Monday, February 25, 2008

Let Me Put You on Hold

Ok, this blog entry is like a Quentin Tarantino movie -- the buildup just prior to the final scene airs at the beginning of the flick. Then you get wrapped up in the entire story and then the scene airs in its correct order and it ties it all together. This isn't nearly as good as Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill, but you get the idea......

Saturday night 10:47 pm, edit bay at WCIV-TV in Charleston
Three edits to go and the high school basketball story is ready to get zapped into outerspace via the magic of satellite from Charleston to our sports office in Myrtle Beach. All I have to do is book the satellite window from CNN. I have to feed before 11pm because WCIV's newscast can not feed during the beginning of its show. Eight minutes to spare, I can book a 10:55pm to 11:00pm window and get the story to WPDE and recap a long and exciting day of high school hoops. When CNN answers, I calmly tell them I need to book a 10:55 window - and then I hear "Let me put you on hold....." (panic and thoughts of dry heaving are now setting in)

(This is where we do the Tarantino thing and go back to the beginning of the story)

When it comes to the local sports media in South Carolina, the bar is raised extremely high when it comes to covering high school sports, especially football and basketball. For the first time since I've been here, the lower state finals (state semifinals) has been moved to one site. The Citadel in Charleston would play host to eight total games over two days - two on Friday, six on Saturday. When the dust settles after the quarterfinals, we have a total of five local teams playing for a trip to the state championship. The Hartsville girls played on Friday, and the Hemingway boys, Mullins boys and Myrtle Beach boys and girls were all in action on Saturday.

There are two shows on Saturday. The 6pm newscast will have the Hemingway boys and the Mullins boys will be in progress as the show goes to air. The 11pm newscast will be a recap of all four games. This is the part of the job that is nearly as important as being on the air. It's time to hatch a plan to be able to bring back the highlights and post game reaction from all of these games. The loyal fans of these schools expect nothing less than for us to deliver the goods.

There seems to be an unwritten rule in the sportscaster fraternity: you try and help your colleagues from other markets as much as you can. I can't tell you how much respect I have for nearly every sports department in our state as they live to that creed. A phone call down to Scott Eisberg, the weekend sports guy at WCIV in Charleston gets the plan in motion. You have to remember that these guys have a full plate of work to do and can easily brush off an outside market looking for some help, but Scott is the antithesis of that. Not only is he going to help us out on Saturday with an edit bay and feeding out highlights, he's going to grab some highlights of the Hartsville game on Friday so we don't have to come down for two straight days. Saint Scott has got free golf and anything else we can do for him in Myrtle Beach for a very long time.

So now it's off to the Citadel on Saturday morning to get a 1pm tipoff of Hemingway and Bamberg-Ehrhardt. The Tigers are so athletic and put on an impressive display in advancing to the 1A state title game. After shooting an on camera intro and outro on campus, I make a 15 minute journey back over the Ravenel bridge to the WCIV studios where I get into an edit bay with a tape ready to edit. Every station has their editing system set up a little different, so it takes me about five minutes to get acclimated, but in about 25 minutes, Hemingway's story is ready to be told. It's 4:00pm - so I'm on my way back to campus to shoot a little bit of the Mullins game for the 6pm show. Scott had to shoot two college baseball games and the 2A girls game so our paths never cross, but we have our plan in place. I'll grab the Mullins/Burke game for 15 minutes, head back to WCIV where he can have highlights for his show and he'll send the Hemingway piece and Mullins highlights on satellite to Hags at 5:30 pm.

Mullins has a 17-11 lead in the 1st when I leave to go back to the studio. I'm there just before 5:00, crank out a few highlights and hand the tape to Scott. It's now a little after 5:10 and I'm back to the Citadel to get the rest of the Mullins game. 5:30 rolls around and the two stories are on their way back to Myrtle and I get the text from Hags that all is good. Part one of the day: mission accomplished.

Mullins loses an absolute heartbreaker. Dante Cooper made a great offensive rebound and go to the free throw line with 3.2 seconds left. Two free throws and it was likely overtime. The poor kid misses the second shot and Mullins perfect season is over. Mark Gerald is nothing but class, and comes out and answers the post-game questions from the media.

