The happy cast of characters you see grinning out at you above is not, as you might suspect, the out-of-town company of Thai's My Boy. It's actually the operating management of the biggest knothole gang in the world, the one which pokes an electronic hole in the fence at the nation's top football game each week and lets 25 million freeloaders look in on the off chance they might buy, for the privilege, an electric razor, a jar of headache pills, a set of tires, some greaseless hair tonic or even a hearing aid.
For this is the TV Game of the Week crew which this Saturday will stab the Big Eye through the sun and smog of the Los Angeles Coliseum and give the public its current drama in two acts starring the Saturday matinee idols of the University of Southern California and UCLA, a 1956 version of the greatest show on earth replete with daring acrobatics, death-defying leaps, hairbreadth escapes, deft ballets, brassy music, crazy clowns and even an occasional wild animal or two. And it's brought to you 13 times a season by the National Broadcasting Company (and Zenith Radio, U.S. Rubber, Bristol-Myers, Sunbeam, Minneapolis-Honeywell, Liggett & Myers and the American Machine & Foundry Co.) at the cost of $3 million—all for free. As you will see from the portrait above, this extravaganza involves everyone from Latin professor to candy butcher and it is the most eye-catching, outsize phenomenon in sport history.
Quarterbacking this whole massive operation are the men huddled around the Eye itself—Announcer Lindsey Nelson, Producer Perry Smith and Director Harry Coyle. The eye of the public will be on the game, but its ears and attention will be on them and how well they do their job. It's part of broadcasting lore, apocryphal or not, that some years ago a rich and famous sportscaster was calling a Notre Dame game on the radio when a halfback, whom we shall call Christopher Marlowe, broke loose for a touchdown. Our myopic announcer thought it was another back whom we shall call Witlesslowski and the fellow was describing Witlesslowski's run with shrill terror: "He's on the 40, the 35, the 25—!" Suddenly he became aware that his spotter was giving him a frantic wave-off and uttering soundlessly, "Marlowe...Marlowe!" Our announcer never missed a syllable. Remember, this was radio. "And on the 20, Witlesslowski laterals the ball off to Marlowe and he goes in for a Notre Dame touchdown!" he shrieked triumphantly.
This quick thinking did not go unnoticed—or unresented—in the industry, and some weeks later our announcer was in Toots Shor's when he spotted fellow Announcer Ted Husing. "Ted," he purred, "I have a chance to do the Belmont Park races this fall. Can you give me some tips on horse race broadcasting?" Husing shook his head. "I'm sorry, old man," he said, "you can't lateral off a race horse."
November 26, 1956
The point is, you can't lateral off a football player any more, either. And no one is more aware of this than the dapper, unruffled narrator of the NBC-TV Game of the Week, Lindsey Nelson.
"The thing you've got to remember in TV-casting," notes Lindsey carefully, "is that the man at home has got a better seat than you have. He can see the play better and closer than you can. And there's nothing more irritating than to have someone tell you something happened that you know damn well didn't happen."
The reason the character on the receiving end of the microwave relay knows it didn't happen is that he, thanks to NBC, is seeing the game with five eyes, each of which has a depth of focus and angle of vision deeper and wiser than he could ever hope for. There may be as many as five separate cameras focused on the Game of the Week even though only one view at a time goes out to the 21-inch screens. The No. 1 camera sits at one anchor of the press box, usually the 20-yard line. The second and third are on the roof of the press box at the 50-yard line. The fourth is on the 20-yard line at the other end of the field. And a fifth—with an intricate 60-inch lens so penetrating it can show only microscopic action like the measurement for a first down—is lashed onto a portal at midfield a little above field level. Zoomar elements of varying intensity are affixed to each of the other cameras so as to be able to bring the action from closeup to panorama with a twist of the dial.
The director who decrees which of the five pictures shall go out on the air sits in the monitor truck outside the stadium in a pilot's chair where he can see all monitors simultaneously. Harry Coyle, an affable New Jersey Irishman who is a football buff first and a TV technician second, will then yell, "Take one!" or "Take five!" depending on which of the five scenes appeals to him as best dramatizing the action of the moment. Technical Director Jim Davis will then flip the switch which throws the cognitive image on the air. Out on the field or roof, the cameraman knows his picture is on the network by the red light which snaps on.
Up in the announcer's booth in the press box, facing the monitor which shows him what is going on the air, Lindsey Nelson has a responsibility to the audience in the truck as well as in the living rooms. "This is a kicking down," he will warn as a team faces fourth down with yards to go. In the truck, Coyle and Producer Perry Smith will take the hint and affix one camera on the kicker and another on the potential receiver.
"We used to keep cameras on the ball, following it up in the air on punts," explains Nelson. "But we find the audience gets disoriented. So now I tell the audience what kind of a kick it is, high, short, squib or shotgun. They see the kicker. Then they see the receiver.
