By David Davis
There was less than one minute remaining in Super Bowl XLIII in 2009. The Pittsburgh Steelers trailed the Arizona Cardinals by three points, but they were mounting a final, desperate rally. The ball rested on the 6-yard line. Every fan inside Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, all 70,774 of them, were standing and screaming.
In the parking lot next to the stadium, NBC Sports director Drew Esocoff stared at a bank of television monitors arrayed on a wall inside a gigantic production truck. At his command were 52 cameras positioned throughout the venue, images from which flickered on the screens in front of him. In his earpiece, Esocoff could hear the voices of announcers Al Michaels and John Madden describing the action to the 98.7 million Americans watching on television.
The ball was snapped, and Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went back to pass. Esocoff peered at the monitor showing the live shot of the game while letting his peripheral vision soak in the images flashing on the surrounding screens. He watched as Roethlisberger set himself and hurled the ball toward wide receiver Santonio Holmes, who stretched for the pass in the back corner of the end zone before being pummeled to the turf.
The play ended so abruptly that it was impossible to tell, in real time, what had happened. The fate of the Super Bowl was in the balance: Had Holmes managed to catch the ball and get both feet down, inbounds, and in the end zone, or not?
As Michaels and Madden began to debate the issue, Esocoff and producer Fred Gaudelli replayed over and over the sequence from multiple angles and perspectives: from an overhead camera and from both sides of the end zone; from a high-speed camera on a sideline cart that showed the play in super slow motion; from a handheld camera that gave a “defining shot” of Holmes with his feet in the end zone—barely—and clutching the ball.
Then, in a series of rapid-fire cuts, Esocoff used his other cameras to expand the story line. As the two teams awaited the final verdict, Esocoff followed the referee who was consulting a video monitor on the sideline to study the replays captured by the camera crew, then showed reaction shots from the opposing sidelines. Finally, after the referee ruled that the pass was complete, Esocoff toggled between thrill-of-victory and agony-of-defeat shots.
“The losers are sometimes a better visual than the winners,” Esocoff later explained. “We try to pay attention to both sides of every story because you don’t want to get sucked into the mentality that it’s all about the winners.”
Esocoff and his directing peers at Fox and CBS occupy a unique niche. Their three-hour live broadcasts are among television’s most valuable properties. Every week they entertain tens of millions of viewers during the National Football League’s 16-game regular season schedule, the playoffs, and the Super Bowl. In addition, because the footage produced by their cameras helps determine the outcome of each game, everyone with a stake in the NFL—players, coaches, officials, league executives, team owners, media, fans, and fantasy football players—scrutinizes every frame of their work as if it were the Zapruder Film.
It’s a juggling act that requires, simultaneously, intense preparation, artistry, and the ability to improvise under real-time conditions. “Directing the NFL is all about servicing the viewer,” Esocoff explains. “It’s about the personalization of the players and keeping everything focused on the field as best you can. It’s about the documentation of the game—that’s why people watch.”
Directing professional football has come a long way since its inauspicious debut in October of 1939, when the Brooklyn Dodgers defeated the Philadelphia Eagles. From inside a mobile unit parked outside Ebbets Field, director Burke Crotty had two iconoscope cameras at his disposal—and the camera positioned on the field was immobile. The game was shown only on NBC’s experimental station W2XBS in New York; perhaps 1,000 people viewed the broadcast.
The short-lived DuMont Television Network showed NFL games during the mid-1950s, before CBS took over the NFL’s broadcasting chores in 1956. At the time, baseball was the No. 1 sport in the United States. College football was much more popular than the professional version. The Super Bowl and its Roman numerals did not exist, nor did sideline reporters and halftime shows featuring pop stars and “wardrobe malfunctions.” Instant replay had yet to be invented.
Then came the game that changed everything, what is often called the “Greatest Game Ever Played.” The date was Dec. 28, 1958. The place was Yankee Stadium, where the New York Giants were hosting the Baltimore Colts for the NFL Championship.