The Myrtle Beach girls finally got past their demon and gave some revenge to North Charleston. Mickey Hunter was all smiles and it's always a great story to interview the local team when they are on the winning side. One game to go-- Myrtle Beach boys against Crestwood. I heard the Knights were extremely athletic and were a favorite to not only get past the Seahawks, but go all the way in 3A. In the back of my mind, I'm set to leave this game at halftime if Crestwood has a double digit lead. It would be pushing 9:15 pm - I can get back to WCIV at 9:30 and have a full hour to recap four games. That's a good cushion. The Seahawk boys changed the plan in a hurry. Darius Hemingway and Everett Golson were on fire and raced out to an 18-3 lead after one. I knew right then and there I was going the distance. Playing true team basketball, MB hung on for a 58-55 win. Now, the clock is ticking. Two quick interviews with DeAndre Scott and Darius Hemingway and the race is on.

9:53 pm - one hour and 2 minutes until deadline -- I can feed at 11:10pm if I have to, but that is always risky. Hags needs to have time to take in the feed, load into our system and turn it around. The first thing I do is call Hags and get him the graphics information so he can at least have that. I've got about a three minute budget for this story which is challenging enough when you have four games, three of the games were wins and the loss was a down to the final second heartbreaker. I took notes on my BlackBerry the whole time and I quickly rattle out the order of the interviews:
1. DeAndre Scott, Myrtle Beach
2. Ashley Clarke, Myrtle Beach
3. Mark Gerald, Mullins
4. Tashan Frederick, Hemingway

It's pitch black dark and I'm on a highway. I see the Ravenel Bridge in the rear view mirror and I realize I'm going the wrong way. It's now 10:00 pm and I'm trying to be like one of those Olympic biathletes. Those guys can lower their heart rate to about 30 beats per minute and shoot a bullseye with a gun from about 500 yards away. I then realize that if I was a biathlete I would have probably shot a volunteer instead of a target and realize I'm not that calm, cool and collected. A quick turnaround and I'm back on my way.

10:13pm - parking lot, WCIV. Camera in the back seat, I pull it on the ground and grab the microphone. Yes, the glamorous world of TV. I'm on my knees in a parking lot and anyone talking by would have thought I was just talking to myself. The BlackBerry notes are lit up and I go through each game as concise as I can. The story is told on tape and I'm on my way into the edit bay. I've got three different tapes that have the four games, post-game interviews, my intro and my voice of the higlights on it.

This is where sportscasting is like sports. The clock is up and there's no timeouts. It's classic risk/reward. I stayed to get the excitement of the Myrtle Beach boys pulling off the upset. I've got a great shot of the fans swarming the court and cheering with the players along with a great reaction from Coach Scott. By doing that, I'm risking all four games making the air. In less than an hour, if the story isn't done, we have what we refer to in our business as a crash and burn. Hags has a three minute hole in his 4:30 show and will have to scramble for a backup plan. You go through game by game - parking lot audio, find the interview, parking lot audio, find the interview (repeat). Then you need to find the baskets to match what you talked about. At 10:32 pm, I've got everything laid down, just need to find the baskets. You go through the tape and one by one, you start covering up the black holes to tell the story.

That's where we get to 10:47 pm, the beginning of the movie. I've got four "holes" left to cover and the piece is done. One Tashan Frederick closeup, two Quentin Brown baskets and a shot of fans to close out the piece. I see the light at the end of the tunnel and know that I can get this done is 5-6 minutes. A call to CNN and I'm on my way. "Let me put you on hold...." That's what the CNN guy tells me. I have to multi task and get the other parts of the piece covered. Frederick shot, in. Quentin Brown hoop and foul, in. All the while, I'm hearing a CNN radio news update while I'm still on hold. Surely, he'll be telling me we're all set for a 10:55 pm feed. I find the second Brown bucket and lay it in - I'm one edit away form completion - it's 10:52 pm. As I'm completing the piece for air, finally I get a human voice. We can't do it at 10:55 pm, but we have you all set for 11:00pm.

First thought: 12 hours of work are about to go down the drain. Biggest high school games of the year, and I'm about to drop the ball. Scott says, don't worry we can do it at 11:10 pm. I book the window for 11:10 and we get it set. It's now 10:57 - and I have to tell Hags to get ready for a late feed. Hags is remarkably calm (that's a very good thing!). As soon as WCIV's first block of news is done, we've got the green light to feed. The satellite window actually opens up a couple of minutes early and we're beaming it back to the Beach.

Happy Ending - the piece runs on the 11pm news without a hitch and we cover all four games in which three of our local teams qualify for the state championship. It couldn't have been done without the help of Scott at WCIV.

