FOOTBALL coverage, by the numbers:
"Ready four," says director Sandy Grossman, his eyes darting along a wall full of television screens. "Take four. Ready three. Six, get me Pardee. Take three. A little wider, three. Okay, great. Ready two, take two."
"Music!" assistant producer Ernie Baur says abruptly, and the way is suddenly cleared for a commercial. The score goes up on the screen over a slow pan of the crowd. A disco theme called "Fugue for Tin Horns" fades in.
"Ten, nine . . ."
"RFK is absolutely full up today . . . " says Pat Summerall.
" . . . seven, six, five . . ."
" . . . for the Redskins and the Cowboys . . . "
" . . . four, three . . . "
" . . . one of the NFL's most bitter rivalries."
" . . . two, one. We're away . . . "
The numbers are big on this sunny, crisp November afternoon: as many as 20 million viewers across the nation are tuned to the most significant of CBS's seven games this particular Sunday.
Covering the game requires a crew of 50, several hundred miles of cable, three trucks and several million dollars worth of sophisticated video equipment. For this game, a sixth camera -- a hand-held unit to roam the sidelines -- has been added to the usual five. There are two graphicslettering machines (called fonts) to print downs, yardage and scores, and two slow-motion machines. In the announcing booth are Summerall and Tom Brookshier -- the CBS "A" team.
Director Grossman, 44, is also considered A team, but neither his round, carefully bearded face nor his sharp, high-pitched voice are familiar. The network that carries his voice has a total weedly audience of no more than 30. And they all work for CBS.
All cables lead to Grossman in the dark, evenly air-conditioned trailer just outside of Gate Five a RFK where he decides what the millions watching at home will (and won't) see. (He will be doing the same for today's Redskins-Cowboys rematch in Dallas, and for the Superbowl this year in Pasadena.)
There are no more than a dozen or so people at the three networks who direct NFL football coverage. Those who do -- people like ABC's Chet Forte, NBC's Ted Nathanson and CBS' Grossman and Tony Verna -- all have one thing in common: They are the ultimate football fans, sitting in the ultimate best seat in the house.
At a given moment, a director may be hearing and seeing 100 different things -- with the pictures on the monitors, the voices of the announcers on the speakers, the producer at his right, the sound man behind, plus the 30 or so voices on the headset. In a given moment, he director's job is to divide by 100 and deliver the best quotient to your living room.
"I'd say 80 to 90 percent of what we do is what the fans want to see," Grossman says, "and 10 to 20 percent is what they don't know they want to see."
"Take four," says Grossman as the Washington offense forms a huddle in the third quarter. "Font two in. Four, stay with 44 back -- stay with 44 when they break the huddle. Font out. Ready two, take two. [Riggins carries for a few yards.] Bring back A. Slow motion, dissolve A, and roll it. Okay freeze it. Dissolve to five."
Time out. Dissolve to slow-motion explanation.
Picture an 8-by-8-foot wall panel with six small black-and-white monitors lining the bottom half, each connected to one of the six cameras stationed in the end zones, at the 50 yard line, on a sideline golf cart and on foot. At the top of the wall are smaller monitors of the two slow-motion machines and the fonts, plus the big color "line" monitor carrying the output, the final product.
Grossman says, "Take four." Switcher Danny McKinney, a big, quiet guy in a red flannel shirt who sits to Grossman's left at the control panel, punches camera four's view up on the color "line" monitor. It is a tight shot of the Redskins huddling, with fullback John Riggins in the center.
Grossman says, "Font two in." In the trailer next door, two men at complicated-looking keyboards have entered the down-and-yardage information into the system, and the director has just had it superimposed over the bottom of the screen.
As the play begins, Grossman cuts to camera two -- the play-by-play, the Big-Picture-From-The-50 camera, that starts virtually every play. Riggins' run also is covered in close-up -- known as an "iso" -- by camera four. Camera four's picture was recorded by Disc A, a slow-motion disc machine, which Grossman wants "brought back" (rewound) for playback.
Grossman has McKinney dissolve the live picture into the Disc A playback. When it's through, he has the Disc A operator freeze the picture for a moment before dissolving it into camera five's live close-up of the Dallas defense.
Through all of this, the CBS truck has been filled with the disembodied sportscasting of Summerall and Brookshier -- as well as the sounds of the crowd as recorded by audio man Willis Webster's one dozen mikes, which he controls from a board behind the director's control board.
All of this takes about 30 seconds.
When the networks first began covering football in the early '50s, there were no more than three cameras at any game, compared to an average of five to eight today. There was no slow-motion instant replay. There were no graphics.
