The largest U.S. TV-viewing audience ever tuned into Super Bowl XLIV on Sunday night and were treated to not only a great game on the field but a rock-solid production by a team that Ken Aagaard, CBS Sports, EVP, Engineering, Operations and Production, says is as important as any new piece of equipment or technology.
“Even if it was the smallest audience of all time, we want everything to be perfect,” says Aagaard. “There is a vast amount of experience at all the positions, and, when I go to war, I want to go to war with these guys and girls because they all have a professional coolness.”
For true technical geeks, one of the highlights was a Super Bowl first as CBS Sports used an uncompressed feed as the backbone of its telecast with Level 3 backhauling an uncompressed signal at 1.5 Gbps to the CBS broadcast center in New York City via dark fiber and Cisco gear.
One of the highlights, from a TV production perspective, was the replay of a two-point conversion by New Orleans wide receiver Lance Moore, a key moment in the game because the original call of an incompletion was overturned and the New Orleans Saints picked up a crucial two points for a seven-point lead.
CBS Sports director Mike Arnold credits Aagaard and his decision to use six Inertia Unlimited xMo systems, plus four Sony super-slo-mo systems, as keys to the quality of the broadcast.
“When I first heard Ken wanted to have six xMo systems, I frankly thought it was bordering on overkill,” says Arnold. “And when Indianapolis made it to the Super Bowl, I thought we would never get the xMos to air because [the Colts] run the no-huddle offense. But that decision, to me, makes Ken the MVP of the telecast.”
With the Colts and Saints in the big game and both capable of running no-huddle offenses, the CBS Sports production team adjusted its own game plan to ensure that viewers never missed a play and also had quality replays. The biggest challenge is that, instead of giving viewers four or even five looks at a play before the next play, they may get only two or three. As a result, producer Lance Barrow would often show the super-slo-mo and xMo replays second instead of third or fourth. “To Lance’s credit, he made that adjustment,” says Arnold, who also adjusted the way he directs a football game.
“I usually like to take a lot of shots after a play because the emotion is after the play and, if you get to the replays too quick, you can’t see the coach or players react,” he says. “But with the threat of the no-huddle, I would cut to the replays more quickly.”
Arnold credits the camera and tape/EVS operators for getting those replays stacked up quickly.
He says the technical team, led by Bruce Goldfeder, John McCrae, Pete Callander, and Nick Muro, also deserved credit and a pat on the back. “They gave us the tools to make it a meaningful visual telecast,” Arnold points out.
Having the right tools is only part of the equation. The other challenge is making sure people who use the tools, in particular camera and parabolic-antenna operators, are in the right spot to get the best looks and sounds. Heading into the game, the xMo and cart operators were told to leapfrog down the field, ensuring that there was an xMo on the goal line during scoring plays, such as the two-point conversion.
“We had six handheld cameras that were moved around to the best position,” says Aagaard. “Mike Arnold deserves a ton of credit because he goes into the game with a plan but can adjust it as the game changes. That’s a remarkable trait for a director doing a game like this.”
Preparation also paid off during the Saints’ onside kick to begin the second half. Camera operator Steve Orloff and the Skycam operators stayed with the kick instead of panning down the field in anticipation of a regular kickoff. “I also thought we had great audio on the onside kick and the scrum with the players fighting for the ball,” adds Arnold. “The audio really captured the chaos.”
While nearly all of the tools CBS Sports had at its disposal made it to air, two didn’t. The virtual goalposts, which can extend the goalposts in case a ball is kicked over one of the uprights, was never used, nor was Hyper Zoom, which would allow a frame to be frozen and zoomed into at up to seven times resolution.
This year’s game marked the second where the broadcaster offered a definitive look at an important play in the end zone. Arnold says that, in production meetings, his team looked at replays of the NBC Sports’ coverage of last year’s game-winning catch by Pittsburgh Steelers’ Santonio Holmes. Within seconds of the catch, the replay was on-air, leaving little doubt that Holmes’s feet were in bounds.
“When teams are running a no-huddle, you need to have the replays cued up at the right spot,” says Arnold. “And you don’t know where those key plays are going to happen. We had six xMo systems, and I don’t know if it’s overkill, but, ultimately, it worked.”
Aagaard concurs, adding that eight parabolic antennas, as opposed to the typical complement of three, was another means of providing the tools for success. “Our team doesn’t have a fear of failure,” he says. “A mistake will be made here or there, but we’re getting the exceptional shot. With eight parabs, one guy might not get the right audio, but someone else will. The same thing happened with super-slo-mos. It’s all about having people in the right place able to pick out the right thing.”