Arnie Reif, director of sports technical operations at NBC-TV, was a worried man early in the celebrated experimental telecast today without play-by-play and analyst announces of the New York Jet-Dolphin NFL game.
Where is the rock and sock, the crunch of crashing bodies, people wanted to know. For months NBC had talked about providing the sounds of pro football as they have never -- pow, crash, bang -- been heard before. Suddenly, the moments of impact were here and there were hardly any explosions coming out of the TV sets.
"It's the crowd noise," Reif said. "It is drowning out the sounds on the field. We are trying to turn off all but can't get the line of scrimmage. We can get some of the quarterback and the punts and kickoffs, but we can't get the sounds on the line."
He said, "I honestly think the audio is good, better than we ever have had before, but it's not great. It's too late to do anything now. If we ever do something like this again, we're going to have to engineer a mix that can limit the crowd noise."
For all his great words, he could not disguise the look of a beReifed man -- "42 going on 70," he said later. And then word came from the technicians on the field that the microphones weren't picking up the sounds on the gridiron because there were no crunching sounds. Reif was joined by some reporters in a trip to the sidelines and sure enough, the sounds from the field were muffled. There was none of the crashing volume heard on the sidelines at Yankee and Shea stadiums.
"It's the grass; it's muffling the sound," Reif said. "That and the crowd noises and the nature of this stadium. No wonder we couldn't get it."
What NBC did get was a huge amount of attention and undoubtedly higher ratings for what otherwise was a meaningless football game between noncontenders on the final week of the regular season. For many interested observers this was a good deal more provocative than a routine football game -- the TV took the play away from the athletes; now it's up to newspapers to figure out a way to do likewise. For NBC's activist executive producer of sports and dabbler in entertainment programming, this was "Games People Play, Don Ohlmeyer style."
Did it work? A view of a man in the pits -- I monitored the telecast from a press box set up in the stadium and visited the production truck and walked out to the sidelines -- is that the telecast was exciting, provocative, sometimes boring, but a celebration of the technical side of television, and highly entertaining for the sheer novelty of it.
It couldn't miss the NBC knew that. Ohlmeyer set it up that way by calling it an interesting production experiment.He kept saying it wasn't a slap at announcers. Though many rivals and skeptics ridiculed that contention, there was no question among the NBC production people and any announcer secure enough not to be quaking about his job that this was not meant to embarrass announcers.
The telecast called for too much hard work, on the part of viewers, who couldn't relax and look away from their sets, or walk away if they wanted to keep on top of the action. On the part of the production and technical people who worked like demons and, for all their seeming aplomb, worried. Ohlmeyer's wife, Muffy, had said, "If this flops, I'm going to sit on the opposite side of the plane from him when we fly out of here afterward."
The telecast featured too many extraneous graphics. Viewers frequently were hit with print material that didn't mean much and that couldn't be fully comprehended in so short a viewing period.
A pox upon all their statistics. The glut of numbers that often clutter up newspaper stories had the same mind-numbing effect on screen. We were being told a lot more than we wanted to know. If this experiment was designed to show that there were areas that announcers can cut down on some chatter, it should also have shown that we can do without all those infernal numbers. Bright idea: let's try another experiment, a telecast without visuals.
Well, almost. One of the shortcomings came from the times they failed to put up necessary vital statistics.They sometimes missed or occasionally were too slow with down and yardage figures. And, as NBC announcer Dick Enberg said later, "They made the same mistake we announcers often make; they didn't give us enough flashes of the score and time remaining in game."
The absence of the announcers pointed up a lack of sound in this game that wouldn't have been missed in an ordinary telecast. When the screen was filled with a close-up of the quarterback mouthing words that we couldn't make out, that accentuated the feeling of a silent movie. When a coach was seen screaming on the sideline, the question arose: why not pick up the sounds with the vaunted new, powerful microphones. It was not out of a fear of profanity, Reif said. "We probably should have alerted our sideline audio man to that, but frequently there was too much else going on or the field mikes weren't close enough to the coach."
The audio tapes of the players ran too long and, wisely, were pretty much discarded in the second half. "At times we tried to do too much," Ohlmeyer said.
They were afraid to let the public deliver its own verdict, and had the gall to put their own view of the experiment on the record before they even went off the air. Pete Axthelm, the Newsweek columnist who moonlights as an analyst on the NFL '80 Show said it was entertaining, but that the announcers were missed -- "drama needs words and music needs lyrics." Though he tried to be fair, he is an NBC man. Because this lacked Axthelm's usual self-mocking humor it all came out like a producer of a Broadway show announcing, after the final curtain of his new play, how good he thought it was.
If the telecast was interesting for being unusual its high moments came when, like a good silent movie, by showing something rather than talking about it. This wasn't Chaplin, but, for a football game, there were some eloquent moments. After Duriel Harris caught a pass in the end zone that was called no-catch because he was out of bounds, there was a dramatic split-second wait for official word -- and that burst off the screen with the sight of Harris joyfully raising his hands in the air.
If TV sets were still at times, the tumultuous activity in the control truck resembled something out of a violent ward: Ohlmeyer producers Larry Cirillo and Mike Weisman backed up director Ted Nathanson in barking out orders to cameramen and audio technicians. One of the treasured moments that the public did not witness came when the Jets' Richard Todd ran for the touchdown that put the Jets ahead, 14-10, shortly before halftime. Nathanson lit up the production truck with a cry, "Score, you S.O.B., score." Nathanson, as a good director always does -- special telecast or not -- was rooting for the underdogs to make a good game of it.
Ohlmeyer talked about the experiment being a success if they came up with production innovations. There were vague comments about getting a better grasp of visuals, discovering a new rhythm and inserting them, and using the announcers better. In the main, the experiment illustrated that announcers are vital and, if used well, most welcome. But everybody knew that all along.
Enberg, NBC's No. 1 play-by-play man said, "I wish I could say I learned something or that it was better than I expected. I think it showed that, like a cake, you have got to put in all the ingredients and the announcers are one of the important ingredients. I was hoping for a real difference, but I didn't see any. I will be curious to see if they learned anything that will be of use to us all in the future."