Peek be­hind the scenes of broad­cast a must-see

The Buffalo News - - NHL -

The clock in the up­per­right cor­ner of the Buf­falo Sabres’ tele­vi­sion truck hits 6:28:30 p.m., and the call goes out to dozens of ear­pieces in­side and out­side the Sabres’ arena.

“Ninety sec­onds,” says broad­cast direc­tor Eric Gross­man.

An­nounc­ers Brian Duff and Dan Dun­leavy ad­just their ties. A cam­era fo­cuses too closely on an­a­lyst Rob Ray. Pro­duc­tion man­ager Ja­son Wiese takes a seat be­hind his lap­top and graph­ics ma­chine.

In a flash, it’s 6:30 on the but­ton.

“Roll to open,” Gross­man says si­mul­ta­ne­ously with direc­tor Joe Pin­ter.

The Sabres’ broad­cast is on the air in liv­ing rooms and bars across the coun­try. Long­time fans and view­ers wel­come Rick Jean­neret into their home, a place he’s vis­ited so of­ten that he seems like part of the fam­ily.

Jean­neret has a tele­vi­sion fam­ily of his own. It’s a big one, a group of men and women who crack jokes, write facts, spin the rewind dial and match mu­sic to graph­ics.

More than 30 peo­ple put to­gether Buf­falo’s game broad­casts, which an­nu­ally rank among the NHL’s most watched. Only a hand­ful of the work­ers ap­pear on tele­vi­sion. The rest make sure the on-air tal­ent looks good and sounds smart.

The Buf­falo News en­tered the world of the broad­cast crew Thurs­day when the Sabres hosted Colum­bus. The morn­ing meeting was a mix­ture of frat-house hi­lar­ity and hockey knowl­edge. The pro­duc­tion truck was 64 feet of sen­sory over­load, an in­su­lated trac­tor trailer with wall-towall mon­i­tors and non­stop chat­ter.

“It’s or­ga­nized chaos,” Pin­ter said. “It’s a lit­tle over­whelm­ing if you’ve never been in there be­fore.”

Thank­fully for view­ers, the reg­u­lars are far from over­whelmed. There are decades upon decades of ex­pe­ri­ence be­hind the pro­duc­tion. It helps cre­ate a broad­cast that in­te­grates the sights, sounds and num­bers of hockey.

The goal is to put out a good show even if it’s a bad game. It takes more than 12 hours of work, and the en­ergy rises when the on-ice prod­uct gets in­tense.

“I tell peo­ple all the time, ‘I feel like I played a game,’” Gross­man said. “It’s non­stop, and we don’t get a shift change.”

In fact, it’s busier when there’s a pause by the play­ers. Mul­ti­ple con­ver­sa­tions are con­ducted at once. Nu­mer­ous re­play pack­ages are pro­duced. Pin­ter is pon­der­ing when to look back at the ac­tion, when to move for­ward with a pro­mo­tional ad and telling the an­nounc­ers his plan.

“Live sports tele­vi­sion is amaz­ing be­cause ev­ery­thing is different ev­ery day,” Pin­ter said. “It’s never the same. There’s no script that you can fol­low to cookie-cut any­thing. It’s just all re­act­ing to what hap­pens.”

Plenty of things hap­pen.

Pregame plan­ning

The en­ter­tain­ment be­gins early on game days. Af­ter the play­ers have their morn­ing skate and meet the me­dia, the broad­cast crew holds a pro­duc­tion meeting. It’s 50 per­cent busi­ness and 50 per­cent razz­ing, though the scales may be tipped to­ward the lat­ter.

The ob­jec­tive is to plan the 30 min­utes of air­time for the pregame show.

As Pin­ter chats with Dun­leavy about which player the an­nouncer will in­ter­view, Ray rips on stu­dio an­a­lyst Martin Biron. The for­mer goal­tender re­turns the jabs. Duff and Chris Ryn­dak, the con­tent mar­ket­ing man­ager who works on the Sabres’ web­site, chime in with laughs and ob­ser­va­tions.

Two top­ics were at the fore­front of Sabre­land on Thurs­day morn­ing. Coach Phil Hous­ley had just be­rated the play­ers for cheat­ing of­fen­sively and car­ing more about stats than win­ning. A prac­tice con­fronta­tion in­volv­ing Evan­der Kane and Justin Falk fol­lowed Hous­ley’s talk. The broad­cast can’t ig­nore ei­ther sit­u­a­tion de­spite be­ing a team-owned en­tity that wants to make the Sabres look good.

Biron comes up with a way to han­dle Hous­ley’s talk. He re­calls the sixth goal in Buf­falo’s 7-4 loss to Win­nipeg as il­lus­trat­ing the coach’s cheat­ing mes­sage. Dur­ing the pregame, Biron will use a telestra­tor to show what Hous­ley saw. The an­nouncer stresses the clip is a les­son rather than an em­bar­rass­ing mo­ment.

From there, they move on to the prac­tice scuf­fle. Few play­ers in NHL his­tory have had more fights than Ray, and he’s quizzed on locker-room con­fronta­tions. It’s an an­i­mated walk down

John Vogl

mem­ory lane, but not much is suit­able for a fam­ily show. Ul­ti­mately, Ray will leave out specifics but talk about how sim­i­lar in­ci­dents can af­fect a locker room.

The meeting ends with more teas­ing di­rected at Pin­ter.

“We give him a hard time,” Ray said, “but he’s re­ally good at what he does.”

Pin­ter will have the rest of the day to prove it. He heads to his of­fice to write the com­mer­cials and Sabres-re­lated pro­mo­tional ads that Jean­neret reads over the air.

Pin­ter joins his co-work­ers in the truck dur­ing the af­ter­noon. That’s when the fun re­ally starts.

In­side the truck

An in­trigu­ing thing about the mas­sive, tech­no­log­i­cally ad­vanced pro­duc­tion truck is it’s not per­ma­nent or Sabres prop­erty. A New Hamp­shire­based com­pany called Game Creek Video sup­plies teams and net­works with the mo­bile unit. Ev­ery time it ar­rives, the crew – which is mostly from the Buf­falo chap­ter of the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Broad­cast Em­ploy­ees and Tech­ni­cians – starts from scratch.

Work­ers un­load cam­eras. Miles and miles of wire is un­furled and run through the arena. Tech­ni­cians bring hard drives of pre­vi­ous broad­casts into the truck in prepa­ra­tion for vi­gnettes and high­light pack­ages. Au­dio files are up­loaded. It’s an all-day af­fair. There are more than a dozen cam­eras set up in the arena, and each feeds back to its own mon­i­tor on a wall in the truck.

At any given mo­ment, view­ers can be watch­ing a sta­tion­ary cam­era from the 200 Level, a hand­held cam­era at ice level or a ro­botic cam­era look­ing down from the score­board.

While the game is live, it’s up to Gross­man to decide which works best. The direc­tor’s op­ti­mal shot is a bird’s-eye view, al­low­ing peo­ple to see more of the ice for break­outs, rushes and turnovers, so the 200 Level cam­era is used pri­mar­ily. But when the puck goes into the cor­ner or a scuf­fle hap­pens near the bench, it’s time to switch.

“You want to mix it up, bring the viewer closer to the ac­tion,” Gross­man said. “You want to see the play­ers’ faces and see the ac­tion up close, es­pe­cially when they’re bat­tling for a puck.”

When he wants to switch, Gross­man says, “Cam­era Four,” into his head­set. Seated next to him at a board with ap­prox­i­mately 150 but­tons is Michael But­tino, the tech­ni­cal direc­tor. He hits one of the but­tons, and a different cam­era takes over the broad­cast.

Too many switches can make the viewer dizzy. Use the wrong cam­era and they miss the ac­tion.

