Shift Switch: Producer of a Brewers TV broadcast
When Fox Sports Wisconsin producer Chris Withers is in the zone at work, the product that he and 30 others are furiously working to put on your TV almost fades into the background.
From the outside looking in, each day resembles organized chaos, a delicate ballet of technology, intuition and teamwork that results in an incredibly smooth end product. Because the team works so deftly, so flawlessly, the viewer can concentrate on the game – not on the hundreds of individual components that go into making it.
It just works, and it's natural to take for granted how it all came together. And chances are, you have no idea what goes into the production of every Brewers game broadcast on Fox Sports Wisconsin. I know I didn't.
In fact, I've been guilty, too, of second-guessing the crew at one time or another during a long season. After an OnMilwaukee.com "shift switch" at last Thursday's Brewers game against the Cubs, that will never, ever happen again.
We've done a lot of shift switch articles, and I'm always surprised how hard it is to walk in another Milwaukeean's shoes. But in the case of Withers, I never expected a day in his job to sail over my head like a rising line drive home run to dead center field.
But it did. My night inside the TV truck, and later in the TV booth, made me feel like it was the first day of my first job ... ever. Like I was 15 years old again, faced with flipping burgers for a busload of passengers at McDonald's. So when Withers turned the reins over to me in the middle of a tight ballgame, it's a good thing the rest of the FS Wisconsin crew knew that they should take whatever I told them with a grain of salt – or there could be a lot of unemployed TV guys right now.
There's No "I" in Team
Withers shows up at Miller Park a few minutes before me, and at 1:40 p.m. we're the first two inside the TV truck next to the south dock. The truck is air conditioned and comfortable, though not especially spacious. Without any windows, it's easy to lose track of time.
Monitors line the north wall of the truck, where Withers, director Michael Oddino and technical director Lindsey Groeschel will sit. Behind them is a graphics station called "Duet," and the computers that run the "Fox Box," which keeps viewers apprised of balls and strikes. A separate room to the left handles audio, while a room to the right is reserved for editing and cueing up replays and other video work. The crew uses the same truck about 90 percent of the time at home; on the road, it's a similar trailer with a similar layout. Withers and Oddino work together on 95 percent of the Brewers games; the pair teams up on Bucks games, too.
Everyone, of course, is connected by headset, and once the game gets rolling, it gets quite intense. All these years later, Oddino admits that his job is still exciting.
"You wouldn't be human if you weren't affected by all that," says Oddino. "Trevor Hoffman's 600th save, that was a special night. You get revved up a little bit. Even last night, when (John) Axford came in in the ninth inning, maybe some adrenaline kicked in. You can't have the pedal to the medal all the time, though."
But that kind of excitement is still hours away. Withers started working today at 8 a.m., mapping out the game format. When we settle in, we start searching for footage to use; Thursday is a busy day around baseball – there's an Angles no hitter to talk about and a crazy extra-inning Pirates game from the night before.
Withers, 31, says he wanted to work in TV his whole life. During college at St. Cloud State in Minnesota, he briefly tried working in front of the camera, but quickly decided he liked giving direction rather than taking it. He's been in Milwaukee for three and a half years, coming here from Fox Sports North, and while he's a Twins fan, he admits that he's also a Brewers backer. His job is more fun when the team is winning, after all, and producing 125 games out of the year, he knows that winning helps ratings, too.
Oddino also isn't from Milwaukee, but he travels with this team and sees the players every day. "You can't help but want them to do well. When Casey struggles, you feel for him."
"I couldn't imagine my job if I cheered against them," says Withers. "It would be no fun. It wouldn't make any sense to be not to be a fan."
At 2 p.m., we do a "crew call" in the truck; but four hours earlier, Withers already conducted a pre-game call with the talent who will work tonight's game. We methodically begin preparing clips from last night's game: sixth inning defensive highlights and Axford's closing performance. We also pull video for Cubs' starter Carlos Zambrano and the success he's had at Miller Park, as well as a promo for the new "Tony Plush" T-Shirts in the clubhouse store.
At 2:30 p.m., we prepare and print the numbered note cards that play-by-play announcer Brian Anderson and analyst Bill Schroeder will read throughout the game. About 15 minutes later, we meet up with sideline reporter Mark Concannon to discuss what he will talk about during his game hits.
At 2:50 p.m., we begin putting together audio bites from Axford. Listening to Withers and his crew banter is confusing for a newbie. It's English, of course, but with jargon like "jubbie" and "lip flap" it might as well be a foreign language they're speaking. And, even though I don't understand most of it, what I do understand is that this group is an incredibly tight-knit team.