NBC used four stationary cameras—five, if you count the fixed camera aimed at an easel with cards that read “First Quarter” and the like. The control booth was set up in the back of a van in a parking lot outside the stadium. The game did not pause for TV commercials, and no microphones were allowed on the field to record the sounds of the players. Viewers saw the action in black and white.
“By today’s standards, it was a nothing broadcast,” remembers pioneering director Tony Verna, who began directing live sports events in the late 1950s and earned a DGA Lifetime Achievement Award for sports in 1995. “It was quaint.”
At a crucial moment late in the game, the rocking of the stadium knocked out an electrical cable, causing television screens across the nation to blacken. An NBC employee ran onto the field, pretending to be a deranged fan, so as to delay the proceedings and enable the network’s technicians to re-establish their live feed with only one missed play.
Still, an estimated 45 million fans tuned in for the Colts-Giants game. It opened the media’s eyes—as well as the “mad men” selling advertising on Madison Avenue—to the awesome potential of the NFL. “A seismic shift in the American sports landscape had clearly begun,” commented Michael MacCambridge, author of America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation.
Charged with capturing pro football’s unique combination of physical mayhem and emotional resonance was a new generation of Guild sports directors, including Verna and CBS colleague Bob Dailey, NBC’s Ted Nathanson and Harry Coyle, and ABC’s Andy Sidaris, Jack Lubell, Bill Bennington, and Malcolm Hemion (brother of noted TV director Dwight Hemion). They faced myriad logistical challenges—besides, that is, filming in subzero temperatures in Green Bay and Chicago during December. Unlike in baseball or basketball, helmets and face masks hide football players’ facial expressions. Multiple cameras are needed just to cover the breadth of the playing surface (which measures 120 yards long by 53 yards wide). Most important, in a sport based on sophisticated and well-choreographed offensive and defensive schemes, directors could not isolate on individual matchups—the game within the game—with their “high” cameras positioned above the field.
“The wider you are [with your cameras], the better you can document what’s happening competitively,” says longtime director Doug Wilson, who started with ABC’s Wide World of Sports in the early 1960s. “But that’s less exciting for the viewer because you lose the sense of speed and intimacy. The challenge for the football director is to have the audience feel intimate with the game and, at the same time, be wide enough to show what’s going on.”
That dilemma was exacerbated by the power of lenses in the early 1960s—or, rather, the lack thereof. “When we first started, I don’t think [the zoom lens] was even 20-to-1,” says Wilson, a DGA Lifetime Achievement in sports honoree in 1993. “You didn’t have the opportunity, with the camera on the coverage side of the field, to pick out the eyeballs of the coach on the other side. Today, that’s just magic in terms of telling the story of the game. We take all that for granted now.”
In those early years, Verna says, NFL teams were reluctant to embrace television. “It was very difficult to do anything innovative,” he says, “because the climate was different. The teams didn’t give [our camera operators] good positions on the field. We didn’t have the freedom to move around. Our cameras were on turrets that were bolted down.”
The directors also had to deal with the downtime between plays, often as long as half a minute. “They used to show both teams’ huddles for the whole 30 seconds,” says the late Joe Aceti, the 2006 DGA Lifetime Achievement in Sports Direction recipient, who directed football for CBS, NBC, and Fox. “That gets dull. It’s called television for a reason. It’s about pictures. You want to see pictures of action.”
In an effort to make the broadcasts more exciting, Verna, an inveterate tinkerer, began experimenting with a supply of newly minted Ampex videotape machines. (Television had moved to videotape from film in the late 1950s.) In December of 1963, just days after the televised coverage of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Verna unveiled the feature that would revolutionize football, and sports, on TV: instant replay.
Its inaugural use was anything but smooth. During CBS’ broadcast of the annual Army-Navy football game, Verna “instantly” replayed a touchdown run that had just been scored. As the black-and-white pictures flickered onscreen, announcer Lindsey Nelson screeched: “This is not live! Ladies and gentlemen, Army did not score again!”
