My night with Fox Sports Detroit – continued

Editors note: This is a continuation of an earlier post. On Friday, July 10th I spent the night with the FS Detroit production crew. All the pregame preparations are done at this point, and it is just minutes before 7:00.

It is about 3 minutes before the the 7 p.m. start of the broadcast and producer Mark Iacofano is soaking up a little bit of fresh air. His chair in the truck is occupied by Chris Wasielewski who is wrapping up the Tigers Live pregame show.

As soon as the clock hits 7:00 the opening title sequence that was prepared 2 hours earlier hits the monitors. When I last saw it there was a nice video montage with the signature Fox Sports music. This time play-by-play announcer Mario Impemba provided the narration that was absent before. And with that we were underway.

My setup was pretty sweet. My home for the next couple hours was right in the middle of the truck. The main production suite was to the left of me and tape-land was to the right. I was also right by the A/C so I was nice and comfortable. I had the desk space that is occupied by the visiting producer when the truck is being shared. Cleveland games are broadcast on Sports Time Ohio and they have their own facilities. I had room to plug-in my laptop, a headset so I could listen to Iacofano and director Brian Maas, and a hook-up to the wireless router in the truck.

The first thing that I observed from having the headset on is that I had no idea what was going on. There was a lot of dialogue and it was all coming very quickly. Every time a camera is switched, that is called by the director. Every time a graphic goes up, that’s another instruction, and those graphics come down as well which means another instruction. Next time you tune into a game take out a blank piece of paper and grab a pencil. Every time something changes on the screen (graphics, replays, camera changes) make a hash mark. At the end of the half inning count up those marks and you’ll get a flavor for how many commands are coming just from the director.

In addition to trying to provide all the visuals, the truck is also responsible for timing the start correctly. It would be nice if the pitcher emerged from the dugout at 7:04, but that’s not always the case. On this particular night Edwin Jackson was running a couple minutes late. The broadcast was back from break, but Jackson wasn’t on the mound yet meaning they couldn’t pop up Jackson’s season numbers on the screen and Allen couldn’t read through them. So Iacofano decides to do the Arby’s spot. He tells Impemba and the Arby’s 3 homer graphic comes up on the screen. While Impemba describes the promotion Maas sees the players taking the field so they cut to that shot and get rid of the Arby’s splash. To the viewer it is seamless. In the truck 35 things just happened on the fly in the last 2 minutes.

Before it even seemed like the game had started, the top half of the first was done as Jackson pitched a 1-2-3 inning. With 2 outs Iacofano is at the ready, and with 2 strikes he’s really ready knowing that the next pitch could end the inning. Ready for what you ask? They need to throw up the score, next batters up, fade to commercial, cut the microphones, and count it down to master control.

Master control is located in Houston and serves kind of as mission control for all Fox Sports broadcasts on a given night. They run the commercials so every break is counted in and out with master control. Occasionally during an inning (a couple times per game usually), master control will ask permission for “a squeeze.” What they are asking for is permission to run the the Fox Sports ticker across the bottom.

Replays that are being captured and logged for later use The bottom of the first inning was uneventful but it gave me a little more time to be less overwhelmed. As I find my groove listening to the headset traffic and trying to take in 8 monitors there is a near collision between Josh Anderson and Magglio Ordonez in right center. This prompts a series of replays as the guys in tape-land just continue to churn through every camera shot looking for things that might have been missed. Plays like the Ordonez/Anderson one get logged in for later use. It’s only the second inning so it’s hard to say what might be important or develop into a story line during the game. Anderson getting a rare start in centerfield and struggling might be something to keep an eye on.

The other thing that this play spurs is a bunch of commentary from the truck about what had just transpired. These guys (and gals) had been all business, but with that play they started to talk like fans, analyzing who’s ball it was and what went almost wrong. This caught me by surprise, and I’m not sure why. I had wrongly assumed that while I was sure these people liked their jobs and baseball, I didn’t expect them to be such fans. The truck would make the same comments many of us would make while sitting and watching the game with friends.

The Tigers break through for some runs in the bottom of the 2nd inning. After back to back singles from Inge and Ordonez Gerald Laird lifts a ball down the right field line. When the ball leaves the bat Maas sees the reaction of the fielders and calls out the appropriate camera. Ryan Garko feebly dives for the ball, and before he even has stopped skidding on his stomach Maas has shouted out “we got that on X-mo” (x-mo is the super slow motion camera usually positioned in the visitors dugout, today it is above third base in the concourse).  Another flurry of replays comes and it is capped off with the perfectly captured X-Mo shot.

