Recently, I spent a day at ESPN studios in Bristol, Conn., touring the production facilities and learning how shows are produced.
I visited the sets of many of the sports network's most popular shows. They're much smaller than they look on TV. Special camera techniques are used to make the sets look bigger than they really are. As it turns out, almost all the cameras are robotic and operated by remote control.
There is one enormous room where editors create highlights as games are being played. They also write notes for each highlight on the situation, the action and the result. As a highlight is being shown on the air, the narrator uses those notes.
I also got to meet the key production people and found out what they do.
The coordinating producer makes sure everyone is working together correctly; the producer creates the plan for each show (however, the plan goes through many changes during the production meeting); the director executes the plan of the show; the technical director is responsible for the technical elements of the show; and there is an army of support people to take care of all the details, including graphics, editing and lining up interviews.
So, how is a show put together? That happens in the production meeting for each show. Each production meeting includes all the on-air talent as well as the production staff for that show.
I sat in both the baseball and the NFL production meetings and watched the staff create their broadcasts. The baseball meeting was particularly exciting because it was the last day of the regular season and several playoff spots were still open. They would be decided by the results of the games that day.
As I watched the ESPN production meetings, I quickly realized they are the heart of each show. The production meeting takes place over many hours. It's where all the decisions are made on what stories to cover, what angle to follow on each story, how much time to devote to each story and the significance of what happened.
The meetings begin with the producer going over the plan for the show. Basically it's a list of what stories will be covered and in what way. There is a lot of discussion from everyone in the room, and the plan continues to change as the day's games are played. Everyone contributes ideas on what might be interesting to the viewers. The show comes together during that meeting.
In both the baseball room and the football room, the on-air personalities and the production people are really no different from any group of fans watching games: sitting together eating pizza and pasta and meatloaf; going crazy and shouting at the screen over a good play or a bad call; and, most of all, just enjoying being there with each other. The big difference is that these are experts and they get to share their opinions with the world.
Through it all, there was plenty of joking, storytelling and camaraderie. In both rooms, it was a lot like players joking around in the locker room. Baseball analyst John Kruk is insanely hilarious. It was just plain fun to be there.
At the same time, however, these meetings are focused on the business of putting a show together. It was amazing how many decisions are made on the fly and how much work has to be done in the background to be ready to go on the air.
NFL analyst Chris Mortensen described it best when he said, it's "real-time live journalism."
Although there is a very firm deadline in terms of when the broadcast must start, the atmosphere is cool efficiency and focus, not tension or pressure. Everyone definitely seems to enjoy being part of it.
I spent lots of time with both production teams, got to meet them and observe them throughout the day as they planned their coverage. Everyone, from Chris Berman to the production assistants, was very friendly to me. I never felt like an outsider. Everyone was eager to show me things and answer questions.
Getting into the business
As you might guess, this is a very competitive field and extremely difficult to break into. A good plan is crucial to success.
I asked three types of people at ESPN for their advice to high school students who want to get into sports broadcasting: on-air personalities, high-level production personnel and other production employees who have recently broken into the business.
Here's what I learned from them:
In high school, start as early as possible. Get as much experience as you can, such as writing for the school paper. And, network -- make as many contacts in the business as possible and stay in touch with them.
In college, it's good to major in a technology field if you want to work on the technical side of broadcasting. If you want to work on the journalism side, broadcast journalism would be a good major, but plenty of people at ESPN majored in more general areas such as English.
Once again, network. When looking for your first job, this is where your networking pays off. When you want to work somewhere, it's very helpful to know people who are there already.
Keep a running list of possible entry-level jobs. Check places like the ESPN job postings at www.espncareers.com.
"Get as much experience as you possibly can," said Mortensen. "As you move through it, it will be your passion that keeps you going, because there will be many obstacles. Your passion is how you will know what you really want to do."
As I headed back to Buffalo, I was tired but happy at having had the opportunity to see something that very few people ever get to see. It was an amazing, magical day.
John Tank is a sophomore at Nichols School.