By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, February 4, 2010;
FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. -- On Sunday, CBS Sports will end its 50th season of televising the NFL with the broadcast of Super Bowl XLIV. It began in 1956 when the network aired 60 NFL games regionally, with now-deceased play-by-play luminaries such as Chris Schenkel, Ray Scott and Washington's own Jim Gibbons always flying solo, no analyst necessary and hardly any technological bells and whistles available.
Back in those early years, another television legend also was involved in covering football and many other sports for CBS. Though he eventually made his bones as the godfather of televised golf as the longtime and pioneering executive producer of the Masters and other PGA Tour telecasts, Frank Chirkinian was a young director working in Philadelphia in the early years of the NFL on CBS.
Now 83, retired in South Florida and focused on his own golf game, Chirkinian recalled in an interview earlier this week a far less complicated era of television football coverage than viewers will see on Sunday when the Indianapolis Colts face the New Orleans Saints at Sun Life Stadium. Just as an example, CBS will employ 50 cameras for Sunday's game, positioned in every nook and cranny all over the stadium and up in a blimp, as well.
"When I did the Orange Bowl in 1958, I had six cameras, and it didn't take me long to figure out that it was probably two more than I really needed," Chirkinian said. "I had a few simple rules. I wanted to see at least three yard-line stripes at all times, and I was not interested in close-ups of the man carrying the ball. I wanted to know who was coming up to hit him and who was chasing him. Now they take these close-ups from the waist up, but I wanted to see the whole picture. I don't like the end zone shots they use now because players are running away from you; there's no depth perception."
Back in those days, Chirkinian said NFL Commissioner Bert Bell had only one rule when it came to televising the games: He never wanted the network's cameras to show players fighting on the field, an edict Chirkinian learned the hard way at the end of a fiercely contested game between the Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles. When the final gun sounded, Cleveland defensive end Lenny Ford walked over to Philadelphia center-linebacker Chuck Bednarik in an attempt to shake his hand.
"Lenny extended his hand and Bednarik cold-cocked him," Chirkinian said. "He punches him and I've got it all on camera. The next day, Bell calls Bill MacPhail, the president of CBS Sports, and chews him out, and then I got called in and MacPhail chews me out. But how should I know? I'm showing the game, and there was no way to keep that off the air."
Chirkinian was directing a game between the Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers on Oct. 11, 1959, when he had another big-time decision to make. Bell, also a co-owner of the Eagles at the time, was in the stands watching the game that day when he suffered what would be a fatal heart attack.
"Now, do I show a shot of Bert Bell being carried out on a stretcher? Was that objectionable?" Chirkinian said. "I decided to take the shot, and unfortunately, he died. This time there were no repercussions."
Chirkinian also was responsible for a major technological innovation, the direct result of a foul-up in the booth before a New York Giants game at the old Yankee Stadium. During the pregame lead-in before the opening kickoff, a stage manager held up the wrong cue card for Schenkel, resulting in a rather awkward on-air moment. Chirkinian, directing the game from a mobile unit downstairs, was not happy.
"I just decided then and there that I needed to be in direct contact with the announcers, and that's how the IFB system started," Chirkinian said of the interruptible feedback earpiece that connects an on-air broadcaster to the control room, allowing back-and-forth communication.
"We started using that kind of a system back in 1958 and the rest is history."
Chirkinian said he will certainly surf in and out of the football game on Sunday, though he admitted his attention span for most sports events on television these days is not what it used to be, mostly because he believes that "everything is just over-produced.
"The announcers all talk too much. There are too many graphics cluttering up the screen. I always had one rule for every sports announcer: don't be obtuse. Don't insult the viewers' intelligence. Don't tell us what we can already see for ourselves on the screen. Stay away from the obvious. And it's not just in football. It's across the board, and sometimes it's hard to watch."
Ironically, Lance Barrow, who will produce Sunday's Super Bowl game telecast for CBS, considers Chirkinian his most influential mentor and a great friend. For years, Barrow worked only a few feet away from him in the Masters control room, and they were in similar close quarters in production trucks across the country televising PGA Tour golf.
He's heard Chirkinian's "over-produced" mantra many times and said, with a smile, "I guess you're always afraid to say you probably could use six cameras because then the accounting department would say, 'Well why not just do it?'
"But seriously, people have come to have a lot of expectations when any network does an event," he said. "We have a lot of eyeballs on our games. With the replays and everything else people want to see, you obviously just can't have six cameras covering a football game, and certainly not a Super Bowl. You have to cover every possibility that might happen.
"There's that one moment when you need that one extra camera to show inbounds or out of bounds on the sidelines, fumble or no fumble, touchdown or no touchdown in the back of the end zone. You better have that. You've got to cover the game, tell the story and show it the way people expect you to show it. You can't go back the other way."
Chirkinian, of course, knows it will never be the way it was when he started directing and producing sports events for CBS more than 50 years ago. And he certainly does not want to be considered the grumpy old man growling about the current state of televised sports and pining for the good old days.
"I went back to the Masters a few years ago," he said, "and I was standing under the oak tree and talking to all my old friends, Nicklaus, Palmer, everyone coming by. I said to [sportswriter] Dan Jenkins, 'You know, when you're gone, you're gone.' I produced 38 Masters, did all those other events. But now, who gives a damn?"
Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Len.Shapiro@washingtonpost.com.