"Football coverage is basically, 'What do you do between plays?'" says CBS free-lancer Jim Silman. "Back then, what you usually did was a very dull two-team shot, maybe a closeup of the guy who just got tackled, nothing very fancy."
"The difference now," says NBC's Nathanson, who coordinates all of NBC's football coverage and has directed sports for roughly 10 years, "is equipment -- there's more of it, and it's better, more sophisticated. You have the replays, better lenses for the closeups, hand-helds, we use two slow-motions at the national games, you have the graphics, the Arvin Echo [a machine that shows stills taken from a tape] . . . There's much more to do." m
And much more to go wrong.
Chet Forte, who directs ABC's "Monday Night Football," once panned the stands at a Houston rout of Oakland to show fans leaving in boredom. The camera came across a man sleeping. It was a great shot, Forte thought, until the fan abruptly woke up and raised his middle finger at America.
"Don Meredith said very quickly, 'Hey, we're No. 1,' and saved us," says Forte. "But those things happen. You make the best of it."
"People expect more," says Nathanson. "If you don't have a replay they want, they get upset." Nathanson recalls a playoff game several years ago in which Oakland's Ken Stabler was hit as he released the ball -- and the announcers of course mentioned it. But the slow-motion replay machines had been isolating the receivers in anticipation of a pass, Nathanson says. Nobody caught the near-sack. "All we heard about was, 'Why didn't we see Stabler get hit?'"
"You have that on A yet?" Grossman is saying over the voice of Summerall.
"You have the last part of that on A at all?"
Things are not going well in the truck. With 5:45 left in the first half, Redskin linebacker Neal Olkewicz has been called for roughing the passer. Grossman first has Disc B play back the scene, but B followed the pass and missed the penalty. And to complicate things, while playing back the tape, Grossman missed the referee's call. And Disc A -- which is actually a slow-motion tape machine -- can't find the roughing penalty anywhere.
Grossman pans the stands to show Redskins protesting the call against Olkewicz. An angry Washington fan in the foreground jumps up and raises his hand in that familiar one-finger gesture.
"Take two," says Grossman, not quite instantly enough.
"Technically, we've come so far in television coverage that I don't think anybody -- CBS, NBC or us -- is going to blow a football game," says Forte, whose Monday night prime-time work can attract twice as many viewers as the Saturday and Sunday NFL games that NBC and CBS split. "But I've been in this business long enough [10 years directing] that I think I owe the fans a little more -- I'm looking now for the thrill-of-victory-agony-of-defeat-type shots."
"More cameras do not make a better director," says Forte. "I have the luxury to use 10 cameras on "Monday Night Football." But a director must become totally involved in the game. I'm looking to give you the human interest of a coach's reaction, or the quarterback's, or the defense's.
"You've gotta live, breathe and die sports -- and yes, you have to be crazy.
But there's nothing like live television."
Directors credit better long-distance lenses and the flexibility of hand-held cameras for making so many more reaction shots possible. Catching perennially stonefaced Dallas coach Tom Landry in even a mildly emotional outburst is currently in vogue: Grossman, Nathanson and Forte all spoke of recent "angry Landry" shots.
Then there's the Hi Mom Syndrome, also made possible y all those technical advancements: The up-close, suddenly cheering cheerleader, long on teeth and short on stretch knit. Or the free safety with the goofy grin, the kicker's cute wave, the We're-No.-1 hand signal.
Grossman took a sideline shot of Cowboy Hollywood Henderson waving a "We're No. 1" towel in the November game -- a scene which was said to be the "catalyst" behind Landry's subsequent decision to cut Henderson.
"I had never seen that towel before," says Grossman. "And besides, I thought, well, the team is losing and here's a guy hamming for the cameras on the bench."
"I won't put the cheerleaders on unless it's a spontaneous shot," says Forte. "The cheerleaders are so used to the cameras that they play up to them."
But didn't Forte -- a former All-American basketball player at Columbia in 1957 -- help popularize such sideline diversion? "All I'm saying is I'm reevaluating my work," he says. "I've seen a monumental change in the attitude of the girls."
Football coverage and spur-of-the-moment decisions go hand in hand, and every director has his own approach to the pressure.
"I'm a curser, a screamer, a yeller. I'm very demanding," says Forte, whose Monday night crew, unlike those at CBS and NBC on weekends, almost always consists of the same people. "I know in those three hours I'm giving 100 percent -- there's no way to have a good football game unless everyone's giving 100 percent."