Most of the country will be watching and betting on the Super Bowl on Sunday, hoping for an exciting game or at least a few good commercials.
While eyes are generally focused on the players, the flair of the scoreboard and accompanying stats and graphics take on greater importance than usual. For the handful of staff in the production truck, major sports such as this is their chance to shine as well.
I corresponded with a couple of veterans of TV sports graphics (a combined 54 years in the field) about what goes into the planning and decision-making for the on-screen scoreboard, in-game statistics, the commercial fade-out music — and the recent inclusion of odds and fantasy football data presented at every game.
Is the goal of sports TV graphics to provide quick, easy important information, or cool imagery and flash?
Matthew Ford, associate producer, NBC Sports, FOX, CBS: Believe it or not, in my 13 years’ experience in sports television, I’ve consistently been told that insert graphics for sports broadcasts are primarily meant for the audience watching at bars or locations where audio is not available. Home viewers have the luxury of hearing the natural audio of the sport as well as listening to the commentators giving all the pertinent information during a game. The graphics teams’ responsibility is to visually answer as many questions as possible for the viewer in the shortest amount of time. What team or player is on-screen? What is their role? What game situation are they in?
All season, TV viewers’ eyes are trained to look for certain things in certain places (name, stats, score, clock), yet often during big games, the networks revise that look, meaning viewers must retrain their eyes.
Ford: That’s a valid point. I have worked on several events (Super Bowls, NCAA football, March Madness) in which the networks use one “insert look” for graphics during the regular season and then change them when the big game/championship rolls around. They might use a “newer” or “different” look to spice things up a bit. Networks do this because they know these events are their “big market reaches” and often they are either in the process of unveiling a new insert look for the next season or they are thinking about trying to win a Sports Emmy for graphic design while they are in front of such a big audience.
Who ultimately makes the call on what graphics will be used? The producer? The graphics “guy”?
Ford: “It takes a village,” but yes, the font coordinator or Graphics Associate Producer (AP) are responsible for everything the viewer reads during a broadcast. An enormous amount of preparation goes into every broadcast because the graphics department must be prepared for every situation. In the week or days leading up to the event, the Graphics AP creates a list/database of graphics needed to be created. This can be a list of original ideas, but it is often influenced heavily by the stories that the head producer (often called a Line Producer) wants to tell. Often, the Line Producer was at one point a Graphics AP and he or she will help to populate a list of “specialty graphics” that they want to help tell the story.
There have been times when a network removes the crawl – such as during the Super Bowl – to give viewers a more focused look at the game. Are there games when the production crew’s goal is to display as much info continuously during the game (taking away from the actual live game action?) It seems that at times, these bottom-screen graphics inadvertently cover a key replay such as the out of bounds line.
Ford: Fred Gaudelli (Producer of Sunday Night Football) once told me that the single-most-important graphic in any sports event is the “bug,” which is the graphic that displays the teams, score, period and game clock. To that end, we typically leave that graphic in for the duration of the sports broadcast (remember…for the people watching from the bar). But if you notice, graphics are always removed during replays to give the viewer an uninhibited view of what just happened (except for brand identification or if there is a Telestrator used to draw the viewers’ attention to something.)
Is it my imagination, or has there been a much bigger emphasis placed on providing game odds for sports bettors and even more fantasy stats? Do sports betting app sponsors play a role in these decisions?
Bud Bray, graphics operator, ESPN, ABC, NBC, FOX, CBS, TNT, MSG: The mentioning of sports betting used to be discouraged. But now, it is more common and acceptable. Networks like to mention it because it keeps viewers interested and tuned in. And it helps the television ratings.
Ford: Sporting events such as the Kentucky Derby and the NFL have come to rely on real-time graphics integration technology to graphically enhance their sports broadcasts, and displaying odds can be a part of that. When “Vegas Odds” and “Fantasy Football” stats are changing constantly on the screen, there becomes a need for “real-time” graphics integration, which is now possible thanks to technology.
What other numbers or graphics are automated?
Ford: Companies such as SMT (SportsMEDIA Technology; a company that designed its yellow “first-down marker” for football) and other third-party vendors have found their niche in making these possible. In the past, this would have had to be information that was displayed only as fast as the Graphics AP and Graphics Operator could determine it and type it in. Today, the graphics world has come to rely on automation for this immediate and ever-changing type of information.
How much advanced planning for individual games goes into production? Is someone designated to do a deep dive into potential statistical storylines that could emerge from the game?
Ford: It depends on the budget. Major networks might have an entire department dedicated to research and analysis for events such as the Olympics, NFL and March Madness, but for smaller-scale broadcasts, research can fall squarely on the shoulders of the Graphics AP and the Line Producer.
Who chooses what individual stats are displayed along with live score updates, in the crawl or during halftime shows or post-game shows? Is it based on a production team person’s personal judgment on the fly? Or is it computer-programmed?
Ford: “Crawl” graphics showing news and scores for events outside of the current live event being featured on the screen are generated from each respective network studio. Most pre-game, halftime and post-game shows are usually their own self-contained broadcasts as well, usually taking place at the network studio. The in-game graphics usually are the only ones that come from the actual site where the event is being held.