"That illustrates one of the important differences, video versus radio. On TV the audio must supplement the video but not overpower it. We must try to keep out of the way as much as possible. It's a funny thing, but audience preference in video-casting breaks down regionally. In the East they don't want you to talk at all—just shut up and let them see. In the Midwest they want you to talk your head off. They get nervous if they can't hear you chattering. Last week we got a letter from a man who was sore because we talked over the band music. Only there wasn't any band music [Navy-Notre Dame]."
There are almost as many people who watch the TV Game of the Week for the peripheral goings-on as for pure football, Nelson has found out. He wisely tries to let the audience in on the rooting sections, card stunts, band tricks and assorted hoopla. But he never indulges in half-time interviews and bars the door to incoming telegrams from "the gang at Joe's Bar and Grill" or the old grad from Sweetwater, Texas who reports "game coming through loud and clear here."
Nelson is trying to profit by a generation of mistakes in sportscasting. A profession pioneered by the late Graham McNamee, whose broadcasts roamed the wonders of nature, only occasionally pausing to rest on the action of the field, sportscasting traditionally has been the domain of a cluster of velvet voices who disguised what was going on beneath a mass of alliteration and misinformation which enriched the language but not the sport. Lindsey Nelson was picked for his job by NBC Sports Director Tom Gallery because he was tired of this turgid tattling and wanted a man less noted for his mellifluence than for his football acumen. Nelson, brought up in the football tradition of the University of Tennessee, a spawning ground of modern football techniques which saw Coach Bob Neyland send such other cadets to the football wars as Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd, Minnesota's Murray Warmath and Tennessee's Bowden Wyatt.
"I can't ever say 'Coffin Corner,' 'fourth and final period,' 'whole host of tacklers' or any of the clichés anymore," admits Nelson. "On the other hand, I can't aim specifically at the technical audience either. We don't conduct a football clinic. The basic things a football fan wants to know are still who carried the ball? how far? and who stopped him?"
Nelson does not even conduct the time-out critiques, turning these over to a co-worker whose credentials are in perfect order—Harold (Red) Grange. Red comes to the game armed with a sampler's assortment of oddments and statistics so that he can—at the drop of a ball—tell the audience that they just saw ol' State fumble for the umpteenth time this year or that the naked reverse which just fooled Tech was the same play that won last year's game for the old master of the single wing.
The team of Nelson and Grange arrive on the scene of the Game of the Week simultaneously with the sound truck (which, fully loaded, is a 14-ton mobile studio whose drivers groaned in Baltimore two weeks ago when they learned they had just five days to drive to Minneapolis for Minnesota-Iowa). Grange's main job is to add color and the second-guesser's touch to the action and, unofficially, to divert the heavy public relations load from Nelson by taking on the luncheon and cocktail party good-will appearances. "I've covered so many homecoming games [six so far this year] that I just couldn't take one more maudlin old grad!" groans Nelson.
TOO BUSY FOR CHICKEN
Nelson is actually too busy out at the practice fields acquainting himself with the vying squads to take on the Martinis and the vulcanized chickens anyway. The first thing he does in town is inscribe the names of all (three-deep) personnel on a Rube Goldbergian contraption he got up himself—two pieces of sheet metal cut in the shape of a football with 11 "windows" cut in for the names of the players. Nelson inserts disks bearing the names, numbers, hometowns, weights and heights of the players into these. The disk inserted into the left tackle spot, for instance, will have the first-, second-and third-string left tackles listed so that Nelson—in the heat of the game—can have a correct lineup in front of him by simply spinning the disk to allow the correct name to appear in the window.
Nelson must prowl the home-team campus for days before the game for valuable tip-offs on the host team and a study of the motion pictures of the opposing team. Coaches are normally hospitable and trust Nelson implicitly. In the Kentucky-Georgia Tech game Coach Bobby Dodd told him his team would run several series off an unbalanced line in the second half. Forewarned, Nelson was able to call his downfield players more correctly than the home-town radio broadcaster.
At the Minnesota-Iowa game Nelson became aware of Iowa's predilection for using a trailing flanker and was able to caution Smith and Davis not to let the cameras go up too close on apparent pass plays: "Iowa might lateral the ball right out of the picture."
An important member of the crew in this regard is Castleman (Chezz) Chesley, the NCAA liaison man with the network. Chezz's prime function is to insure that the officials allow enough interval during time-outs to do the all-important commercials, but he also sits in on the valuable and informative pregame sessions with the officials. This year Syracuse Coach Floyd Schwartzwalder sent word to the officials that he had a series in which his quarterback made a full 180° circle before the ball was snapped and wanted them to know he came to a stop and the play was legal. NBC was anticipating the move, and when it came was not only on camera but able to explain carefully what Schwartzwalder was up to.
"It's no longer possible to hop right from the Stork Club into a plane, arriving at the stadium for the kickoff," insists Nelson. "The game is too complicated and the fan is too smart or, at least, can see too well."
Wherever possible, the crew likes to have a "live" run-through just like any other TV spectacular. One time it wasn't possible was at Notre Dame when Frank Leahy was coach and flatly refused to bring his squad onto the field for final practice until the stadium was cleared of all the prying eyes, human and electronic. With other coaches, Nelson—who telephones more head coaches than a high school tailback with a D average—not only asks for but gets complete cooperation right down to a chart of the team's defenses.
