Teamwork behind the scenes pays off for CBS

Media Watch

March 13, 1998|By Milton Kent

WASHINGTON -- From her seat at the MCI Center, Jo Prosser, a kindly, white-haired grandmother had no idea, but with a second and half to go in yesterday's Xavier-Washington NCAA tournament game, CBS director Mike Arnold and producer Bob Mansbach were making her a star.

Jo Prosser, the mother of Xavier coach Skip Prosser, was living the drama and anxiety that comes this time of year, when 64 teams go in search of college basketball's holy grail, a national championship trophy.

The Musketeers had been locked in a see-saw battle with the Huskies, and as the game wore on, Jo Prosser's expressions of alternating joy and despair painted a television-friendly picture.

And when Xavier's last shot attempt was swatted away by Washington's Todd MacCulloch at the buzzer, Mansbach, Arnold and their crew captured Mrs. Prosser's pained reaction, with her back turned to the court, and her hand pressed against her forehead.

"There's so much genuine emotion from the kids and parents and fans in the stands that makes it all worthwhile," said Arnold before the game. "There's nothing like real life sports drama and that's what this is. It's like 63 individual little dramas, except they don't script this."

Next to the players and coaches of the 64 invited teams, no one feels the tension and drama of the tournament more than the hundreds of CBS employees who televise the 63 games that make up the tournament.

These aren't just another bunch of basketball games. Next to the Super Bowl and the World Series, the NCAA tournament and the Final Four are the biggest events on the annual sports calendar, so big, in fact, that CBS is paying the NCAA $2.2 billion over seven years for the television rights.

In that vein, just as the participants place their reputations on the line with each game, so, too, do the producers, directors, cameramen, technicians and on-air talent. A cameraman who is out of position for a critical shot, or a tape operator who misses a cue to go to a replay or an announcer who habitually botches the names of important players, may well find themselves looking for work.

"[CBS Sports president] Sean McManus told us at our seminar that this is one of the most important events on the network's schedule," said Sean McDonough, the play-by-play announcer at this site. "I rank doing this event right up there with the Masters, the World Series. It's right there on that level in my mind, and of course, you feel the importance of it as you're working."

It's on days like yesterday and today -- the first round of the tournament -- where the challenge is most difficult. Each of the crews at the eight subregional sites has to do two sets of doubleheaders, with only a couple of hours of down time in between.

After a long day of preparation Wednesday, the 30-member crew arrived here at the MCI Center before 8 a.m. yesterday to start a day that ran past midnight.

"You have to watch for the fatigue factor because all of a sudden, you're just not as fresh as you need to be. It's a long, grueling day," said Mansbach, a 17-year CBS veteran.

On top of the pressures within the arena, there's the New York factor to cope with. There are at least two people in constant contact with the network's broadcast center, which controls the routing of telecasts.

Because CBS is carrying all of the games in the tournament, the network will frequently move viewers from one contest to another at less than a moment's notice, though viewers in Baltimore and Washington saw very little action from here, as Navy and Maryland were playing during the same times.

That means announcers and crew have to be prepared to change directions in midstream, sometimes in mid-thought, to bring the game to another audience.

"You're juggling a lot more balls than normal. It's much, much more frustrating for the announcers. They may be ready to tell a story and then all of a sudden, they have to welcome in a new audience," said Mansbach. "It gets frustrating, but that's the nature of the beast."

Said Arnold: "I learn to tune it out. It can be a really frustrating

day, if you let it. While you think you're the most important game going on, it's the carnival of the first day that mixes everything up."

The crew manages to get through the carnival by banding together. Mansbach, an animated fellow, and Arnold, a more calming influence, who, between them have nine Emmys are collegial, spreading compliments through the headsets much more frequently than criticisms.

And from the trailer, where a band of younger staffers type in statistics and prepare graphics, to the main production truck, where the sound and pictures are routed before heading out to New York, there's a spirit of commonality that gets the crew through an exhausting day.

"Individually, none of us really matter. If I fell down right now of a heart attack, someone would fill in for me. But together, we make the pie," said Gary Graffeo, who has handled video at CBS for 18 years; his brother George has been a cameraman at the network for 22 years.

They would need all the camaraderie they could manage to get through a tough first game, where a series of internal sound glitches got in the way. McDonough, for instance, had a hard time hearing himself or his partner, Bill Raftery, in his headphones, and sideline reporter Andrea Joyce couldn't hear Mansbach at all, on occasion.

In spite of it all, the crew rises to the level of the terrific afternoon contests played here, which both go down to the final buzzer, with underdogs Washington and Richmond pulling off big upsets to advance.

"Nice job, folks. We're off to a great start," chirped Mansbach.

Two down, 61 to go.

Pub Date: 3/13/98

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