After a night peeking behind the curtain, the same percentage is instructive in understanding. Eighty-90 percent of all games are the same. There’s very little that happens on a court you haven’t seen before.
But the other 10-20 percent is the presentation. The lens through which you view it. And that changes so much. Done expertly, and a person never considers they’re looking through one.