Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Fox Crew Will Swing For Fences

By Michael Hiestand
Sports on TV at USA Today

This notion should spark unspeakable horror for corporate types. Imagine having to make a decision at work without forming a task force, preparing a PowerPoint or even calling a meeting – with millions of strangers instantly able to judge your call.

But Fox, on its World Series coverage starting tonight, faces just such terror.

Or more specifically, Fox director Bill Webb does. While live TV sports production is highly collaborative – Fox will deploy about 150 workers tonight – you can't make split-second decisions by committee.

Tonight, Webb will sit next to producer Pete Macheska, who oversees the show, in a cramped TV trailer at Yankee Stadium. They'll stare at a wall of screens showing what's in focus on each of Fox's 20 cameras, and Webb will decide which shot you'll get. With no do-overs.

One other thing. Rupert Murdoch's Fox pays MLB about $256 million annually – mainly to get postseason action – so there's some pretty big money riding on these games.

So, Bill, tense? Well, he says, "the most important thing is to not get the crew uptight."

Webb, directing his 13th World Series, is also the producer of New York Mets local TV games. That detail might flummox conspiracy theorists trying to figure out whether Fox's shots are secretly favoring the New York Yankees or Philadelphia Phillies, since both are Mets archenemies.

And it's all besides the point anyway. "In reality," Webb says, "I'm not a big baseball fan in terms of teams. If you're a fan of one team or another, you shouldn't be in the business."

Webb's business is about trying to never miss a live pitch. Beyond that, though, Webb says some of his basics have evolved. He no longer automatically leaves action around the ball to instead show runners scoring easily – "I'll just show him going into the dugout so you know he scored" – and Fox doesn't have as many crowd shots as it used to. "Crowd shots I'll do between pitches; it's dead time," he says. "I'm not a big fan of them. During the regular season, you've got a lot more liberty. But in a platinum game like this, every pitch means something. You stay with what's going on in the field."

Big championship events, such as the Series or the Super Bowl, always attract strange audiences – lots of aficionados as well as viewers who never otherwise watch the sport.

That can lead to conflicting objectives for TV: Sell up-close-and-personal drama – for casual fans – and offer inside information for the know-it-alls. (Eventually, TV networks will end this with a simple solution that ESPN has tested on college basketball: Put the same game on two channels, with one version offering hard-core sports and the other offering softer stuff.)

Fox, in a new wrinkle, tries to juggle those goals by sometimes simultaneously splitting the screen three ways, with close-ups of the batter and the pitcher – for dramatic effect – as it shows an informative close-up of the catcher flashing the pitch signal between his legs.

Pretty busy. But, says Webb, at least viewers know what pitch is coming. And not as busy, notes Webb, as when on past Series action he split the screen four ways when bases were loaded – "too confusing, that was a strikeout."

Webb says Fox asked him if he wanted the type of camera that hangs from a cable and zips along foul lines, used by TBS on its playoff games. He declined – "That was more for wide-shot color" – in favor of getting a remote-controlled camera to shoot the bullpens.

But the camera he'd really like has nothing to do with technology. He wants a camera operator on fields, just to trail pitchers to the mound or batters to the box. "I don't see what the problem is when there's no action going on. ... I won't get in your way."

And it would beat another crowd shot.

No comments: