Evolution of Covering the Super Bowl

When it was time to boot up the character generator back in the early days of Super Bowl broadcasts, the tool of choice was a folded-up Styrofoam coffee cup stuck between the circuit boards, according to Peter Douglas, director of news and sports solutions at Harris.

These days, of course, Styrofoam cups aren't even used for coffee--let alone coming anywhere near the sophisticated gear inside the six Game Creek production trucks Fox is using to broadcast Super Bowl XLII Feb. 3.

A Fox camera operator captures the action during the 2005 Super Bowl XXXIX at Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville, Fla. Feb. 6, 2005.This year, Fox will use upwards of 40 cameras--mostly Sony 1500s, plus Ikegami HL-40 robo cams, Thompson LDK 6000s and four Sony 3300 Super Motion cameras--to cover the pregame show, a red-carpet broadcast à la the Oscars, the half-time performance by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and the game itself. The whole shebang will be broadcast in HD 720p with Dolby 5.1 sound.

That's a far cry from Super Bowl I, the 1967 matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Green Bay Packers at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The game was covered by both CBS and NBC.

"I would be surprised if between the two networks they had more than seven cameras," said Ken Aagaard, senior vice president for operations and production services at CBS Sports. "There were no isos, no individual replays--they were just covering the game with wide shots from a high end-zone camera and high cover cameras. The audio was in mono, and that was it."

Meanwhile, consider one of the obstacles that faces Mike Davies, Fox Sports director of field operations, this year: The University of Phoenix Stadium's grass field rolls out of the stadium on an 18.9 million pound tray. The field will move in and out three times after Fox parks its trucks.

"That presents some unique challenges in setting the field, getting all of our goalpost equipment up and building our pregame stage, which is going to be on the side of the stadium where the field goes in," Davies said.

While broadcasters in the 1970s didn't have to cope with rolling fields, they had a host of other challenges arising from the bulky, unreliable gear they used.

"You would send more people to fix things and keep the equipment working than you would to operate it," said George Hoover, chief technology officer at NEP, the Pittsburgh remote production company, and author of TV on Wheels, a history of mobile production. "Today most people who work in TV remotes don't have any electronics background. But back then, every guy had a pocket protector and a tweaker--everything anybody worked on needed a tweak or an adjustment at some point."

Something as simple as getting a tighter shot required rotating the lens turret on the tube cameras in use at the time. Occasionally, Aagaard said the camera would stay live, and viewers would catch a glimpse of the operator turning the lens.

Jim Malone, now chief technology officer of RF Central in Carlisle, Pa., started working in TV in 1977.

"Slo-mo, handhelds and long lenses were the cool things back then," he said.

Indeed, for many years, a 25-50mm zoom was considered standard, and now, Aagaard said, "we're over 100:1. The Canon and Fujinon lenses we use get in really tight; they give the director the ability to get under Tom Brady's helmet from a camera that sits in the end zone."

In Phoenix, Fox will use a full complement of animations and its standard lower-third graphics produced with four Chyron Duet HyperX2 units, as well as three Fox Box units. That's a far cry from the cards on an easel used to superimpose a player's name on the live image in the early days. The 3M Datavision, which was introduced in the late 1970s, was still "pretty rudimentary," according to Hoover of NEP. The big graphics advances came in the 1980s, with the Chyron 3 and then the Chyron 4.

And while the bug that continuously shows the clock and score seems unremarkable today, Aagaard remembers that the industry reacted with incredulity when Fox introduced it in the early '90s.

"David Hill said, 'I'm going to leave it up there all the time,' and they all thought he was crazy," Aagaard said.

Even cables have come a long way. TV-81, the camera cable that was used through the late '60s, was about 1.75 inches in diameter. That's because it contained 81 individual wires, each of which controlled a single camera function.

"If one of those 81 wires didn't make it from one end to the other, that function didn't work," Hoover said. "Philips, now Thomson, invented triax in the late '60s, and that revolutionized everything. It was a single cable, and it was field-repairable in about 15 minutes."

As a result, broadcasters could use more cameras and set them up quicker. But that doesn't mean that cabling issues are nonexistent for modern Super Bowls. This year, in fact, Davies' team will be laying extensive fiber in order to transport the HD signal to and from the stadium, the red carpet set and the production trucks.