Sun Nov 28 10:50am EST
It's easy to watch a CFL telecast without really thinking about what goes into it. There's a lot of work that goes into providing the visuals, sounds and commentary we see every game, though, and that goes to a new level for an event as big as the Grey Cup. On Friday, I got to see some of that firsthand thanks to a behind-the-scenes tour of TSN's broadcast facilities. I'll have more on different aspects of TSN's CFL coverage throughout the next week or so, but for now, let's focus on the special stuff they're doing for the Grey Cup.
The most interesting piece of TSN's Grey Cup coverage might be the cable cam they brought in from the U.S. specifically for this game. It can go almost anywhere on the field (it's designed for American football, so it can't quite get into the end zones on the longer Canadian field), and it should provide some great overhead shots. Paul Hemming, one of TSN's two directors for the Grey Cup, said that camera gives the broadcast a new and exciting ability to bring the viewers closer to the field.
"It drops right down over the quarterback's head in the huddle, so you're literally 12 feet from the quarterback," he said. "It also has a shotgun microphone on it too, so you'll hear conversations and when they clap their hands to break the huddle. You can't get any closer than that."
Hemming (pictured, right) said the cable cam goes above and beyond all the other equipment TSN has.
"If these are all Christmas presents, that's the best present," he said.
TSN brought in some American experts to handle the camera, which is remotely operated by a two-man team of pilot and cameraman. Aaron Fitzgerald, an active helicopter pilot who's worked on everything from the Super Bowl to Major League Baseball to The Bachelorette and did the Grey Cup before when it was a CBC production, will be piloting the cable cam, while Brett Crutcher (who's been involved in everything from the Super Bowl to The NFL on Fox to the Daytona 500 to My Favourite Martian) will be handling the camera. Hemming said having those guys on board will be a great asset.
"We've got the A-team [Ed. -No, not those guys!] for that, and that makes a huge difference for me," he said. "With 34 cameras on board and especially this one that we never get to use in the regular season, it's imperative that these guys know where they need to be and how they're going to get there."
Of course, there's still some adaptation involved for Fitzgerald and Crutcher.
"The big difference for them is the Canadian game is twice as fast as the American game," Hemming said. "There's a 40-second play clock in the NFL, there's a 20-second clock here, so they have half the time to set up. It usually takes them the first couple of series to get used to the speed of the game, but once they do, they're good all night."
Paul Graham (pictured, right), TSN's executive producer of live events, said the total cost of using the cable cam for the Grey Cup is about $100,000, which is why they can't use it for every game. It should provide a great extra dimension to their Grey Cup coverage, though.
Of course, there's more to the broadcast than just the one cable cam. In total, TSN has 35 different cameras that will be covering this game. One of those is back in Toronto at the league's Control Centre, which handles replay reviews; the others are on scene in Edmonton. RDS, which has their own production truck here as well, will take the TSN feed and mix in five Alouette-centric camera feeds of their own. One of the other neat camera ideas (which TSN has been doing all year) is having cameramen run onto the field behind the huddles to give viewers a close-up look at what's going on in those discussions. There will also be cameras focused on everyone from Anthony Calvillo to Barrin Simpson, and plenty of crowd shots to boot. Graham said the total cost of the broadcast is over $1 million.
TSN has three production trucks at this year's Grey Cup. One mostly handles the game, one focuses on pre-game pieces, the halftime show, and post-game stuff and the third is the RDS truck. The TSN game truck (pictured, top) is massive, featuring several rooms and about 30 people, including everyone from producers to graphical operators (who design the pop-ups you see during broadcasts) to statisticians.
Despite all the extra features for in-game coverage, Hemming said many of the challenges around the Grey Cup broadcast come with the pre-game events.
"Once they kick the ball off, it's just like every other game," he said. "That's like a comfort zone. In a situation like the Grey Cup where I'm responsible for directing player intros, the anthem, the Snowbirds' fly-past, all that increases my anxiety a millionfold. For me, once that all goes away and they're ready to kick the ball off, it's just like doing any other game."
Hemming said one of the keys to a successful broadcast of this magnitude is chemistry, which is why TSN has brought their top people in from across the country.
"The camera guys I work with are the guys I've worked with all season long, all across Canada," he said. "Those guys know me better than my own family."
Hemming's main task during the game is looking at all the camera feeds he has available and deciding which one fits the broadcast best at that particular moment.
"I have 34 cameras, and it's my job just to pick the best one or the most appropriate one," he said.
That sounds challenging enough on its own, but for him, it's a nice change from the pre-game ceremonies.
"The game is relaxing for me," he said. "All the other stuff is very stressful."
TSN president Stewart Johnston said the mammoth undertaking of the Grey Cup broadcast only works because of the CFL's help.
"When it comes to the Grey Cup, but actually all season long, we have asked the league for more and more co-operation, more access to the clubs, more ways to bring the viewers closer to the teams, the players, the stars, the games," he said. "They've been very accommodating."
Johnston said those kind of requests for access haven't always been an easy sell, but the results (TSN's average audience of 876,000 for CFL on TSN broadcasts this season is higher than that for any of their other properties) prove it's worth it.
"Teams are quite private with their practices, their players, their speeches, but they've seen what it's done for the league and for the stars," he said. "With the ratings we've had for the last three years, year-over-year-over-year-increases, we hope the proof is in the pudding."
One of the key areas of increased access for the Grey Cup is pre-game speeches, which Johnston said have been a great addition to the TSN broadcasts of the event since 2008.
"They added such an incredible element, the energy, the closeness, what it's like for these players before the biggest game of their lives," he said.
Johnston said TSN hopes to build on their experience from broadcasting games all year, and take it to a new level today with the extra cameras, equipment and personnel in place for the Grey Cup.
"You'll see everything we've done all year, ramped up on steroids."