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.”

The first major event Bob Fishman directed was the Apollo 17 moon launch on December 7, 1972, when the assigned director fell ill and Fish was the only CBS employee in the NASA press grandstand with a Directors Guild membership card. People noticed that he was good at it. He shifted from news to sports in 1976, and since then he has conducted basketball, football, baseball, auto racing, and Olympic events, as one of a small corps of specialists who assemble and deliver the programs for which the networks pay billions.

Fish grew up in the Virgin Islands, part of a Jewish family that owned a big vacation hotel, a sports-crazy kid with no local teams to follow. For him, pro sports have always been synonymous with television, and like any sincere professional, he cares a great deal about the medium’s aesthetics and standards. Nothing annoys him more these days than broadcasts—he mentions the name of one rival network (Fox) with particular disdain—that exhibit a faddish desire to neglect on-the-field action for reaction shots from the crowd. He cites with particular horror one NCAA play-off game on ESPN when the director routinely cut away from the court after a basket was scored to show fan reactions, and thus missed a historically well-executed full-court press.

“There were seven steals!” he says. “Seven! Five of them resulted in baskets!” The team repeatedly stealing the ball was Kentucky, “and everybody knew that they always applied a full-court press after a basket! The steals were critical to their success in the game, and the audience didn’t even see them!”

It was love at first sight when television met football for the first time, in 1939, in a game between Fordham University and Waynesburg College. Even though there was only one camera, mounted on a platform on the sidelines, the magic was apparent. Fans at home enjoyed a view comparable to those of the coaches on the sidelines, and potential sponsors quickly realized that just as baseball came with built-in commercial breaks between innings, football afforded commercial opportunities between quarters and during time-outs.

Nineteen years later, when almost 50 million people, the largest crowd ever to witness a football game, watched the Baltimore Colts beat the Giants in overtime for the 1958 NFL championship, NBC had four cameras trained on the field, and a fifth pointed at an easel with cards reading First Quarter, Second Quarter, etc. Slow-motion replays and isolated shots were still in the future, but by then the sport and the medium were effectively engaged.

By the time Fish moved from news to sports in the mid‑’70s, the union was complete. Since then, broadcast dollars have helped turn players into multimillionaires and owners into billionaires. The medium has infiltrated the game itself, from TV time-outs, when players mingle aimlessly on the field waiting for commercials to end, to coaches’ challenges that rely on footage from network cameras to revisit questionable referee decisions. On the sidelines, coaches and players scrutinize shots from overhead cameras to study tactics and plot countermoves. Viewers watching at home see virtual bands drawn across the field denoting the lines of scrimmage and the first-down marker, and they can refer anytime to a floating graphic in an upper corner of the screen that displays the score, time remaining, and down and distance.

It’s become so hard to imagine NFL football without television that when a power failure shut down all of CBS’s cameras at a packed Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo earlier this season, just minutes before kickoff, the first reaction from Mark Wolff, the stunned producer in the trailer, was “There’s no way they are playing this game.”

“Mark, there are more than 70,000 paying customers waiting for kickoff in there,” I said. “They have two teams, officials, whistles … Why wouldn’t they play the game?”

“It’s just like a weather delay,” insisted Wolff. “They’ll wait until we have the power back, and then they’ll play.”

That day, Wolff was wrong; they kicked off on time in Buffalo and played much of the game without power, no doubt because CBS had several other regional games to offer its viewers. But if the same thing had happened on a Sunday night or Monday night, or on a play-off weekend, or, God forbid, before the Super Bowl, when the whole world is waiting with its bowls of popcorn, kicking off without the cameras might well have provoked worldwide rioting.

Up to 20 cameras and 40 replay machines are employed in the broadcast of big games, offering views and replays of the action from every conceivable angle. Even with all this, the networks constantly strain to find newfangled gadgets to distinguish their coverage. Cameras have been suspended from cables over the field or, in one silly innovation, mounted on the players themselves—the short-lived XFL’s “Helmet-cam”—which on a running back typically delivered a violently jerky, incoherent swirl of bodies culminating in a close-up of the turf. In the Giants-Bengals game, CBS was experimenting with something called “Flow Motion,” which employs GPS and replay technology to track the movements of players. Fish had used it the previous month while broadcasting U.S. Open tennis, where it charted the labyrinthine path traced by, say, Roger Federer during a long, hard-played point. But the system turns out to have little application to the gridiron, where the only distances that matter are measured by hash marks in the grass.

Cutbacks at CBS have reduced what Fish has to work with in regular-season games. There are the three primary cameras, positioned on platforms at the mezzanine level, peering down over the sideline. These are set 30 yards apart, with camera two in the middle over the 50-yard line. Before each snap of the ball, Fish designates which camera operator will cover the action—generally the one closest to the ball—and the other two operators move their cameras to specific assignments. (One may focus on the defense, for instance, while the other isolates the far receiver.) Camera four is high behind the eastern end zone, and on each play, it frames the middle of the offensive line and then follows the ball, providing another high angle on the action for replay purposes. Camera five sits on a rolling platform behind the visiting bench and moves on a track from one end of the field to the other, giving a field-level view of the action. It is usually positioned about five yards ahead of the line of scrimmage, but when the offense is in the “red zone” (that is, inside the opposing team’s 20-yard line), it sits even with the goal line to provide a clear look at whether the ball crosses over for a touchdown.