I spoke already of the director setting up the broadcast with appropriate video.  While all those commands are flowing out, the director and producer are also listening to the announcers. They are listening both to the audio going over the air as well as talk-back that only goes into their headsets. They have to match the pictures to the stories or analysis provided by Rod Allen and Impemba.

But this isn’t a one way street either. There is a lot to see at a baseball game, and no one person can see it all. Rod and Mario can see the whole field, but can’t see everything happening. Sometimes the truck has a better view with a dozen cameras at their disposal and sometimes catch something that the announcers don’t, like a player in the dugout being tended to by trainer Kevin Rand (like he was taking care of Miguel Cabrera on this night).

There is a tremendous amount of collaboration that takes place with everyone looking to provide the most information to the viewer. During my earlier tour with Iacofano we discussed this collaboration. We talked about a game 2 years ago when the Fox Sports did an isolation on Travis Hafner being too deep in the box. It was something that Allen had noticed and a point that Pudge Rodriguez argued a few pitches later. In that same game Rod and Mario commented on how long Rafael Betancourt was taking between pitches. Next thing you know the truck had a shot of umpire Doug Eddings with a stop watch while Impemba was quoting the rule. These things seem trivial at home, but in the context of everything going on they are remarkable.

Iacofano talked about how Kirk Gibson time after time would pick up on a pitcher tipping pitches – and he’d do it from the booth. They’d go in tight from centerfield and he’d be right time and time again. Announcers can say “dumb things” from time to time, but really, it isn’t as simple as just talking about sports. You have a producer or director in your ear. You’re watching everything, and you’re talking for 3 hours straight. This isn’t a simple task.

And speaking of the producer, he is telling a story himself, and a story with constraints. So much of what comes is completely subtle you’d never notice it. When the Indians got their first hit in the 4th inning the Fox Box switches to the Runs-Hits-Errors scoreboard. When Josh Anderson was rubbing the baseball sized (and marked) welt on his tricep out on second base, it was the perfect time to run a promotion for the Detroit Medical Center.

fsd 008 Speaking of sponsored elements, there are a lot in a game. They all get fit in somehow. Some have set spots, like the Aflac Trivia question (prompted by “cue the duck’”). Others are more dynamic. One of the more popular ones is the Belle Tire Pitch-by-Pitch. It is a matter of looking for the perfect moment to break it out, and sometimes that perfect moment takes a few tries:

  • 5th inning, Miguel Cabrera: Cabrera was up with runners on 1st and 2nd and everything was cued up for a pitch-by-pitch. A 2 pitch ground out wasn’t what they were looking for though.
  • The same drill and same inning only with Marcus Thames this time. A strikeout wasn’t the feel good story that the crew wanted.
  • Shin Soo Choo had walked his first time up. A 3 pitch ground out didn’t really fit the script though.
  • Grady Sizemore came up in the 8th and time was running out but he only saw 2 pitches.
  • Choo was up also in the 8th. This time with 2 runners on and Bobby Seay comes into face him. Seay fans him on 4 pitches and that is the moment worthy of a pitch-by-pitch

If it sounds like I’m a little in awe, it’s because I am. This was a relatively clean and crisp game and broadcast. This crew does almost 150 a year. The baseball season really is a grind, and it goes on for 6 months. And maybe it was the off-day the day before, or the thought of the All Star break coming up, but things stayed light the whole time. After a George Kell package ran, Iacofano produced the rest of the half inning with a rather poor imitation of Kell’s Swifton, Arkansas bred drawl.

After a tenuous non-save situation outing from Fernando Rodney the broadcast was done. Wasieliewski jumps back in the producer chair as the postgame show hits the air. In another 60 to 90 minutes everybody will be on their way home, after spending 10 hours at the stadium.

My night with Fox Sports Detroit

On Friday night I had the opportunity to go behind-the-scenes with Fox Sports Detroit to see everything that went into bringing a Tigers broadcast into your home every night. It probably isn’t a surprise to many, but this isn’t a 3 hour a day job for anyone.

A typical day begins in the early afternoon, and it has to when a live production  includes a dozen cameras, audio, graphics, stats, broadcasters, replay, a producer, a director, and constant communication with master control.

