The Hardest Job in Football

For millions of football fans watching at home every Sunday, it seems as though NFL games make a seamless transition from the gridiron to the television screen. But spend a weekend with a network production crew, and you’ll discover what it really takes to turn the on-field action into televised entertainment—intense preparation, frantic effort, brilliant improvisation, and an artistic genius named “Fish.”
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Mark Peterson/Redux

If you were one of the millions of Americans watching NFL football on Sunday afternoon, September 21, 2008, you might have caught the humdinger of a finish to the New York Giants–Cincinnati Bengals game. At the two-minute warning, the winless Bengals were up by four points, but the Giants were threatening: they had the ball inside the Bengals’ 10, poised to score what looked like the winning touchdown.

Most of the people who witnessed this seesaw battle were watching on CBS. The capacity crowd in Giants Stadium was 79,276 that afternoon, but was less than 1 percent of the game’s total audience. More than any other professional sport, football is primarily a television show. Many die-hard fans have never even attended a contest in person. For them, a football game is something that unfolds on their screen in a smooth and familiar way, so commonplace that few give it a second thought. The broadcast arrives in their living room, packaged in stereo sound and in full-color high-definition, shown from constantly shifting angles, from stadium-embracing wide shots to intimate close-ups, all of it smoothly orchestrated and narrated, and delivered up as though from the all-seeing eye of the supreme NFL fan, God Almighty.

But let’s give it a second thought. Consider for a moment the complexity of a mere snippet of what you might have seen on the tube that Sunday afternoon:

In the seconds between the return from the two-minute-warning commercial break and the snap of the ball to Giants quarterback Eli Manning, as play-by-play man Greg Gumbel quickly oriented the audience—It has been a dandy here at Giants Stadium. Two minutes to play. Bengals by four. Giants at the six-yard line. Second and goal. The Giants have one time-out remaining—the following scene-setting images flashed past in rapid succession:

* A high, wide shot of the stadium and the walls of cheering fans;

* Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer watching anxiously from the sidelines;

* Bengals coach Marvin Lewis looking perplexed on the sidelines;

* Giants coach Tom Coughlin, head down, talking intently into his headset microphone;

* On the field, a close-up of Bengals middle linebacker Dhani Jones pointing urgently to his teammates and shouting, positioning them for the snap;

* Manning shouting and gesturing behind center;

* Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress lined up in the slot, poised, looking back toward Manning; and

* A wide shot showing the complete line of scrimmage as the ball is snapped and the play begins.

Roll back to the beginning of this brief sequence, and here is how it sounded inside the windowless production trailer parked outside the stadium, where two rows of technicians sat beneath the glow of 100 TV monitors, 20 screens across stacked five deep. Staring at this wall were three men: producer Mark Wolff on the left; technical director Dennis Stone on the right; and between them the show’s impresario, its director, Bob Fishman, known as “Fish.”

Just before coming back on air from the commercial, the crew counted down in unison:

“Five!”

“Four!”

“Three!”

Wolff shouted, “Fish is going to cut some shots!”

“Two!”

“One!”

“Aaaand go!” shouted Fish, a wiry man in faded blue jeans and a loose-fitting, long-sleeved cotton shirt, a headset clamped over a baseball cap. He was leaning up and out of his swivel chair, choosing shots and barking orders, arms elevated, snapping his long fingers loudly with each new command. “Go fan shot! Ready four. Take four! Ready eight. Take eight! Ready one. Take one! Ready 12. Take 12! Ready five. Take five! Ready thre—ready two. Take two! Ready three. Take three!”

Camera three, which Fish returned to just before the snap of the ball, offers a wide angle from above that’s used to frame the play. In this case, with one eye on the play clock, Fish snuck in one last scene-setting image—Burress lined up and looking back toward his quarterback—before returning to the wide angle as the ball was snapped.

This was just 30 seconds. The entire broadcast would last more than three and a half hours.

If the production crew of a televised football game is like a symphony orchestra, Bob Fishman is its conductor. He sits front and center in the dark trailer, insulated from the sunshine and the roar of the crowd, taking the fragments of sounds and moving images and assembling the broadcast on the fly, mediating the real event into the digital one. He scans the dizzying bank of screens to select the next shot, and the next, and the next, layering in replays, graphics, and sound, barking his orders via headset to his crew, plugging into a rhythm that echoes the pulse of the game.

Every bit as much as the athletic contest on the field, this is a performance, an improvisation, a largely unheralded art form peculiar to the modern age. Wolff is in charge of the broadcast; Gumbel and analyst Dan Dierdorf are its voices and faces, but their work exists to complement the show Fish orchestrates onscreen. Having once seen him in action, having peeked behind the curtain in the Palace of Oz, I can hardly watch any other sporting event on TV without picturing this frantic, sinewy 59-year-old man calling shot after shot after shot, half-sitting and half-standing, the dervish behind the professional program smoothly unspooling in your living room and in your brain.

Recently, some cable and satellite companies began offering viewers a chance to, in effect, direct their own experience of a game by selecting camera angles, isolated shots, and replays as they wish. This may satisfy a few eccentric fans who prefer, say, to watch a middle linebacker’s–eye view for an entire game, but it suggests a failure to grasp the level of difficulty involved in what happens in that production trailer every Sunday. The television crews don’t just broadcast games, they inhabit them. They know the players, the teams, the stats, and the strategies. They interview players and coaches the day before the game. They brainstorm, anticipate, plot likely story lines, prepare graphic packages of important stats, and bundle replays from previous contests to bring a sense of history and context to the event. They are not just pointing cameras and broadcasting the feed, they are telling the story of the game as it happens.

And at the center of their effort is the director, Fish, who seems a more agreeable version of the finicky, exasperated comedian Larry David, whom he resembles, right down to the CurbYour Enthusiasm logo on the baseball cap he wears pulled down to his eyebrows. He peers out at the world through wire-rimmed glasses; plays guitar in a group of aging rockers; and loves to talk music, film, politics, journalism … but mostly, he loves to talk sports. He has won 11 Emmys, and justly so: for those who regard Sunday afternoons in football season as sacred, Fish is nothing less than a high priest.

His camera operators revere him. Out of Fish’s earshot they have nothing but praise for him, and this from men (and one woman) with the blue-collar worker’s hearty, time-honored disdain for the boss.

“Most of them are assholes,” said one, sitting at a round table with four fellow operators, who all nodded in agreement.

“Fish is the best,” the same cameraman explained.

“He appreciates what you bring to the job,” said another.

“Suppose a defensive back makes an interception,” said the first. “At some point, I know, they are going to want to come back to a close-up of him. So when I know they are on another shot, I’ll use those seconds to start panning up and down the sidelines, looking for him. Fish knows what I’m doing. Another director might say, ‘We don’t need that now,’ and they wouldn’t say it nice, either. I’m thinking, No shit, but you’re going to ask for the shot in 45 seconds, and you’re going to get pissed off if I spend 15 seconds panning around looking for the guy.”

“He never gets excited,” says another, “and he has this ability to see everything. If you have a good shot, he not only notices it, he uses it. Other directors might say, ‘Wow, that’s really nice,’ and never work it into the broadcast. Fish pulls the trigger.”

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Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. His most recent book is The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

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