"I think it's pretty special, not only for Chris and I, but for Brian and Bill," says Oddino. "We're really blessed. One thing about Brian Anderson is that he really understands television. He's very involved. When he talks about something on a conference call, I really perk up."
"They all put up with me, and I appreciate it," adds Withers.
Anderson, of course, doesn't take all the credit. He points to a chemistry with his broadcast partner and a willingness to improvise and let the show breathe.
"We're just talking," says Anderson. "We know what we each know, and either I can say it or he can say it, but you have to work to make it sound that way. There are a lot of times when Rock will circle something and hand it to me. Sometimes I know what he has, and sometimes I don't. When we get to the game and I can steer it, I know he'll go there."
The people pointing the cameras also need to be on the same page. It's about 3 p.m. now, and Groeschel is checking in with the seven or so camera operators, making sure everyone is properly set up for the game ahead.
Someone brings in a big jar of Swedish Fish, and Withers takes a huge handful and sets it down next to his computer, where he's already monitoring e-mail and his Twitter feed.
And yes, Withers sees any and all of the criticism of Fox Sports Wisconsin through social media, too. While it's just a part of the job, he admits that sometimes he takes it personally. "I found out that I don't have as thick of skin as I thought, maybe. I always thought I could let things roll off my back, but there's always a story. Michael and I are working as hard as we can to bring the best product to the viewers every night."
At 3:50 p.m. we get a taste of how the game will come together as Withers leads the pre-production meeting. With Oddino sitting next to him, this is where the pre-game and in-game graphics packages are assembled. Like a lightning-fast, but unusually calm symphony, Oddino orders the mash up of network banners and B-roll of fans walking through turnstiles as the picture dissolves to skipper Ron Roenicke and then to Axford. Each clip – Ryan Braun's batting practice, then what they call the "home run derby Jumbotron" – is finalized in just one take.
Only the segment called "Slaying the Dragons" takes four tries as they work to trim a few seconds off the end so everything lines up as needed.
Three hours into the operation, it's time for "lunch" at 4:30. I'm quietly amused that this early dinner is called lunch, but with really the only break until after 10 p.m., it makes sense. At 5:45 p.m., everyone is back, though, finishing all the clip pre-production work.
By 6 p.m., it's getting a little more hectic in the truck. Pretty much everyone on the crew has a nickname, and the tone is casual, upbeat and fast-paced. Withers is talking to "BA" and "Rock" over the headset, discussing the clips, in this case, the Greinke and Zambrano match up. He's also going over the game plan, as they take notes: In the top of second, talk about the Cardinals trades; Concannon will talk about today's no-hitter in the bottom of the third; make time for the Carsoup.com question of the game; cut to Roenicke's soundbites on the lineup changes and the call in the Pirates game.
Also, Withers tells the Anderson and Schroeder that I'll be handling the production of the bottom of the fourth inning. Everyone enjoys a good laugh.
Everyone, that is, but me.
Next, Withers goes over the pre-game plan with host Craig Coshun, and finally he discusses the commercial schedule with Fox Sports in Houston, where that feed originates. Behind him, Linda Ruekert Costello is keying in stats on the Duet graphics computer, and Jason Szymanksi and Dave Traut are getting the FOX Box ready to go.
At 6:15 p.m., Oddino, Withers and I take one more walk up to the press box, where we discuss a few last-minute details, and at 6:30, the hot TV lights turn on and I tuck myself into the corner about two feet away from B.A. and Rock, just off camera. The broadcast begins.
The informal, even joking crew in TV truck becomes all business at 7:04 p.m. Over the headsets, there's still silliness and throat clearing coming from the booth, though, until the moment Withers and Oddino start methodically and confidently barking out orders. Withers is calling the shots on when to implement the split-screen, roll-outs and the "slaying of the dragons" piece, while Oddino is selecting a new camera angle every few seconds as Groeschel pushes the buttons.
It actually sounds like Withers and Oddino are calling in some sort of air strike over Miller Park.
And I can barely keep up with what's happening.
The game moves incredibly quickly from the truck, actually, and watching it from all these angles is a unique experience I'll never forget. Especially when I witness Rickie Weeks severely sprain his ankle at 7:40 p.m. Well before the TV audience sees the replays that Withers orders and Oddino executes, I see it over and over and over again, in very slow motion. The whole truck groans in sympathy agony.