The selection of the TV Game of the Week is a bit complicated. This year it works out to seven national and five regional telecasts, plus one split-network arrangement on Thanksgiving. All games, save those of the Big Ten, were picked last April—which accounts for such one-sided horrors as UCLA-Michigan and TCU-Arkansas finding their way on the coaxials and microwaves. The Big Ten won the right to hold open its choice of teams until the week of the game—which accounts for such bonuses as Minnesota-Iowa. For the West Coast Thanksgiving regional, Oregon and Oregon State were persuaded (in return for the handsome receipts) to schedule their traditional game two days early, whereas Miami vs. Pittsburgh was moved from a Friday night to Saturday (Dec. 8) to oblige Game of the Week fans.
This week at Los Angeles a game which looked a dud a month ago—USC vs. UCLA—now appears to be a fine addition to the most successful season of telecasting since the medium grew out of its constrictive regional infancy. From card stunts to safety men, French horn players to field judges, the glittering troupe is ready to make Saturday, Nov. 24, in the Los Angeles Coliseum a De Milleian delight on the millions of flickering aluminized screens from the prairies of Texas to the penthouses of Manhattan and show the country California is a worthy host for the newest national extravaganza, the TV Game of the Week.
The actors in Saturday's football drama are selected with infinite diligence by eager talent scouts. After he is enrolled the young prospect must then be tutored in the niceties of the game and cast in the role best suited to his particular talents.
Meanwhile, the endless preparations for the big show are under way backstage as cross-country schedules are arranged, stadia built and groomed to house the big act, intricate designs for victory drawn and dazzling, gaudy costumes selected.
Once the production is arranged, the performers are assembled to learn their parts. First they must be groomed and nurtured and posed for publicity. Their muscular mechanism must be tuned, each part rehearsed to the edge of perfection.
The curtain is now almost ready to go up. The staging crew prepares a backdrop for the spectacle—prancing cheerleaders, marching bands and, of course, the sine qua non of any American pageant, the hot dog and the soft drink are made ready.
IT IS SATURDAY AFTERNOON. THE STANDS ARE FULL, AND MILLIONS MORE AWAIT THE GREAT MOMENT ON TV.
ATHLETIC DIRECTOR, STAFF, PUBLICITY DIRECTOR
WORKING PRESS, RADIO AND TELEVISION
HEAD COACH AND STAFF
ALUMNI ARRANGEMENTS COMMITTEE
PUBLIC ADDRESS ANNOUNCER
TRAINER, TRAINING TABLE CHEF ASSISTANT TRAINER
TICKET MANAGER STUDENT ASSISTANT
MEDICAL AIDES SPECIAL DOCTOR, TEAM SURGEON
OFFICIALS (UMPIRE, REFEREE, FIELD JUDGE, HEAD LINESMAN, BACK JUDGE)
SPORTS PUBLICITY DIRECTOR
PUBLIC ADDRESS ANNOUNCER
PRESIDENT, ATHLETIC DIRECTOR, V.I.P.'s
THE ELEVEN BEST TO DATE
HICKMAN'S HUNCHES For games of Saturday, Nov. 24
•Ohio State vs. Michigan. No bowl bids pending here, but Buckeyes would share conference title with win over Wolverines. A close one, but a vote for quick-striking MICHIGAN.
•Pittsburgh vs. Perm State. Both teams have banged heads with the best and have not been found wanting. Goal-line stands and second-half surges are a common trademark. A slight edge to PITTSBURGH.
•Tennessee vs. Kentucky. Without notes, I remember many undefeated, untied Vol teams of the past waylaid by Wildcats. History could repeat but won't. TENNESSEE.
•Harvard vs. Yale. Cantabs could catch Bulldogs still celebrating Princeton win, but the Big Blues are really rolling home. YALE.
•Florida vs. Georgia Tech. In September, Coach Bob Woodruff told me: "My Gators are lying behind a big log, waiting." Once-defeated Florida may be the most underrated team in the nation. Without the courage of my convictions, GEORGIA TECH.
•UCLA vs. USC. In this TV Game of the Week the still-powerful Trojans and the thin but valiant Uclans clash with no Rose Bowl bid at stake. Steadier UCLA.
•Rice vs. TCU. Thrice-beaten Horned Frogs still look like best Cotton Bowl bet but must win over Owls to save face. Potential still there. TCU.
•Miami vs. West Virginia (Nov. 23). Hurricanes blowing harder every week. Mountaineers can't be taken lightly but MIAMI.
Colorado over Arizona
Auburn over Florida State
Brigham Young over Air Force Academy
Stanford over California
Clemson over Virginia
Iowa over Notre Dame
Arkansas over LSU
Michigan state over Kansas State
Duke over North Carolina
Illinois over Northwestern
Oklahoma over Nebraska
Princeton over Dartmouth
Purdue over Indiana
Columbia over Rutgers
Baylor over SMU
Washington over Washington State
Minnesota over Wisconsin
Last week's hunches: 18 right, 6 wrong, one tie Record to date: 166-48-11