That's the behind the scenes world of what we do. This isn't intended to be a "look at me and what we pulled off" kind of piece. The fact of the matter is that my colleagues in this state do these kind of things every single day. They do it in Columbia, Greenville, Charleston and our competition does it in Myrlte Beach/Florence. The TV news business is all about deadlines and you'll find that the balance between success and failure is a very thin line. What's great about working in TV in South Carolina is that everyone indeed tries to look out for each other. Greenville is giving Clemson baseball highlights, Columbia will give us Gamecocks highlights. On this day, I was able to shoot a couple of Charleston games for WCIV and help their cause. It's an honor to be able to be a part of a group of dedicated sportscasters who are passionate about covering Palmetto State sports.

So we get the win for this week -- now it's time to figure out how to get three state championship games in Columbia and CCU's final men's basketball game in Charleston back into your living rooms on Saturday night. Let me put you on hold....I'm going to need a few minutes to figure that out.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Life on the Road

I'm reading a book by fellow Garden State resident Kevin Smith, who is one of my favorite film makers. He grew up in the same area that I did, although I've never met him. He's responsible for one of the first breakout indie films ever, Clerks, as well as Dogma, Chasing Amy and Mall Rats to name a few. His book is basically a highly detailed blog of his every day life. For some reason, it has inspired me to set a goal of doing a little more blogging than I have been. Sometimes I am reluctant to write about the behind the scenes minutia of my life as a sportscaster, but after reading the same reservation in the beginning of Smith's book, I realize that perhaps folks may enjoy knowing how the sausage is made in the TV sports factory. Besides that, I can have a little bit better of a reference point when I tell these long stories to friends and colleagues years from now. And maybe my kids can enjoy these tales down the road. So with that, here are the adventures of my Virginia road trip.
First of all, road trips are so much better with my wingman, Ed Piotrowski, who shoots highlights and navigates the Southeast almost as good as he forecasts hurricanes. We often joke about how there is always some excitement and drama when we leave the WPDE nest. Flying solo is no different.
The Cliff Ellis show airs on Sunday's at noon, like many coaches shows across the nation. What makes our show a bit of a challenge is that the majority of games in the Big South are Saturday and Monday. CCU is usually home for two games or on the road for two games. The logistics on the calendar pointed to one major challenge: the VMI/Radford road swing in February. VMI is about 7 1/2 hours from home base, with Radford about 6 1/2 hours. In the past, we would split the trip up - I get the Saturday game and drive back to the beach and then Hags getting on the road Monday morning for the second leg. The VMI game was slated for a 1pm tipoff and it left little margin for error with the Friday night show duties wrapping up about 12 hours earlier. I rolled the dice and came up with a plan:

1. Fly to Roanoke early Saturday morning
2. shoot the VMI game
3. drive to Lynchburg, Virginia and go to the ABC affiliate (WSET-TV) and feed out the highlights for the news as well as the Cliff Ellis Show segment
4. SLEEP on Sunday
5. Shoot the Radford highlights on Monday night
6. Fly back Tuesday morning in time to get back on the anchor desk.

After calling WSET and getting the go ahead that I can go to their station and feed our stuff out of their satellite truck, it was time for the mission to begin. Thanks to Coastal's win over Winthrop, coach Ellis and I taped segments 2, 3 and 4 in the studio on Thursday afternoon. All that was missing was a 4:46 second hole that would contain the VMI highlights and post-game reaction.

The plan was all set until a phone call came at 10:30 pm to the sports office on Friday night. WSET said their truck was being used by CNN at Virginia Tech and would not be at their station thanks to a Bill Clinton speech. Blacksburg was about an hour further than the original route and all of the sudden, the deadline got a lot tighter. Thank goodness, the good folks at WSET said I was more than welcome to come to their truck and edit and still feed my stuff out! Stress level is high and what little sleep I was going to get is about to be more restless.

I arrived at the airport at 4:55 am and got to Roanoke no problem. After renting a small blue box from National Car Rental (I'm a company man - got to keep those expenses down), I tooled to Lexington, Virginia and was in the media parking lot at 10:30 am. I had 2 1/2 hours to spare and I took a nap in the car. When I woke up 70 minutes later, I realized something -- I took a nap in this same parking lot in a different cheap rental car two years earlier prior to a CCU/VMI football game. How crazy is that? What frightens me is that I could be doing the same thing this fall, unless Ed makes the VMI trip with me!

