CBS's 'traffic cops' directing viewers through NCAA action

Media Watch

March 15, 1996|By MILTON KENT

NEW YORK -- Like the groundhog, Rick Gentile, temporarily the most important man in America, only occasionally poked his head out of the mini-control room off to the side of Studio 43 at the CBS Broadcast Center here yesterday.

And like the furry animal whose presence indicates an end to winter, the appearance of Gentile, with his curly salt-and-pepper hair stuffed inside a Final Four cap, meant all was well with CBS' NCAA tournament coverage.

"We had a good day. We just didn't have any buzzer-beaters," said Gentile, CBS Sports senior vice president of production, and the man who heads the team that decides when the Connecticut-Colgate blowout your local station has been assigned becomes the Stanford-Bradley game.

In CBS' fourth year of producing and telecasting all 63 of the games during the three weeks of the tournament, network officials believe they have gotten better at what is a Herculean task, bringing pieces of what has become the nation's second biggest sporting event, after the Super Bowl, to a hungry nation.

Though the action takes place at eight sites around the country, the real fun happens at this midtown Manhattan building where shows as varied as the "CBS Evening News" and "As the World Turns" are produced.

Here's how it worked yesterday. A collection of satellite trucks pulls in signals from Providence, R.I., Indianapolis, Dallas and Albuquerque, N.M., and sends them upstairs.

From there, a host of producers and technicians, working in a darkened control room, manage the game feeds and bark out orders to the producers and directors at the game sites.

For instance, at 3: 05 p.m. yesterday, while Baltimore viewers are watching Duke-Eastern Michigan, the CBS control room is leading the audience in a process called "walking the dog": Viewers are guided through other games in progress in one picture, while keeping in touch with the Duke contest with a smaller picture.

Meanwhile, on the studio set where Pat O'Brien runs the ship in the afternoon, with Jim Nantz taking over at night, joined by analyst Clark Kellogg there is a scramble of activity.

In front of the anchor desk are monitors trained on each gym site, with a functioning scoreboard and clock to keep O'Brien and Nantz abreast of current situations.

Toward the back of the mammoth set is a research area. There, each game is monitored by three people who are picking the contest apart for statistics and notes that can be used on air, and a pit boss of a producer orders the young staffers about.

If Gentile is the most important man in this operation, Nantz and O'Brien are not far down the list, at least for the viewers, because they act as traffic cops, directing audiences as many as four at a given time through action.

"Every year, I look forward to the challenge. To me, this is the beginning of spring," said Nantz, who has been studio host for the early rounds for 11 years.

Around the corner from the set is a smaller control room with a committee of about eight or so people who watch each game, and, led by Gentile, make the call on when to move sections of the country from one game to the next.

It's no easy decision, and it's complicated by the fact that the network is obligated to keep stations that cover the area where a tournament school is located with that team's game no matter how lopsided the score may be.

Gentile, the No. 2 official at CBS Sports, wears casual garb that distinguishes him from the phalanx of suits moving about the floor. He says "it's a gut thing" that helps him make the decision to move from one game to the next a decision that takes about 45 seconds from the time it leaves his lips until the actual switch.

"If you can help it, you don't want a big chunk of America sitting there watching a blowout," said Gentile.

"The safety net we have is that we can always pull back. You

have to let them [technicians and on-site crew] know, but you can always pull the plug."

The first two days are the hardest, Gentile said, because there are 32 games going on, with sometimes as many as four occurring simultaneously. But they feel they get it right most of the time.

Gentile and other network officials are rankled by the suggestion that ESPN did it better. ESPN carried first-round games in the tournament before CBS bought up the rights to all 63 games four years ago.

The CBS gang points out that unlike ESPN, which was producing just one game for its entire viewership and pulling in feeds from other originators, CBS is producing and telecasting every game.

"ESPN never had this. They never did this. We never had this, until the tournament went to 64 teams. This isn't the kind of thing that you do normally," said Gentile.

But then, there's nothing normal about March Madness.

Pub Date: 3/15/96

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