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Stampede TV coverage an up-close challenge

Even though he's a veteran bull rider, Scott Schiffner knows he's in tough.

A late call-in for the competition at the Calgary Stampede rodeo, the 32-year-old from of Camrose, Alta., has got to get a quick read on his bull.

In the CBC TV booth, analyst Cody Snyder, a former bull rider, is feeling for Schiffner as the cowboy cinches his hand into the rope on the bull's back. "I'd be a nervous wreck if I was in his boots," says Snyder, who knows the perils of riding even when prepared.

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Sure enough, the gate swings open, and the bull pulls out into the dirt ring in front of some 20,000 screaming fans in the grandstand. As he pivots out of the chute, his horn just misses the CBC cameraman. To Schiffner's chagrin, the bull is rank and quickly tosses the cowboy into the fencing alongside the ring.

CBC's cameras have a perfect up-close view as Schiffner's arms and legs wrap around a post in the impact. The rodeo clowns ride off the bull and he's roped and returned to the pens.

Thankfully, Schiffner survives the harrowing experience with just a few bruises. An experience caught intimately on CBC's cameras, as close to the action as you're likely to see in televised sport.

"It was a real 'ooh-ah' moment," producer Don Peppin says drily.

"What's unique for viewers is that it's real danger they're seeing with bulls that can weigh a ton and broncs that can stomp a man's head," Peppin says. "Not that NHL isn't dangerous, but the visceral sense of real danger all the time makes rodeo attractive, especially on TV. We can get to places no other sport will let us go.

"Thanks to the cooperation of the Stampede, our positioning gets us as close as we can to that danger, so you can feel it as it comes off the speed and the bucking stock. As lenses have gotten better, so have the pictures. This year, we're using the X-mo, the super slo-mo replay machine CBC used during the NHL playoffs," he says. "When you use it for rodeo, it can accentuate the impact of horse and bull and rider or really show the footwork involved for the barrel racers."

Producing nine consecutive days of live television in the dirt of the rodeo ring while working around livestock that does not care if there's a camera around can be challenging.

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"The bulls and horses are not as co-operative as the humans," Peppin says. "They don't hit their cues, they have a mind of their own out there."

It's seemingly a Stampede tradition that foul weather makes those challenging conditions worse. Flash hail storms, driving rain or even a snow flake or two can turn the ring into a quagmire. This year, so far, Peppin and his crew have been blessed with sunny, dry conditions.

"For the first time in the many years I've been doing the Stampede for CBC, we've had perfect conditions. When the rain comes here it comes hard. We're ready for that, but when you hear tornado warnings and you're sitting in the middle of a bunch of electrical machinery, it can get pretty nerve-racking."

One of the misconceptions about the stars of the rodeo is they're big, strong guys. In fact, most of the cowboys are diminutive by athletic standards. Which makes it hard to get at them, Peppin says.

"Most of the riders are small guys and a lot of them have a bunch of handlers surrounding them in the chute as they get set to ride. So it's a real dance for our camera guys to get in there to see them and not get hit by the bull's horns. All of this with 20,000 people in the grandstand, yelling and cheering. It's a real challenge."

CBC's coverage winds up this weekend with championship Sunday. and the finals of the chuckwagon competition.

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In what might be the most complicated show in all of TV, there will be prime-time rodeo Saturday, the chucks Saturday night, live Sunday for the finals of the rodeo, a prime-time special in the East.

The instant CBC goes off air after going 8-10 ET, they're live with the Chucks Championship night.

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