Bray: What I enjoy the most about this job is telling the story of a game with stats and other information. This requires reacting to situations without knowing ahead of time what is going to happen in a live event. We get to convey why a team is winning or losing. With some experience and by paying close attention, we react in real-time to give analysis. I really enjoy that mental challenge.
Is having the job to monitor these stats considered highly stressful or “fun”? How many staff are needed to monitor, enter or edit these stats?
Ford: Great question! Ask most who are assigned to do this and they would say stressful. A lot of broadcasts (such as March Madness) will hire a few people for every game just to watch certain statistical trends in-game and keep up with milestones, etc. Though most major series’ (NASCAR, IndyCar on NBC, NBA on TNT, NFL on FOX) hire a full-time statistician whose job is to keep statistical databases and relay relevant information to commentators, graphics, and production in real-time.
Does each network have its own “style guide” for how to abbreviate teams or schools? For example, Tampa Bay has been shown as: TAMPA BAY, TAMPA, TB and even TBAY? Who/how is that determined? Often, there is no consistency to those abbreviations, even within the two opponents of that game.
Ford: In short, every network has its own “style guide” and instructions on how to display data. You’ll notice that every “bug” graphic has its own look. When FOX shows a Buccaneers game, its “eye-bar” may only have room to display three letters or less– hence why they display TB – while another network’s bug only has room for more, hence the “TAMPA” display. Usually, networks’ style guides are very descriptively defined and even convey how to word the graphics on-screen. For instance, using “YDS” instead of “Yards.”
Likewise, some TV-screen score displays use the teams’ logos. Sometimes those logos are cropped so you don’t see the full logo. Sometimes they are placed in-full into a rectangle. Who makes that decision?
Ford: Team logo display is at the discretion of each network’s art director. If the network’s “look” is to crop the school’s logo in a center-cut fashion, all logos will be cut in a center-cut fashion. Every network has its own “look” and every network has its own “graphics police” who will “arrest” you if you try to do anything that is outside of their style guide. Remember, there are people within these networks who are paid enormous sums of money to make sure all graphics on the network fit a proper standard. They become terribly upset when someone tries to “think outside their pre-defined box.”
Bray: Networks use graphic design to look different from other networks and distinguish themselves. Artwork and stats can be subjective, and everyone has an opinion. It is impossible to please everyone. Most of the time I believe the production team takes opinions among themselves, and if the majority believes in an idea, then it is believed that the majority of the audience will like it, too. In our profession, it’s generally thought that viewers are used to media giving them many choices of things to look at, and it’s up to the viewers to concentrate on what they are interested in. Yes, sometimes, there can be too much on the screen. It’s a product of everyone trying hard and always trying to come up with something new.
Sticking with football, why such an emphasis on displaying the play clock? It is shown in two places on the screen, and even turns a bright color when the clock nears :00. Play clock expiration penalties are rarely called. How does crowding the screen with this graphic add to the viewer’s experience?
Ford: Producers love drama. Selling an expiring play clock means drama. This is the subliminal concept that is perpetually drilled into every sports viewer’s mind.
Bray: In football, the play clock is emphasized because there must have been enough people in charge who thought it was a good idea. Others disagree. Viewers probably feel the same way. I have displayed things in telecasts that I disagreed with, but it was what my boss and the network wanted.
In football, so much space is used on the screen for graphics to show what team has the ball and what direction they are going. Even the casual fan looking at the screen would know what team is on offense and what direction they are moving. What does this add to the viewer experience?
Ford: If you watched football telecasts before 2000, it was surprising how little information actually was on-screen at any point. There were no virtual graphics! No down and distance on the “bugs.” There was only a score, a clock, and what period, quarter or half they were playing. Every innovation since has enhanced even the most casual viewers’ game-watching experience.
And, the flashier the better! As technology improves, we will continue to see bigger, flashier animations from the graphics department. When I worked for “Sunday Night Football,” one fun, new animation we used was an NBC peacock feather on the “bug” that flew into the air and landed on the field as a virtual “Down and Distance” graphic. Was it necessary? No. Was it flashy and new? Yes. So, we implemented it over the next year until it became too bothersome to coordinate. The TV sports viewer is always looking for the next gimmick!
Check Twitter, and you’ll find comments about the music choice for fade-in or fade-out spots. Who chooses the music? What are the key factors behind the decision? Do you brainstorm songs that would/could be appropriate for a given team, city, situation?
Ford: This is a question of budget. If it’s a minor event such as the Drake Relays track meet, then it’s basic/generic NBC music to/from break. But if it’s NBC Sunday Night Football, it’s any song the producer wants and can afford (if the song is not owned by NBCUniversal) such as one played by a local band, otherwise you pay royalties. You’re right though, the right music can make the perfect moment.
NBC/CBS/FOX/ESPN NFL packages have great generic music bump packages because there are entire departments that make them so! For example, John Tesh is one heckuva composer. These cuts are familiar to all. For example, he won an Emmy for the “Roundball Rock” music for NBC’s NBA coverage and eventually sold the rights to it to Fox for its college basketball coverage a few years ago. Here’s a link to the music being played live and how it came to be.
Enjoy the game!