This Thursday past, September 16th, I was afforded the opportunity to tag along with some fellow bloggers as a guest of Fox Sports Midwest to the Cardinals’ game against the Padres that evening.
The game was fantastic, but far from the highlight of the evening (even though the Cards won, an increasing rarity). Daniel of C70 at the Bat had once again parlayed his fantastic networking skills (see: UCB and BBA) into an ongoing dialogue with Geoff Goldman, Media Relations Manager for Fox Sports Midwest. That dialogue translated into an invitation for Daniel – and by extension, myself and Mike from Stan Musial’s Stance – to visit with various members of FSMW’s team and go behind the scenes of their production before the game. Didn’t take long to accept that invite…
Our day at the park started innocently enough – we were instructed to meet Geoff at the Press Entrance of Busch Stadium – and it was a gorgeous day to boot. From there it became and remained surreal.
Geoff made his way to meet us by the Press Entrance, greeted us, and then asked, “Have you gotten your credential yet?”
“Well, uh, no – we haven’t.”
Off to the window we went, where we were greeted with a smile, a request for identification – and then rewarded with a “TV Technician” credential for the evening’s game. With that, we were through the doors and wide-eyed.
The first brief stop within “the innards” of Busch III was for Geoff to point out the media dining room (where we would return later) and the door down the hall that was most definitely off limits – the Cardinal clubhouse.
We proceeded outside, through the player parking lot to where the massive high-definition television production trucks were located. (This also began the comedy portion of the evening, as Mike and I quipped: “Daniel, I don’t think photos of the players’ license plates are going to be fair game for a blog post.” Don’t worry, he didn’t. We kid, we kid.) There was a truck for each broadcast, one for San Diego’s feed/station, and one for FSMW. There can be up to three if a national broadcast is involved, there can be as few as one – there is usually a visitor’s area within each truck, and Fox affiliates typically share the home team’s truck when possible. For what it’s worth to you videophiles, the Fox truck is an MU11HDX.
Once inside the truck, we met producer Mike Helling and director Tom Mee. We also met the screens. The many, many, many screens.
Tom and Mike told us about their long history together, the great relationship they have with each other and their crew, and their goals for each evening’s telecast to “show the viewer something they’ve never seen before.” For effect, Tom had the tape guys (it’s only a moniker anymore, there’s no tape in there) queue up a fantastic X-MO clip of a Brendan Ryan throw across the diamond to show us something we’d not seen before – and given the current limitations of the X-MO technology, might not see again in the near future. The slo-mo camera they have for the X-MO shots is very expensive and is mobile in the stadium – so the operator must be in the right spot at the right time to catch the right shot. Makes those X-MO shots we see during the regular broadcasts that much more impressive.
The details that go into these broadcasts were particularly fascinating for me – both because of the tech geek in me and because of rabid curiosity about how it can all flow together seemingly so easily.
There was a bank of laptops and screens to our left that was the “graphics department” of the truck, producing all of the pop-up boxes and stat packages we see throughout the broadcasts.
Tom and Mike also gave us a look at the various stat packages that are assembled for their crew for the evening – some portions are put together to match footage they have, some are chosen by their resident stat guy in the truck, some are suggested by the on-air talent, etc – long story short, they’ve got STATS, Inc. pulling a packet of tidbits for them every night to keep the viewer interested and pull all of the airtime together into a tidy story.
To our right was a single computer, with a screen that could have just as easily been showing a baseball simulation game, that controls the “Fox Box” – the little omnipresent box itself, the line score, the “due up” lists, etc – it was all there. A few clicks, constantly updating statistics, and punching in runs and hits – ladies and gentlemen, your Fox Box.
So back to the “putting things together” part – Tom and Mike told us they had 52 drop-ins for the announcers (Dan McLaughlin and Al Hrabosky) that night. In other words, there are 52 straight advertising reads, or sponsored segments, or stats “brought to you by” for that evening’s game. They guesstimated that number is in the top two or three in the league. Interestingly, they made mention of how quickly some of the Cardinal pitchers work and trying to squeeze all of those in “in the flow” rather than overwhelming the viewer – wonder how they fared during Monday’s 1:52 contest?
Because of my plight outside the regular viewing area – I was curious about their integration with MLB.tv (there really is none, MLB Advanced Media just picks up their feed) and with “live look-ins” and highlights and such. They don’t even know when MLB Network or ESPN is looking in – those outlets merely pick up the feed and maybe they find out later – nothing changes in the broadcast, nothing changes in the truck.
One final note on “putting things together” – Tom and Mike talked a lot about camera locations, and what a great job their guys do getting certain shots and knowing what each one should be looking for on certain plays during the game. “New” Busch Stadium has had it’s time to work out the kinks now, so I asked what was different between the new park and shooting games at the old park.
I’m not sure what I expected, but I got rolling eyes. “We had to make some changes.”
Tom went on to explain to us that there were various issues with the stadium, when it first opened, that directly impacted the sight-lines for their cameras and were changed after the park had opened. The center field camera well was originally slightly off-center, which didn’t play well on television when filming at-bats. Tom had the camera moved to the top of the batter’s eye, dead center. There were vertical elements in the railings around the dugout camera wells that prevented cameras from panning full left and full right.
The problem (at least for television) Tom and Mike said, is that every stadium is different, every field has a different shape. As such, there are no “standard” camera locations. The NFL has the same size and shape field everywhere, and the league mandates camera locations in the stadiums. MLB does not. So when a new stadium opens, the focus is on seat sight-lines, wide concourses, and the fan experience – and largely with good reason – but they often neglect to take into account any input or feedback from the camera guys. The last comment on the stadium subject was that they are able to get better shots from the dugout camera wells at Wrigley than at Houston’s Minute Maid Park. Wow.
Sometime in the middle of our time in the truck, FSMW Executive Producer Kevin Landy had joined our visit, and Kevin was very complimentary of the work that both Mike and Tom do every night – not just their live show, but the preparation that goes on after-hours every night – or arriving at an 11am crew call for a 7pm game – it clearly requires a well-oiled machine to pull off an entire broadcast for one evening, much less for an entire season.
With our evening just beginning and a lot left on the slate before game time, we bid adieu to Tom, Mike, and the rest of their crew – not without our copies of Cutting the Game (if you’ve read Daniel’s posts, or continue to read here, you’ll notice a theme) – and headed back into the stadium.
Sincere thanks to Tom Mee, Mike Helling, and the rest of their crew for allowing us to invade their cozy space and get a glimpse at how a broadcast goes together – we plan to take you up on that offer of watching a game from your seat guys!