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A behind-the-scenes look at the WWF's unique broadcast production challenges

WWF wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin once hijacked a Zamboni and drove it into the arena, which was planned. What hadn't been planned was when he backed up over the audio transmission cables to the satellite truck, severing them. Until a spare was run, the live broadcast had no audio.

Another time, the crew and cameras were soaked by a beer-spraying fire hose so that the servos on two of the lenses stuck. For a few segments the camera crew had to be the camera's iris, pushing and pulling the focus manually.

Zamboni-proof cables and liquid-resistant cameras are just two examples of the extensive production equipment inventory required for a typical live World Wrestling Federation Entertainment (WWFE) event. But then again, there's nothing really typical about a WWFE broadcast. WWFE productions are hybrid events equal parts sports and rock 'n' roll with a good measure of the unknown mixed in as well.

With sports or a rock concert, the action is confined to one area: the playing field or stage. For a normal sporting event, cameras are set up in the arena and shots are blocked out. Football, for example, stays in a grid. Wrestling, however, goes all over - and outside - the arena, and producers must adhere to a storyline.

In addition to these challenges, the production staff must meet a grueling production schedule that includes 116 televised events per year. These include RAW, the top-rated live, two-hour show on USA; Smackdown!, a live-to-tape, two-hour show on UPN; Livewire, Superstar and Sunday Night Heat on USA; and two syndicated one-hour shows - Jakked and Metal.

One recent week's workload encompassed 13 hours of live television production that needed to be finished within six days. The vast majority of the time, producers set, shoot and strike the same day, which is rare in this industry, especially for back-to-back events.

The focus of the "set" is the wrestling ring in the middle of an arena. Smaller, but still important, components include a large lighting truss hung above the ring and a metal stage wrestlers walk down. Production crews rig the ring, stage and truss with cameras, mics, monitors and other equipment. For any WWFE event, there is a multitude of RF equipment being used - mics, headsets, lavalier mics. There are also about 100 different video feeds all over the building, all controlled through the remote truck. Three ENG crews cover certain parts of storylines.

Cabling is always a challenge because it's different from arena to arena. The dressing rooms are also cabled right to the truck. So, what we normally do is homerun probably 6000 or 7000 feet of cable per event. These arenas aren't set up for that. They're sports venues. Some arenas are very cable-friendly, where the trucks can park close to the event floor. Some are not, so you have to run 400 feet just to get in the arena. If an event is pre-cabled, production crews try to utilize as much of the coax, triax and XLR drops as are available, and if that doesn't work, then they turn to homeruns.

The fact that the action in the ring is scripted provides a slight advantage, but crews still have to remain on their toes and expect the unexpected. Knowing in advance where some of this stuff is going to happen is helpful to production, but production crews allow themselves another 50 feet of slack, because you never know.

WWFE's production team was put to the extreme test during WWFE's annual Wrestlemania event, the equivalent of the Super Bowl. But this year's production added a new wrinkle. More than just the main event, this year's Wrestlemania - held at The Pond in Anaheim, CA - comprised a whole weekend of events, rather than just one day of television broadcasting. This year we had a 12-hour PPV broadcast offering eight hours of a "pre-game show," the three-hour PPV Wrestlemania event itself and an hour "post-game show."

To coordinate all these segments, WWFE brought in three remote production trucks, instead of the usual single truck used at all events. Basically, three events were going on at the same time. At the Anaheim Convention Center, one production truck covered local portions of the show, with the tape rolls and all transmissions going through that truck. At The Pond, where Wrestlemania was occurring, two trucks were operating: One was a sub truck for All Day Long and the other was the main Wrestlemania and USA Network truck.

These three trucks had to be tied together for transmission and communication. On paper, the event was fairly straightforward, except for tethering all the transmissions together. The logistics were worked out in an empty convention center. However, with 10,000 people in the seats, it became very complicated to shoot, because there were so many people around and nobody could hear.

The "pre-game show" was a retrospective look at the history of Wrestlemania. It was an interesting show to compile, because it not only outlined the history of WWFE, storylines and character development, but it also chronicled the development of our television product.

One of the daunting aspects of this year's Wrestlemania was for every hour of the pre-game show, there were approximately 40 minutes on tape and 20 minutes live, which translates to about six hours of highly produced material that needed to be created in the month before the event.

The continuous coverage that WWFE's crews pulled off for Wrestlemania represented an extraordinary effort and, while no WWFE event is common, there are ways to lessen the strain.

For every production, 90 percent of the equipment is set in advance. There is a jib camera, three hard cameras and four handheld cameras tethered to the truck every time. Three ENG packages are always backstage and production crews always hang speaker clusters. There are also various points of audio and video connectivity to pyrotechnics, lighting, screens, etc. So there is a technical "shell," which is added to for each event.

Another thing that's unique about the broadcast production is that, unlike sports, there isn't an off-season that allows us to sit back and evolve a new theme. We're on all the time, as our product evolves. It's a daunting assignment.

In the middle of this constant on-air activity, we're also faced with the challenge of continually updating our technology. We have always prided ourselves on using the best technology available. But it can be a two-headed monster, at times, making our remote production match with the capabilities of our in-house audio/video production teams. WWFE productions employ Chyron iNFiNiT! graphics systems, GVG Kalypso and GVG 4000 production switchers, Leitch still store and a PESA routing switcher. Production crews continually strive to achieve parity on the road with the tools available at the headquarters in Stamford. We're always sending information back and forth via satellite prior to live events. They'll do something in post and send it by satellite or fiber to us, and we'll integrate it into the show; or we'll send something that we shot, and they'll sweeten it and send it back to us.

WWFE has also migrated to newer digital formats as aggressively as possible. A decade or so ago, mostly analog one-inch tape was used in our trucks. Now it's Sony Digital Betacam. We've purchased Sony 790, 900 and 950 cameras in our truck, so we basically have a compatible optical block situation. We are extremely aggressive in utilizing the latest technology in our TV positions. An Accom four-channel DVEOUS/Attache system was also recently purchased and definitely added pizzazz to our production in terms of replay moves and animations that can be added in our production, our lower-thirds and our graphics, which is one of our strongest areas.

In terms of audio, at each event more than 100 inputs are mixed through Calrec Q2 and Soundcraft Spirit consoles, because we have so many specific audio sources to record and to mix. The base platform is 104 inputs, but sometimes the numbers reach 120 or 130.

It is challenging - creatively, logistically and technically. But we pride ourselves on getting the job done no matter what.