Finally, it's my turn to take the controls, though honestly, I don't want to. Right before I take Withers' seat, I tell him I don't think I can do this, but he doesn't let me off the hook.
"I apologize to anyone in advance if you get fired because of me," I announce over the headset. Everyone laughs, because really, amazingly, they can all do this job with their eyes closed.
Which is crazy, because even though I'm concentrating as hard as I can, the action is flying past me. With Houston in my ear, I successfully count Concannon in to his segment, something about a "Crew in the Community 50/50 raffle." Moments later, I tell Costello, the graphics person, to bring up the AT&T Trivia answer, all while I'm scouring a dozen monitors to determine if and when a replay is in order. I have absolutely no recollection of what happened during this 1-2-3 inning, but after a routine ground out, I prepare to shout out which monitors should be rewound for replay shots. Fortunately, Withers just shakes his head and says, "Nah, that was pretty routine."
Suddenly, the Brewers record their third out and I hear a confluence of noise. Over the headphones, B.A. is yelling, "Count us out! Count us out!" But I don't know which lever to pull, and as Withers reaches over and does it for me, I count down from six to one in about half a second. Everyone has a big laugh as the broadcast goes to break. I just stand up and yell, "I quit!"
But my duties aren't over for the night. At 8:50 p.m., Withers sends me back to the broadcast booth to play stage manager, normally the job of Renee Haffemann, for an inning. This seems easy enough. All I have to do is listen to the headset and hand Anderson or Schroeder a numbered promo card to read when told to. But with team owner Mark Attanasio being interviewed in the booth, all the promos are delayed.
That meant there were a lot of cards to be read in a short time, so over the headset, I'm hearing, "Andy, give Rock card number 86 as soon as there's an out." I confirm, grab the card and am about to hand it over when Withers tells me to take it back and wait. Rock looks annoyed with my fits and starts, but finally, I'm instructed to fork over the card; Schroeder reads its contents and I bring it back to the pile. It's like I'm a puppet, and Withers is the puppet master.
Of course, this crew wasn't about to let this moment pass without playing a small practical joke on me. Withers tells me to bring down a card while the live camera trains in on the booth. Anderson tells me to look at the camera, then get out. I smile weakly, barely aware of what's going on. I'm still sweating profusely as I head back to the truck.
At 9:20 p.m., Withers assigns me to Szymanski's "FOX Box," the computer that puts balls, strikes and outs on the screen. This task I can handle. When I hear Oddino announce, "FOX Box," I press "F," which makes it appear. When he calls for a promo, I press "G," and it flies in. Then, I watch the game monitor like a hawk. I press "K" for strikes, "B" for balls, "W" for fouls and "O" for outs. It's sort of like playing computer baseball on my old Commodore 64; of course, it's just a small part of Szymanski's job, but one that's exactly my speed.
Around 9:44 p.m., Axford locks down the save, and the Brewers win a close game. The truck votes Greinke the player of the game, and as the players leave the field, the truck gives itself a well-deserved round of applause for a job well done. Withers gets out of his chair and yields it to Brent Valenti, who will produce the post-game. I quickly exit the truck and hop in my car to beat the traffic home.
Amazingly, all of this transpired over exactly eight hours, and save for a super-fast "lunch," Withers didn't take a single break. I conclude right then and there that his job is way more intense than mine, and also, there's no way I could do it.
I'm struck by the immense showing of manpower, hardware and technology that goes into putting each Brewers game on the air, and I can't fathom the costs – and revenues – that must factor into play into every nine-inning affair. Yet, sitting on the couch, it all flows smoothly and routinely, while these 30 men and women toil quietly behind the scenes to make sure everything is perfect. And somehow, it always is.
"I can't say enough about this crew," says Oddino. "It starts with a good attitude, and they never say no. I ask a lot of them, and they do it with a smile. I think everyone really enjoys what they do, and it shows."
Adds Withers, "We have high standards and ask so much of this crew, but all they do is step up and do it."
At the end of a long day, Withers doesn't look frazzled. He's trained to work at this pace, day in and day out, and to pay attention to a million things at once. Oddino, too, seems almost robotic in his methodical approach to directing, but when you look closer, it's really as much art as science.
And still, you'll never see most of the group on camera or even in person. Their craft is to make everyone else look good, which they do with skill and precision. For me, one half inning was more than enough. I'll keep my day job and watch my Brewers games from the couch, thank you very much.
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