Aceti remembers that, during the mid-1960s, “it was hell doing replays during live telecasts because it took so long. The tape was 2 inches wide, and you couldn’t see the picture when the tape was rewinding. You had to find it, queue it up, then back off 10 seconds to allow the tape to lock in [during playback]. You didn’t have time to get a lot of replays on the air, except at halftime.”
As the technology improved, directors integrated more isolation shots and replays (oftentimes in slow motion) into their broadcasts. This gave TV viewers unique angles on the action—and announcers more fodder to explain the strategic matchups. “Fans on the couch could see what actually happened during the play: how the receiver got open, how the offensive line blocked,” says Verna.
Watching football on television began to outstrip the experience at the stadium. And, during the 1960s, money cemented the symbiotic relationship between professional football and television. NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle persuaded CBS to pay $4.65 million for the annual rights to broadcast the league’s games in 1962. Just two years later, CBS agreed to pay $14.1 million per season, with the money equally divided among the league’s teams. Meanwhile, ABC was televising the fledgling American Football League under a five-year, $8.5-million contract that ensured its survival. In 1965, NBC wrested away the AFL package with a five-year deal worth a reported $42.5 million.
“The NFL and television—it’s a marriage,” says Aceti. “Pro football is the biggest moneymaker in all of sports. And, without tele-vision, the NFL wouldn’t be half the moneymaking machine that it is.”
In 1966, after the NFL and the AFL merged, Rozelle matched the two league champions in a winner-take-all playoff. For the TV rights to this new title game, he persuaded NBC and CBS to each pay $1 million. They agreed to simultaneously broadcast the game, using CBS’ feed, on Jan. 15, 1967.
Dailey handled CBS’ directing effort, while Nathanson, who received a DGA Lifetime Achievement in Sports Direction award in 1991, helmed for NBC. According to Brought to You in Living Color: 75 Years of Great Moments in Television & Radio From NBC by Marc Robinson, “Nathanson arranged to have as big a TV set as could be found mounted in the mobile production truck. He trained a camera on the screen, occasionally zooming in and beaming that tighter shot over the air. The confused CBS crew apparently couldn’t figure out how NBC managed to get its ‘exclusives.’”
The contest between the Green Bay Packers and the Kansas City Chiefs was played at a neutral site: the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. It didn’t come close to selling out, even with tickets priced at $12, $10, and $6. CBS charged $85,000 for a one-minute commercial. (In 2011, Fox sold 30-second advertising spots for Super Bowl XLV for approximately $3 million.)
Thus was born the first edition of what became known as the Super Bowl. The idea did not catch on, Wilson says, until January of 1969, when quarterback Joe Namath and the New York Jets defeated the Baltimore Colts. “That was a major jump forward in the appreciation of the Super Bowl,” he says. “From then on, it passed the World Series as the No.1 sports event for the country.”
Perhaps no figure was responsible for inventing modern sports on television more than Roone Arledge, ABC Sports chief and a Guild member from 1960 until his death in 2002. In a 1966 Sports Illustrated interview, he recalled, “When I got into it in 1960, televising sports amounted to going out on the road, opening three or four cameras and trying not to blow any plays…. We began to use cranes, blimps, and helicopters to provide a better view of the stadium, the campus, and the town. We developed handheld cameras for close-ups…. We asked ourselves: If you were sitting in the stadium, what would you be looking at? So our cameras wandered as your eyes would. Sound had been greatly neglected too. All they used to do was hang a mic out the window to get the roar of the crowd. We developed the rifle-type mic. Now you can hear the thud of a football when it is punted.”
Beginning in 1970, Rozelle and Arledge leveraged the league’s popularity and began airing the NFL in primetime. Arledge positioned Monday Night Football as more than just another game. It was “football as entertainment,” as he put it. “Football at night under the lights, helmets gleaming, uniforms dazzling. Even cheerleaders looked better under the lights.”