The Chants build a 17 point lead in the second half and Jack Leasure is on fire with 9 three pointers. But just like in January, the blue chickens fade down the stretch and lose a game that they really should have won. Final score: VMI 88 CCU 83. Next up is interviews and taping my intros and outros to the segments as well as doing the highlights in the camera. When I get to the satellite truck, I'll cover the sound of the highlights and match them up with the video. Three stories to do and the clock is ticking.

Now it's time to rant about something we call in the trade "one man band". A one man band is someone who has to do it all himself or herself. Shoot the video, do the interviews, the whole nine yards. The biggest challenge of the one man band is shooting yourself on camera. After all, if the picture looks crooked or out of focus, it doesn't matter what your story is, the viewer will be completely distracted. After running the litmus test of setting up the shot, I finally have myself in the center, in focus and looking like there's a cameraman with me. I'm just ready to launch into my on camera introduction when a flying basketball heads right towards the unmanned camera. My first reaction is to dive for the ball like Logan Johnson trying to get a turnover, but I realize it's too late. Fortunately, the camera gently brushes the tripod and the camera is safe, but my shot is now completely out of whack. Back to the drawing board. I'm ninety percent done with my work when I'm told that an alumni basketball game is about to start. Exit stage right and I'm now in the corridor of the VMI gym doing the highlights of the game. I keep track of the plays I'm going to use on my Blackberry and the stray people walking by look at me like I'm a reject from sportscaster camp: on my knees talking in a hallway with great enthusiasm about CCU's first half play. Finally, it's one more camera set up outside for a Monday pregame feature on the Radford game and I'm in the car at 3:38 pm.

Virginia Tech is about a 90 minute drive and I'm doing the math. Best case scenario is a 5pm arrival and the sportscast is 80 minutes away. If I don't get lost, I can get my stuff cranked out for the newscast by 5:30-5:45 pm, feed the story to Mark and phase one will be complete. After that, I'd piece together the Ellis Show segment and the Monday preview and feed that out later on. I call the sat truck and the operator says I'm all set, but I have to be done by 7:15 pm as CNN will take the truck over for former President Clinton's speech in Hokie land. Now the deadline is super tight: one 1:45 news segment, one 4:46 coach's show segment, one 1:30 Monday preview piece to get done in about 2 hours.

Mapquest is my friend! I get into Blacksburg and the good folks at WSET steer me towards their truck at about 5:05 pm. One problem - parking is gobbled up and the open spaces are yellow taped thanks to Clinton. Now the clock is really ticking and I have to talk a Virginia Tech security guard that I am a member of the media and I need to get to the satellite truck even though I'm driving the blue Chevy box that is hardly a TV station vehicle. Video tapes and a camera bag do the trick and the kind Hokie secruity staffers carve me out a spot. I tell them that Bruce Taylor, our Myrtle Beach high linebacker and Hokie recruit will be bringing some extra tackles this fall thanks to the kind deed.

Now it's my gametime. I get the tape in to the editor and start cranking out as fast as I can. Starting at about 5:11pm and getting done at 5:40, I have a tidy recap of the game for Mark's 6pm newscast as well as some highlights for WSET to use on their show. Call CNN and at 5:45, the magic of TV has highlights beaming from Virginia Tech to the WPDE sports office. It's 5:50 and I have 85 minutes to get two more pieces done. Normally, it takes me about an hour or so to go through an entire game and pick out the highlights. I didn't have that luxury, but thanks to adrenaline and nausea, I'm in the clubhouse at 6:40 pm and back on the phone with CNN. At 6:55 pm, the show is beamed back to Myrtle Beach and I breathe a sigh of relief.

This is when fatigue sets in. I'm tempted to find the nearest hotel and crash, but I realize that I have a 6am flight out of Roanoke on Tuesday. Rather than make a 45 minute drive on Tuesday, I'd rather set up shop in Roanoke, go to Radford on Monday and then return to Roanoke and have a short trip to the airport. I push up highway 81 with just about an hour to go before I can seriously relax and forget about the 4am to 7pm run that I am currently on.

I'm not a savvy traveller and with the uncertainty of the TV world, I figure I'd find a hotel no problem. I get to Roanoke near the airport and see a Hyatt Place hotel. I walk in and see the lobby under major construction, but decide to check in anyways. It's a real nice room, but as I turn the TV on, there's only about 10 channels and half of them have horrible reception. I was ready to get some food and watch the Bud Shootout and realized that it was definitely not snowing in Daytona, just on my TV set. As tired as I was, I did something I've never done before -- I walked out. I told the front desk folks, sorry and moved on to look for another hotel. I hit the TGIF for a to go order and pray I can find a hotel with a working TV. 30 minutes later, Courtyard by Marriott has the answer and I'm chilling out by 10pm watching Dale Earnhardt, Junior celebrating a victory. Eight years in South Carolina and I realize that my wife is right -- I am a closet gearhead! I left a hotel because I couldn't watch the race with a clear picture!

