Final Four unwrapped: Broadcasts require hundreds of workers

Deep inside AT&T Stadium, below the east end-zone seats, 14 trailers are parked side by side in a concrete canyon.

Inside one of these mammoth vehicles is CBS video editor Tom Blair, who sits behind a desk with no fewer than a dozen video screens showing camera feeds from different angles of the Final Four basketball court.

He and about 450 people from CBS and Turner Sports form what one network executive called a “virtual city” beneath the stadium. Most arrived at least a week before Saturday’s semifinal games. They perform hundreds of tasks each day to ensure that the broadcasts go off without a hitch and viewers come away with an emotional connection to players, coaches and the others who make up the pageantry of college hoops.

Blair’s task: To create a three-minute video montage of highlights from the NCAA basketball tournament. The video is set to the song One Shining Moment, which runs at the end of each game, as the winner cuts down the nets. The tune, written by Michigan musician David Barrett, has been a staple of Final Four TV coverage since 1987.

Blair said that although he works on the montage throughout the monthlong tournament, using video from the 66 previous games, he must incorporate a few highlights from the final game to make sure the video reflects the whole tournament. That puts him up against a tight deadline on championship Monday.

While many fans just hope for a good championship game, Blair jokes that his job is easier when one team gets out to a huge lead.

“A blowout isn’t good for anyone but me,” he quipped. “You know what the story line is going to be, and you can get to work on it.”

For the most part, millions of TV viewers and spectators at games don’t see the work being done in the virtual city.

The fans see well-coiffed figures such as Ernie Johnson Jr., a Turner Sports broadcaster who is hosting studio coverage of the Final Four games along with Charles Barkley, Clark Kellogg and Kenny Smith on one end of the stadium. On the other end is a booth featuring Greg Gumbel and analysts Reggie Miller, Seth Davis, Grant Hill and Doug Gottlieb.

Johnson credits the hard work of crews behind the scenes as well as high-definition television with giving TV coverage of the Final Four a new level of emotional depth, a feeling almost as up-close and personal as if viewers had made the trip to Arlington.

“I think the cameras have gotten so much better, and technology has gotten so much better. Everybody is coming up with gadgets and circles and swishes and swirls and all the stuff on the screen,” Johnson said. “Who knows where it will go next. But I think the way they cover March Madness, the way they cover the Final Four, if you’re sitting at home you couldn’t want any more. If you can’t be there to feel the excitement and electricity, then sitting in your living room is pretty darn close.”

About 15 miles of fiber-optic cable is stretched through the stadium for the Final Four, said Tom Sahara, Turner Sports vice president of operations and technology.

“It’s almost like controlled chaos,” he said. “It looks like ants all scrambling around, but they all have their jobs and they know what to do.”

Twenty-two cameras are being used for the multiple broadcasts, said Harold Bryant, CBS executive producer and vice president of production.

This year, the semifinal games on Saturday were broadcast by TBS, but today’s championship game will be televised by CBS.

The networks are also trying something new this year. Separate “team casts” were produced for the four markets with teams in the tournaments. In the first game Saturday, a Florida team cast featuring hosts from the Sunshine State was played on TNT, and a team cast featuring on-air talent from Connecticut played on truTV.

On Saturday night, a Kentucky team cast was broadcast on TNT, and a Wisconsin team cast aired on truTV.

“In all, this is the biggest production to date for the Final Four,” said Craig Barry, senior vice president of production and executive creative director at Turner Sports. “We build a virtual city down here to pull this off.”

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