Arledge charged director Chet Forte, a DGA Lifetime Achievement in Sports Direction winner in 2000, with making MNF look different. Forte fought the league to allow better access for his handheld and sideline cameras and employed a two-unit, nine-camera crew at a time when NBC and CBS were using five cameras. Said Forte, in an interview from 1972, “What I wanted to do on Monday Night Football was get away from the conformity of CBS and the dictum they laid down for their directors: a wide shot to a tight shot, a wide to a tight, over and over. I wanted to gain impact with enormous close-ups. I wanted to see all the action bigger…. More meaning by going tighter. It’s a little more strain on the cameramen, but they never complain.”
Forte developed his own style and was more concise and exact in the way he followed the action. And, of course, on Monday Night Football he had the advantage of having a broadcast booth unlike any before with the big personalities of announcers Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, and Don Meredith.
“Roone [Arledge] made Monday Night Football a happening,” Wilson says. “He brought celebrities into the booth and pageantry to the games because he knew that would expand the audience beyond hard-core fans.”
The debut of Monday Night Football marked the moment when the NFL crossed over to the mainstream. And, with technological improvements during the 1970s and 1980s, football on TV turned into a director’s medium. The first generation of directors didn’t have the equipment to really capture the game, but with the advent of better cameras and lenses, the development of the Steadicam, and more experienced engineering crews, football broadcasts continued to improve. Eventually, even the NFL, which was initially resistant to granting access to camera crews, let the directors set up where they wanted to.
Sandy Grossman became CBS’ lead director, as Nathanson continued his successful run on NBC. Meanwhile, as the dominance of the Big Three networks faded, the NFL expanded to cable with the emergence of all-sports powerhouse ESPN in the 1980s.
Today, NFL games are seen on CBS, NBC, Fox, and ESPN, which took over the Monday Night Football franchise from ABC. (Disney owns both ABC and ESPN.) Satellite provider DirecTV is part of the mix, and the league owns and operates Culver City, Calif.-based NFL Network, which airs a slate of games on Thursday nights. All of which has meant more work for, and competition among, today’s directors, including Richard Russo and Artie Kempner at Fox, Bob Fishman and Mike Arnold at CBS, and Esocoff at NBC.
These directors still rely on their “high cameras,” positioned above the sidelines, to follow the action on each play. But football on TV in 2011 looks very different from anything Roone Arledge might have imagined. “It’s night and day from before,” CBS’ Fishman says. “When I look back at games from the 1980s and 1990s, it’s like the Dark Ages.”
Fishman and his contemporaries now command an arsenal of digital tools. For instance, on a thin wire suspended above the field are computer-controlled Skycams that require a three-person crew to operate. (The Skycam was invented by Garrett Brown, who also devised the Steadicam.) Directors can opt to freeze and spin the picture 180 degrees to show another perspective. For replays, they can access super slow-motion cameras that shoot up to 1,000 frames per second.
Perhaps the most significant improvement in equipment, Kempner says, involves the power of the Zoomar lenses. “When I started directing [in the 1980s], if you had a 55:1 lens, man, that was big,” he says. “Now, we’ll have eight different 100:1 lenses. We’re able to present the game to the viewer in a way that they’re going to get closer and understand it better. If you really want to see the game, you have to watch it on television.”
The crystal-clear images that appear on viewers’ 60-inch high-definition sets are complemented by an array of graphics packages, including the ubiquitous bright yellow first-down line. The constant clock and score provide fans with up-to-the-second information, while updates from other games crawl at the bottom of the screen. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio system captures a soundscape of bone-jarring tackles.
The high-definition format is “an unbelievable asset,” Russo says. “We’re shooting 16:9 now [versus the long-established 4:3 format], so we’re shooting on a wider screen than before. If a camera operator is isolating on a wide receiver, he has to make sure the [defensive] cornerback is in the frame. At the same time, you have to work the tight shots and the emotional shots, whether it’s on the field or on the sidelines, so that you can bring the players’ reactions to the viewer.”
For directors accustomed to pacing their broadcasts to the rhythm of the game, the technological toys present their own challenge. “The broadcasts are more graphics and effects-driven than ever before,” says Fishman. “You’re always in a hurry to go to the next package, to show multiple replays of the same play, to send it back to the studio for an update.”