I've got Sunday completely to myself and plenty of big plans. No sightseeing, no work, just a simple plan: sleep late, hit the excercise room, watch Dustin Johnson (CCU golfer) play his 4th round at Pebble Beach playing with Vijay Singh in the final group, go to the movies and relax. I wake up at about 11:30 am and realize that the TV won't turn on and neither will the lights. Gusty winds in Roanoke caused a power outage. The front desk said that we'll probably be back with power by 3:00. I ventured out to the IHOP and then did some reading in the room along with a little Tiger Woods 2008 on PSP. Now it's nearing 4:00 pm and still no power. The estimate has been moved to about 5:00 pm. I decide to hit a 4:40 pm showing of Juno at the movie theater.

Movies during football and basketball season are a big treat so I was excited to go even if it was by myself. I was totally buying into the Oscar buzz and one of the most underrated actors in the game, JK Simmons, doing another fantastic performance when with 10 minutes to go, the projector is toast. No fade to black, just cut straight to black. Juno was about 10 minutes away from getting tied up in a nice bow and now a poor 16 year old kid who's handling his first mini crisis comes running into the theater out of breath. The power is out, but we can get a pass to see any movie at the theater in the future. Not helpful for me! More importantly, how does Juno end? The poor kid does about the worse job explaining the end of the movie - kind of like when you didn't know the answer to an essay question in high school and you just fill the blank page up with as much bs as possible to try and get some credit for just filling the space. Finally, a woman in the theater comes to the rescue and gives a much better explanation as she has seen the movie already. My wife was preturbed that I saw this movie since this was on the date movie list and not the "go see that on your own list". Semi-pro with Will Ferrell falls into this category along with a host of other comedies. She wasn't as mad when she knew I got jipped on the ending.

As I leave the theater, I realize it is now pitch black dark as most of the area is in the heart of the power outage. It sinks in that the Marriott Courtyard is probably a black cavern fit for a horror movie. My scouting report was dead on. I am given a flashlight by the staff and I walk by myself in the pitch black stairwell to room 409 and hunt and peck for my belongings. Hauling the camera and the duffel bag it is time to check out of Roanoke and go on another road trip. After getting shot down in Blacksburg, Christiansburg comes to the rescue and I have found a room 10 miles away from CCU's next opponent, Radford.

Monday night comes and the Chants are able to rally for a win against the Highlanders. Coach Ellis and I crank out a show segment so he doesn't have to come into the studio mid-week, I load the camera on to the team bus so it arrives back in Conway safely and I'm back in the blue box. With all that has gone on, I'm ready to come home. I call National to see how much it would cost to drop the car off in Myrtle Beach. I didn't want to get to the hotel at 10pm and know that I have to wake up at 4am to drive 45 minutes north, drop off the rental car and head to two flights before landing at 10:30 am. I was ready to get on the highway and get home. $250 surcharge changed that thought process and I sat by myself at Denny's eating a post-game meal.

I did get up at 4am and got to the airport and landed at 10:30 am in Myrtle Beach. I was back to work at about 3pm and already figuring out the high school basketball playoffs, the Ellis Show and catch up on the dozen or so things that needed attention.

So there you have it - it's like you were sitting in the little blue box next to me and lived the whole road trip. I'm sorry if it was boring or uninteresting, but it was fun to get down on the blog. It was a long trip and it was challenging, but it feels good to have that show on the air Sunday at noon and the die hard Chants basketball fans getting their fix of every twist and turn of the CCU basketball season.

Blog notes
* JK Simmons reference above. Schillinger from Oz (one of the scariest bad guys in cable TV history. Pop in an episode of Oz to a group of teen troubled kids and watch the crime rate go down. He was also Peter Parker's editor in Spiderman and was awesome as the Detroit Tigers manager in the Kevin Costner movie "For Love of the Game" which is also underrated (a little too much Kelly Preston love interest angle, but the Vin Scully play by play was tremendous).

* Dustin Johnson finished tied for 7th and maybe would have done better if I was yelling at the TV to help guide his putts in (oh, well).

* The scariest part of the whole trip might have been me driving down the highway during the wind gusts and the little blue box bouncing around two lanes like Kyle Busch with a loose condition at Bristol.