Baseball is a tricky game to watch sometimes, but it’s even trickier if you are a broadcaster.
Stuff doesn’t happen all that often, and then, all of a sudden, all the stuff happens at once. If one person isn’t paying attention – and there are almost 75 people involved in every Toronto Blue Jays broadcast put together by the Rogers Communications Inc.-owned, all-sports cable network Sportsnet – they end up with dead air.
The stakes are high. Producers live in fear of seeing typos dancing their way across Twitter, and there’s only a four-second delay between the decisions made in the broadcast truck and the signal that ends up in hundreds of thousands of living rooms across the country 162 times a year.
But baseball’s opening day is especially tricky for the network, because it is when new tricks are added to the routine (this year introduces a super slow-motion camera and a pitch tracker) and rust needs to be shaken off.
“We can’t really test a lot of the stuff until we get in here and start doing things,” Sportsnet vice-president of production Rob Corte says a few hours before hitting the air. “But we’ve got a bit of time here, we’ll nail everything down.”
Sportsnet gave The Globe and Mail exclusive behind-the-scenes access to its broadcast, here’s what we found:
The big broadcast rig
Deep in the bowels of the Rogers-owned Rogers Centre, where the Rogers-owned Blue Jays play baseball that is broadcast exclusively on Rogers-owned radio and television stations, four transport trailers are scattered in the same garage they use to hold extra slabs of fake grass for the field.
Two of them are used as broadcast trucks – one for each team. The others are backups – each costs about $9-million to outfit with gear.
Sportsnet basically rents the setup from Dome Productions, a company Rogers Communications Inc. shares 50/50 with arch-rival BCE Inc.
The truck – which expands to twice its normal width when set up – is cut into three sections.
In the back, two technicians sit and watch all of the camera feeds for colour balance and light exposure. Something as simple as a cloud passing over can be incredibly jarring for viewers, if they don’t adjust the feed from inside the truck (golf is the worst sport for them, they insist).
The middle of the truck has the instant-replay team – they have access to everything that has ever happened, ever … almost. An entire season of tape used to fill a room but now can be kept on six portable hard drives, each the size of a deck of cards.
But the real action takes place up front, where producers watch feeds from 19 cameras in the stadium and decide what to show, when to show it, and decide which graphics to use next.
Director Troy Clara dominates the truck, yelling out instructions over his headset to camera men out in the field as well as his co-workers in the truck, as producer Doug Walton prepares him for what’s about to happen next as best he can.
Here’s what Clara sounded like as he decided which cameras to use when the Blue Jays were introduced on-field, prior to their game last Tuesday against the Cleveland Indians: “Eighteen you’re the next guy take him here we come standby the crowd here comes [Jose] Bautista it’s all about the crowd it’s all about the crowd take 16 next guy is on 18 next that’s it right in his face right in his face!”
He drinks a lot of water, but not too much.
“Bladder control is one of the main job requirements in the truck,” Corte says.
The first rule of the scoreboard club
The scoreboard’s operators sit high above the field next to the press box, essentially operating a television station that is broadcast live to the tens of thousands of fans in attendance each night. A producer is constantly making programming decisions, such as when to change graphics and which camera to cut to when doing live hits from the audience.
With 19 cameras covering everything that happens on-field, the dozen or so employees who operate the stadium’s 10-metres-by-34-metres video scoreboard have amazing footage of everything that happens during a baseball game. But there is one thing its operators must never, ever, ever, ever do: Show up an umpire after a controversial play.
Major League Baseball has strict rules regarding instant replays, and forbids any scoreboard operator in the league from showing anything that could be controversial.