These are the basics, cameras one through five, that are used to cover every televised football game, college or pro. The rest are specialty cameras. Six and eight are mounted on three-foot-high platforms behind each end zone, to one side of the goalposts. Camera six is equipped with “Super Slo-Mo,” which during baseball broadcasts can capture the spinning seams of a slider approaching home plate at nearly 90 miles per hour. Fish will sometimes instruct these cameras’ operators to focus on specific players—in this game they were Justin Tuck, the Giants’ gifted pass-rushing end, and Bengals receiver Chad Johnson—in order to put together a video package that summarizes those players’ ups and downs during the game.

Camera seven is roving and handheld, good for close-ups of players and coaches on the sidelines, or of fans in the lower seats, or just to find the eye candy Fish uses to segue into and out of commercial breaks. High at one corner of the end zone is camera 12, or the “slash” camera (since this was just a regular-season game, there were no cameras nine, 10, and 11), which on most plays isolates the slot receiver or, if there is none, the middle linebacker. With the slash camera, camera five, and two of the primary cameras all focusing on individual receivers, it’s pretty much guaranteed that on every passing play, the broadcast will have an isolated shot of the quarterback’s target. On these shots, the camera operators know to frame the receiver from head to toe, and to keep the defender in the picture, so that on replay it’s clear whether the pass catcher’s feet were in-bounds, or whether there was pass interference. (The cameras are operated by a core crew that travels each week with the CBS technicians, and by a handful of local pros who sign on for single games.)

There are other cameras: one called “All-22,” which shoots the whole field from a fixed position high above; one in the booth for when Gumbel and Dierdorf are onscreen; and for this game, one in the blimp hovering over the stadium, which was providing stunning September-afternoon vistas of Manhattan and northern New Jersey. And there’s footage that doesn’t come directly from the cameras—graphics packages, replays, preprepared features about specific players or situations, and so forth—all of which is supervised by Wolff.

But the cameras are all, of course, just tools. The goal is to tell stories with them. The game itself is the primary story, but within it are dozens of subplots. Hence the importance of the pregame sit-downs with players and coaches, which are essentially fishing expeditions for the CBS team—chances to pick up on potential story lines and revealing details that can be worked into the broadcast.

The ideal interviewee is someone like Bengals wide receiver Johnson, a ruthlessly candid player who began his session with Dierdorf, Gumbel, Fish, and Wolff by dramatically asking the Bengals’ PR rep to leave the room. The Giants came into that Sunday riding high—counting their march to the Super Bowl victory the previous winter, they had won six straight games—but Johnson’s Bengals were desperate for a win. They were coming off a losing season, and they’d dropped their first two games. In his conversation with the CBS team the day before the Giants game, Johnson quickly served up a dire prediction: “If we lose tomorrow, we have a chance of going 0-and-8. It don’t get any easier.” (Dire and prescient: the Bengals would not win their first game until the ninth week of the season, over the Jacksonville Jaguars.)

Johnson has a genius for drawing attention to himself. The previous week, he had stirred things up by suggesting publicly that his team’s offense was struggling because of poor pass-blocking by the team’s offensive line.

In the pregame conversation, Dierdorf, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman with deep knowledge of the game, who knew that such comments drive the big men crazy, asked if the Bengals blockers had “gotten their noses out of joint.”

“They better not. Get mad at what?” Johnson asked. “This ain’t no fucking time to be sensitive! It’s time to play. If they ain’t blocking, my ass is gonna look bad.”

Johnson, who had yet to catch a touchdown pass in 2008, had also engineered a stunt guaranteed to keep him on the flapping lips of every sports-talk radio and TV host in the country. He had legally changed his name to a Spanish version of the number on his jersey, 85. He was now officially “Ocho-Cinco,” although the NFL marketing division had ruled that the name on his uniform would have to stay “C.Johnson” unless he wanted to reimburse Reebok for its stock of unsold jerseys with that name stitched on the back.

Dierdorf and Gumbel pounced on the name change.

“What do you do when somebody goes, ‘Oh, there’s Chad Johnson!How do you respond to that?” Dierdorf asked.

Johnson just shrugged and smiled.

“Do you say, ‘No, that’s not my name anymore’?”

“No,” Johnson said, shaking his head with disbelief. “I’m not that serious about it, man.”

“What do you want us to call you tomorrow?” Dierdorf asked.

“It’s on you.”

“It’s your life,” Dierdorf said. “Your name.”

“Hey, it’s not that serious!” Johnson protested, dismayed at having to explain the joke. “Call me Chad.”

“Did you have your credit cards and driver’s license changed?” Gumbel asked.

Johnson looked pained—a wit trapped in a world with no sense of humor. “No, man, I did it to have the name changed on my jersey, that’s it. And they messed it up. I’m not sure what they’re doing, I just know that they boosted sales of my jersey back to No. 1. It’s a money issue.”

Then Ocho-Cinco, or Johnson, or Chad, ever the showman, left the broadcasters with a tantalizing tip for their broadcast.

“Here’s a hint,” he said. “The first play of the game. I’ll leave it at that. Don’t tell anybody.”

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Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. 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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