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What It Takes To Put The Classic On TV

Friday, August 1, 2003



Photo: BassFan
Here's a look at just one of the NASA-looking consoles in one of the ESPN production trucks.

Two satellites, two helicopters, three cranes, four 18-wheeler-sized production trucks (one of which contains a huge generator), six months of preparation, 20 satellite phones, 25 cameras (at $50,000 or more each), 100 production people, more than 150 pieces of pyrotechnics and 351,360 feet of videotape.

Those are just a few of the stats that should give you a hint about what it takes to get Bassmaster Classic competition from the Louisiana Delta and the New Orleans Arena to your living room.

ESPN and Bassmaster TV producers JM Associates allowed BassFan a sneak peak at what happens behind the scenes at the ESPN version of the Classic, and we discovered that only in doing that does it begin to make sense -- "it" being the money involved, the money needed, the pedigreed hirings by ESPN and BASS, and the "new landscape" on which bass fishing is playing.

Those stats give you an idea, but there's obviously a lot more involved. For example, the sole role of one of the helicopters is to pick up tapes from the 10 cameramen on the water and ferry them back to the Superdome. That way the ESPN and JM folks can get cracking on "packages" of good footage to splice into the telecasts.

The initial plan was to scoop those tapes out of each camera boat using a net lowered from the copter, but local security concerns wouldn't allow it. So the helicopter will now land in prescribed locations at specific times, and pick up piles of tapes that are deposited there by boats. And all those boats do -- every day, all day for 3 days -- is run tapes from the 10 camera boats to those pickup locations.

Getting the picture? Here's another example.

Production people are sent out on the water with Palm Pilots to record how many fish the anglers are catching. The PDA units also automatically track the GPS position of the anglers, and all of that information is sent via satellite to the production teams at the Arena.

"That way we know that Jay Yelas, for example, has been in an area and caught a fish there at 9:00 and 11:00, and then moved to another area and caught 4 more there before noon," said JM producer Angie Thompson. "What that allows us to do is to know that we need to get a good (video) package on Jay because it looks like he's going to be in (the hunt).

"We're having the tapes sent back by helicopter, so when those (initial) tapes come back by 10:30 we know we can start working on Jay's tapes and his footage for the live show and the telecast." The GPS data allow the production and transportation crews to keep tabs on anglers who are doing well, to get their tapes back that much quicker.

No Picnic

Those are just two examples of the high-tech, high-dollar activities that are needed to pull off modern Classic coverage. But even that little sniff shows you that covering the Classic makes Monday Night Football, for example, look like a picnic.

A football field is around 100 by 50 yards. The Louisiana Delta is 500 by 500 miles. As Thompson said, at the last New Orleans Classic "someone said that it was like a tournament where you could fish anywhere in state of Arkansas. You'd meet in Little Rock and then go anywhere. That makes it challenging for the anglers, and extremely challenging for production."

"In other sports, they know someone won't run off the playing field and run off into town, or do something else no one else expected," said Jerry McKinnis, the well-known on-screen host (or "talent") who owns JM. "Between that and Mother Nature's personalities, it makes this a more challenging thing to cover than any other sport. But that's the thrill and adventure in it."

Not only that, football has two teams (with one potential winner) and only 22 guys are on the field at once. The Classic has 61 players -- spread out anywhere -- any one of whom could win. Even after 2 days of competition usually 2 or 3 guys could win.

"One of challenging aspects of this event is how plan a story line," Thompson said. "In other events, you have four quarters of play and X amount of time- outs -- a lot more constants when you're going in. But you really don't have that in this sport. It's hard to plan without knowing what's going on, particularly going into the first day."

She added: "In our sport at least 50 percent if not more of what really determines the outcome happens underwater, and we can't see it. So to try to express that to viewers who may not be avid BassFans is really difficult. We try to use 3D technology to explain what happens underwater, but we can't plan (what will actually happen). So we might plan that and work 16-hour days to try to get (all the graphics) ready, and it might not happen."

For the same reason, most of that 351,360 feet of videotape won't ever see the light of day. "We have 10 cameramen covering 10 anglers," McKinnis said. "When it comes down to the end, we may only feature 3 or 4 of those anglers, so it's possible that half of coverage is null and void off the bat."

He added that each cameraman is shooting about 7 1/2 hours of tape per day, and if ESPN used 10 minutes of that 7 1/2 hours, "that would be an awful lot."

Then there are all the features on anglers which are put together ahead of time. "We might shoot 20 and only use 6 or 7," he said. "I wouldn't say we waste them, but not knowing what (will happen) we have to shoot a few things (to have ready). If you shoot a feature on a guy who ends up in 48th place, you'll never get an opportunity to use it."

Three Teams

Once the tapes are in and the weigh-in starts, the behind-the-scenes production is somewhere between a well-choreographed dance and an all-out war. The on-the- water, weigh-in and event production teams are all going full blast to make sure the event goes off without a hitch, is exciting and is on TV on time.

Tape has to be put together for the live show and the TV show, and at times the TV show will be airing without the full telecast even being finished yet. That might not sound like a big deal compared to Monday Night Football, where everything is shot and aired live, but refer to the above stats for the differences. Televising fishing is a different animal entirely.

Still, even with all of that staff and equipment, Thompson noted that you can't manufacture good TV. "You can have 250 people on the production staff, but what it really comes down to is what happens on the water. It comes down to one person holding a 30-pound, $50,000 camera in 100-degree heat and making sure there's footage there that tells a story."

Watch It

To see whether ESPN and JM have met the challenge, tune in. Classic coverage starts today on ESPN2 at 7:00 p.m. EST, and on Saturday and Sunday will be on ESPN (not ESPN2) at 6:00 p.m. EST.


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