My day with the crew began a little later, at approximately 4 p.m. when I met Fox Sports Detroit PR Director Tim Bryant outside the production truck on Montcalm Avenue. The truck itself is a 9HDX production truck. A semi-trailer that expands out and houses an audio booth, camera control, tape-land, space for a second production team, and the main control area.

The truck is dark and it takes a moment for the eyes to adjust when you step in. Each time door opens it floods the area with light, and at this time of day people are in and out all the time. The other first impression is that the place is cold. The air conditioner was really cranking and it was a welcome break from the heat of the day. But with that many computers and monitors I can imagine it heating up quickly.

Producer Mark Iacofano will be my tour guide inside the truck. I wait as he and director Brian Maas are busy trying to assemble various packages for use during the game. The Cabot Stain Legendary Performance package featuring George Kell is being completed with the guys in tape-land while a graphic to house the video is selected from a large binder.

Many of the bumpers into and out of commercial are prepared ahead of the game, as well as a number of statistical graphics that the crew believes may be relevant for story lines that have already been discussed. They typically prepare quite a few more packages than what will get used in a telecast.

Next up on the monitors is the video and graphics for the broadcast opening, the part that is voiced-over by Mario Impemba at the top of the telecast. It meets with approval from everyone so it is time to move on to the next task.

While this is going on someone from the Tigers runs in a tape of Brandon Inge thanking the fans. I watch the tape, as well as a live feed of Tigers BP that includes Carlos Guillen in the cage and Jeremy Bonderman running.

Particularly challenging for Iacofano and Maas is obtaining a shot of the Edwin Jackson poster which was the Sunday Kids Day giveaway.  Rod and Mario would be promoting the giveaway and they needed visuals. Getting the poster mounted and shot at the right angle and without glare proved to be quite the task.

Iacofano has been doing this for 24 years, the last 12 of which have been with Fox Sports Detroit where he produces Tigers and Red Wings telecasts. With the Jackson poster shot finally secured it is meal break for the crew. This is when Iacofano shows me the lay of the land.

On the far end of the truck is an area that controls the picture being captured by each camera. Things like color and white balance are all controlled from the truck and the task of delivering a crystal clear shot with the proper amount of brightness is called “painting the cameras.” A dream day is a nice even overcast afternoon that is devoid of shadows or changing light. Those days are  the exception though and more often than not adjustments need to be made as the sun gets brighter, or a bank of clouds pass overhead.

fsd 003 Next to this area is tape-land. This is where all the replays that you see are generated from. The name is a misnomer at this point, an artifact from when actual tape was used. Now everything is stored on hard drive. The move to hard disk means everything is instantly available. In the past they would have to wait for the tape to play, then rewind. Here, 3 gentlemen have hands on shuttles as they rewind and fast forward through everything, marking what might be relevant for later use.

fsd 006 The next part of the truck is home to the producer, the director, the technical director (Byron Vivian), the Fox Box operator, and graphics. This is the largest bank of buttons and TV monitors. From here the director calls out instructions (give me 6, font, clear font)to the technical director who then punches the appropriate buttons from a mammoth board of flashing lights. The producer instructs the director as to what is coming next and what to include. These are things like counting in and out of commercial, sponsored events (i.e. Lincoln Mercury X-mo), and generally constructing the story and enhancing it with stats and graphics.

The Fox Box operator (Emily Hetrick) controls the score box in the upper left hand corner. When things like pitch count are displayed, or the upcoming telecast window  flies out of the right hand side of the box, this is coming from the Fox Box. The radar gun is hooked into the Fox Box. At Comerica Park FS Detroit has its own gun, but in some stadiums they are able to use the scoreboard gun.

The graphics folks (Kelly Wehrmeister and Eric Date), well they do the graphics. There are a number of tools at their disposal. They have media guides for both teams, the internet, and Stats Inc is a phone-able resource during the game. There is also a statistician sitting in the booth with Rod and Mario and the group works in concert to produce the numbers and any other graphics that get displayed during a broadcast.

fsd 001 The final area of the truck is the audio booth. It is actually a separate area of the truck with its own entrance. It is a dizzying array of dials and sliders that allow the audio director (Andy Bartley) to cue the music, open and close and level Rod & Mario’s microphones, and manage microphones around the stadium that pick up crowd noise and the crack of the bat.