Russo, who directed the Super Bowl broadcast in 2011, preaches patience. “The audience doesn’t know where you’re about to go, but the audience knows where you’re leaving,” he says. “If you have a great reaction shot—whether it’s dejection or jubilation—be patient with that. Don’t be in a hurry to go somewhere else. All that matters is the moment.”
NBC’s Esocoff agrees, recalling that, after quarterback Brett Favre threw the last pass of his career in 2010, he stayed with the camera that showed Favre dramatically walking off the field alone. “The best thing that you learn is to slow down. Cutting more isn’t always better, and sitting on a shot for a little longer may be better,” he says.
The networks previously tried to juice their football broadcasts by attaching miniature cameras to players’ helmets and to the referee’s cap. GPS was also used briefly. Those failures showed only the limitations of technology over the human element.
On the horizon is 3-D. “You have to approach it in a different way,” says Arnold, who directed a pre-season game in 3-D last year. “You need different camera positions and have to frame things differently. Extreme close-ups don’t work in 3-D, and you need lower play-by-play positions. If you’re too high, you lose the 3-D aspect.”
Regardless of what technical advances may be ahead, directors preach that old-fashioned preparation trumps digital bells and whistles. Kempner spends the week memo of every player to improve his reaction time in the truck. “When you’re directing live, you have no time to look down at your flip card,” he says. “You’ve got your eyes on the monitors. So, when [announcer] Thom Brennaman says, ‘The tackle was by Gilbert Smith,’ who wears number 92, I can instantly say, ‘[Camera] two, give me 92 blue.’
The director’s most important tool remains his crew. Arnold, who directed Super Bowl XLIV, coordinates every facet of the broadcast with his producer, DGA member Lance Barrow. They spend the week before each game speaking with their associate directors, camera operators and announcers, and the statisticians and graphics experts. They watch hours of game film to learn the offensive and defensive tendencies of the opponents, attend practices of both squads, and interview coaches and key players. They scour team and league websites for updated injury reports and monitor players’ Twitter accounts for any incendiary quotes.
“The producer is like the head coach who formulates the overall game plan,” Arnold says. “The director is like the quarterback. It’s my job to execute the game plan.”
Well before the opening kickoff, Arnold and Barrow coordinate the camera positions inside the stadium. The networks use 8 to14 cameras per game; Sunday night crews employ as many as 20. That number rises during the playoffs, climaxing with more than 50 for the Super Bowl.
“We discuss how we’re going to show the game on TV,” Arnold says, “because we’re trying to put the viewer in the best seat in the house. If one team likes to run the ball, we want to make sure we have cameras isolated in the middle of the line to see how the offensive line is opening up the holes.”
On game day, experienced directors have learned not to shape the broadcast to preconceived notions of how the game will turn out. Inclement weather or an injury can suddenly change the tenor of the action. “You can’t script a live event,” Russo says. “Once they kick off, you have no control. The most important thing is knowing the sport because it’s instinctive. You have to be able to react.”
“It’s a live event, so you only get one shot to get it right,” Arnold says. “I’m not minimizing what a film director does on the set, but if we miss a play, we can’t say, ‘The lighting wasn’t quite right. Can you run it again?’”
Fishman remembers the time his friend Francis Ford Coppola watched him direct from inside the production truck. “Francis said afterward, ‘We have the same job title, but our jobs are completely different,’” Fishman recalls. “He had no idea about the pressure we’re under on every play, how much stuff we’re looking at in real time, with no retakes. Then again, we don’t have to deal with any prima donna actors like Francis does.”
The prima donna factor surfaces only during the Super Bowl, when celebrities flock to the big game to hype their latest project. With producer Gaudelli, Esocoff is already planning NBC’s broadcast of the next annual extravaganza in February. He vows to keep his focus on the field. “We’re going to add cameras and graphics judiciously,” he says. “If you change everything you do just for the Super Bowl, you’re a step behind because what you’re used to looking over there to see is not there anymore. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel.”