“I watch the re­broad­cast and nit­pick and cri­tique my­self all the time even af­ter do­ing it for 20, 25 years,” Gross­man said. “It’s just lit­tle things with different views and different an­gles.”

While Gross­man is han­dling the live ac­tion, one of Pin­ter’s du­ties is scan­ning all the cam­eras for mo­ments with re­play po­ten­tial. When he sees some­thing, he talks to the four re­play op­er­a­tors in the mid­dle of the truck.

Each op­er­a­tor mans a re­play ma­chine that pulls from four or more cam­eras. They turn a knob to rewind their feed and pause it at the re­quired mo­ment. When play stops, Pin­ter tells But­tino to go to “Z” or “X” for the best re­play. When the but­ton is hit, the re­play and broad­cast pick up at the spot where the op­er­a­tor hit pause.

When the Sabres’ Kyle Ok­poso scored dur­ing the third pe­riod, the four re­play di­als were spin­ning.

The or­der in which the clips were used was part in­stinct for Pin­ter, part sales job by the op­er­a­tors. One says there will be a hero shot on “B.” An­other says “Z” is ready.

There’s def­i­nitely a trust fac­tor in­volved. If Pin­ter didn’t see the cam­era an­gles him­self, he has to as­sume there re­ally is a qual­ity cel­e­bra­tion on “B” when he or­ders it to air.

Con­sid­er­ing two of the op­er­a­tors, An­dre Na­cov and John DeTolla, re­ceived 30-year pins Thurs­day, the trust is there.

“That ex­pe­ri­ence is ir­re­place­able,” Pin­ter said. “Hav­ing ex­pe­ri­enced, knowl­edge­able and qual­i­fied peo­ple on the crew is what sep­a­rates broad­casts.”

The to­tal pack­age

As Li­nus Ull­mark made save af­ter save dur­ing the sec­ond pe­riod, it be­came clear this was the goal­tender’s night. Re­play op­er­a­tor Dan Bel­lis, who joins Pin­ter, Gross­man and Wiese at road games, went to work on a high­light pack­age of Ull­mark’s top stops. Wiese, the pro­duc­tion man­ager, asked graph­ics op­er­a­tor Ali­cia Thiers to cre­ate a box with Ull­mark’s num­bers and his ac­com­plish­ments in Rochester.

When those tasks were fin­ished, Pin­ter pressed the but­ton con­nect­ing him to Jean­neret. Pin­ter told the an­nouncer that the clips and graphic were com­ing at the next whis­tle.

It’s a three-hour live pro­duc­tion, so prob­lems will arise. At one point, there was an echo in the broad­cast. One cam­era an­gle in­cludes an ad su­per­im­posed on the glass be­hind the net. Be­cause the graphic slows the vis­ual ever so slightly, an au­dio tech­ni­cian has to slow the sound as well. If he didn’t, view­ers would hear the puck hit­ting the boards be­fore see­ing it.

Pin­ter con­tacted the master con­trol room on Long Is­land – the peo­ple who take the Sabres’ broad­cast and send it out through the MSG net­work. Prob­lem re­solved.

In a rar­ity, there were no prob­lems for the Sabres. They snapped a fiveg­ame win­less skid with a 3-1 vic­tory. As the game broad­cast tran­si­tioned to the postgame show, the re­play op­er­a­tors read­ied clips of play­ers in the dress­ing room. The graph­ics folks typed up the Three Stars and their stats. The pro­ducer and direc­tor kept choos­ing which cam­era an­gle and re­play pack­age to use.

At 10:14 p.m., the show went off the air and the work stopped. Pin­ter’s words of praise trav­eled to the head­sets of cam­era­men, on-air tal­ent and in-truck tech­ni­cians. A few hours later, the truck was on its way to New Jer­sey’s arena and a long broad­cast­ing day was com­plete.

Harry Scull Jr./Buf­falo News

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