The truck itself is a feat of engineering. Iacofano points out that things are a little different for baseball, where the truck is parked and setup for a series and it’s set for at least 3 days. But with most other sports the truck rolls in, plugs in, a broadcast goes up, and everything gets unplugged for the next game.

With the tour of the truck complete and the crew on meal break, it is time to head into the stadium. I head down to the field and meet pregame host, and fill-in radio guy, John Keating in the Tigers dugout.

Keating’s prep for the half hour pregame show starts much earlier in the day. Keating pulled out of his bag a manilla folder that is covered in hand-written notes for that night’s show. Guests for the show are already lined up, and pre-taped segments have been completed at this point. The pregame show itself is quite the undertaking. Chris Wasielewski produced this Tigers Live show and his day started at 8:30 am as he laid out that night’s show.

After observing batting practice it was time to head up to the booth to meet Rod and Mario at about 5:45.

Mario gets to the park about 2:45. He settles into the booth after checking in at the production truck and starts to prepare the storylines for that night’s broadcast. These storylines evolve of course based on the information that is gleaned from pregame meetings with players, managers, and discussions with other broadcasters.

Rod gets to the stadium about an hour after Mario and goes through some of the same machinations. Rod will often watch the same video of the starting pitcher that the players do.

The preparation for both broadcasters starts before they even arrive at the park as they spend their mornings reading through a variety of baseball news sources and Allen will commonly pull up mlb.tv to further scout the opposing starting pitcher.

Both announcers were poring through the team issued game notes while we talked and were highlighting and making notes. Impemba had his laptop open with the MLB scoreboard up and ready. He also is a frequent user of baseball-reference.com when it comes to looking up historical data and splits.

During our time together we talked about the recent 16 inning game and the challenges that come with it. On one hand it is a matter of having enough talking points. While there is quite a bit of material packaged, they don’t really plan on a 5 hour broadcast. The game itself takes on its own story though which can help, and a 16 inning game certainly has enough plot twists. However a far more basic problem is concern about a voice giving out. Talking for 5 hours is tough, announcing for 5 hours is another story.

While talking to the duo, someone else entered the booth. Allen asked me, “do you know this guy?” To which I responded, “I don’t know him, but I know who he is.” The gentleman then said, “I’m Willie Horton, it’s a pleasure to meet you.” I was a little dumbfounded at this point and don’t recall what I said but I think it was along the lines of “uh huh.”

It was nearly time for Rod and Mario to rehearse the open and finish prepping for the game so it was time for a quick bite before heading down to the truck to watch the game from a whole new perspective.

[to be continued…]

Mario Impemba provides Opening Day to Armed Forces

This is a note for any DTW readers serving in the Armed Forces (and I know there are some of you out there). It’s also just a nice note regardless:

Transplanted Tigers fans currently serving the United States Armed Forces will now be able to celebrate Opening Day 2009 while on duty, home or abroad. “Operation Opening Day,” a three-hour DVD containing the entire FOX Sports Detroit telecast of the Tigers 15-2 victory over the Texas Rangers on April 10, as well as pre-game festivities and post-game interviews and highlights, is available for all active members of the military.

The DVD is a gift from Mario Impemba, play-by-play announcer on FOX Sports Detroit, in cooperation with the Tigers and Major League Baseball Productions.

“In an effort to bring a piece of home to our men and women serving in the Armed Forces around the world, I’m honored to be able to provide this presentation of Opening Day 2009 and thank all of them for their brave service to our country,” Impemba said. “I hope everyone enjoys the sights and sounds of Opening Day in Detroit, a tradition that dates back over 100 years and brings the city together each spring.”

Soldiers, as well as family and friends of soldiers, can request this special gift at Tigers.com/operationopeningday. Once at the web site, complete the form with a valid military address – APO, SPO or FPO address, military base or ship address. “Operation Opening Day” will be mailed solely to valid military addresses as the gift is intended for the men and women currently serving our country. Quantities are limited and requests will be fulfilled as received.

“Operation Opening Day” is part of the Detroit Tigers year-round support of soldiers and veterans. Each year, the Detroit Tigers hold a special game to honor and recognize the sacrifice of the men and women serving in the United States Armed Forces and those that have served before them. The Detroit Tigers also visit veterans at the Department of Veteran’s Affairs Detroit Medical Center throughout the season.

And fortunately the Tigers put on a heck of a show for the Opener.