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Friday night lights, cameras, TV timeouts

The Armwood vs. Jefferson game had more glamor and glory being live on national TV.

By JOEY KNIGHT
Published September 15, 2006


SEFFNER — The Friday afternoon sun has reached its zenith, right above Armwood High School. The stretch of blacktop just beyond the northeast corner of the football field might just be torrid enough to melt the sole of a sneaker.

But there’s no fear of that happening to anyone on the television production crew taking over the school today. No one is standing still long enough.

More than five hours remain before the Armwood and Jefferson High teams kick off in front of five strategically placed television cameras that will broadcast the game to the 7-million national subscribers of the fledgling college sports-oriented network ESPNU.

But for this crew of nearly three dozen — all but one of whom are freelance contractors hired by ESPNU — these remaining hours before showtime appear to be a perpetual two-minute drill.

Some hook up a series of multicolored cables that slither from various parts of the stadium to an 18-wheel production truck parked on the blacktop. Others set up an additional bank of 15 lights, behind the home bleachers.

One maneuvers a six-wheel satellite truck next to the 18-wheeler.

Still others dart in and out of the production truck, where dozens of TV monitors remain blank for now.

The impending broadcast has had the school buzzing all week.

“From the coaching staff down to the players and the student body, there’s a feeling that this is an opportunity that comes only once in a lifetime,” said Darlee Nelson, Armwood’s student intervention specialist, and ironically, a former Jefferson High football coach.

“The kids are very excited that it’s happening here at Armwood.”

Assistant Armwood football coach Miles Bilinski personally painted the field two shades of green so it would look good for its closeup. Coaches took time from planning strategy to assemble the elaborate stats and player bios ESPNU needs for a polished show.

“The hairiest part?” says operations producer Fred Clow. “I guess it’s just coming into a stadium that you don’t know.

“You know when you walk into Fenway Park, you know when you walk into Giants Stadium, what the setup’s going to be like. These are new facilities, and they’re facilities that, for the most part, have had very limited television in there.”

This is the unknown arena into which ESPNU is venturing this fall. Over the next 10 weeks, a crew such as this will converge on high school football stadiums and try to pull off a sleek, prime-time production for a nationwide audience.

Collectively, it’s called the ESPNU Old Spice High School Showcase.

Logistically, it’s called a crapshoot.

“A lot of (high schools) aren’t equipped for exactly what we need,” said producer Darren Chiapetta, a 33-year-old Connecticut resident coordinating the broadcast.

Fortunately for Chiapetta and his crew, Armwood’s Lyle Flagg Field is a good stadium from a production standpoint.

The press box, Chiapetta says, is adequate to accommodate the two-person broadcast team of Doug Bell (play-by-play) and Tom Luginbill (analysis).

And the parking lot is spacious enough for the production and satellite trucks, not to mention a mobile black generator the size of a small U-Haul trailer.

But the additional lighting, as well as  extra power and cable outlets, seemed inevitable.

“You go in, you expect that,” said Clow, a onetime ESPN staffer now freelancing. “High school stadiums are high school stadiums. They don’t have cable, they don’t have power, they don’t have phone lines run.”

They also don’t have sports information departments with all the biographical and statistical minutiae essential for a quality broadcast.

That deficiency required associate producer Stephanie James, 28 and the only ESPNU staffer on this crew, to begin collecting the data from Jefferson coach Mike Fenton and Armwood coach Sean Callahan weeks ago.

“I had them fill out their bios, favorite TV show, all that kind of stuff,” Callahan said. “It felt like I was turning in a term paper. It takes time getting all this stuff organized.”
 
Both coaches had to provide the network with depth charts, rosters, historical information about their programs and extensive player questionnaires.

“They sent us a stack of papers like this,” Fenton said, holding his thumb and forefinger about two inches apart. “It took forever to get through it all.”

Similarly, it will take seemingly an eternity to break everything down and load everything back onto the trucks.

The same workers marinating on the blacktop Friday at 2 p.m. knew roughly 11 hours remained in their workday. None expected to leave  before 1 a.m. Saturday.

“Oh, the end is the nightmare,” said Alexis O’Hearn, a Miami-based freelance production assistant who will travel to

Orlando today to assist with the Central Florida-South Florida college game, then return home for a 1 p.m. Dolphins contest Sunday.

“You’re filthy, dirty, hot, stinking and you have to take all this (stuff) out. ... I never leave until they’re all gone.”

All in a 14-hour day’s work, done behind the proverbial eight-ball of live TV. And behind the cameras.

Seems you don’t spell glamor with an E, S, P, N or U.

“Last week, we had so much fun because the game went down to the wire,” said James, who spent Friday night coordinating the on-air graphics in the production truck.

“It was a winning field goal in the last 10 seconds. I mean, it was fun. We don’t do it for any glory.”