How TV gets made: A look at massive enterprise that is Monday Night Football

You likely will sit in your easy chair tonight (do people still have easy chairs?) and flip on the Arizona-San Francisco game. You will listen to Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden, see all the replays and camera angles.

You will take it all for granted, and that’s just as well. How much thought do you give to how your car is made or what goes into your hot dog (you really don’t want to know)?

However, I got a chance to receive a behind-the-scenes look at ESPN’s Monday Night Football operation at Soldier Field last week. Make that, a huge operation. It gave me a new appreciation for what goes into the national telecast of a sporting event.

Occupying a large section in the bowels of the stadium, the Monday Night crew consists of credentialed production force of 250-300 people, 11 large 80,000-pound trucks, 35 cameras, and 25,000-35,000 feet of cable.

“Unless you see it up close, you can’t get a feel for the size of it,” said Steve Carter, who is ESPN senior operations director. “People take a look at all these cables, and say, ‘My goodness, this is big.'”

Speaking of the cables, I was sitting in the instant replay truck, looking at a massive board of connections. It literally was a wall of wires, seemingly randomly plugged in. I wondered if I pulled out one of them, would it take down the whole show?

I decided, not a good idea. I didn’t want to cause any headaches for Carter.

Carter is in his 13th year of making sure everything works when they flip the switch. He has a wonderful description for his job.

“I tell people, ‘Have you ever seen the parade for the circus?'” he said. “You see all the tigers, elephants and horses. And then there’s the guy with the shovel who gets to clean everything up. I’m the guy with the shovel.”

Carter, though, doesn’t appear to ruffle easily. He seemed pretty calm for a guy who endured a day of travel nightmares that left him with about an hour to spend at Soldier Field.

Perhaps Carter knows that it all works.

“It’s a controlled chaos,” Carter said. “There are a lot of pieces, but it all comes together. We’ve got such a good group of people. The great thing about this crew is that enough isn’t good enough. They always want to make it right.”

The biggest obstacle, Carter said, is the weather. The crew never had a bigger challenge than in 2010 when Metrodome roof collapse forced the Bears-Minnesota game to be played outdoors at the University of Minnesota’s college stadium.

“That was tough,” Carter said. “We always find ourselves having to adapt to the environment. Some challenges are more difficult than others, but we manage to get the job done.”

Here is one fact that got me: Carter said the entire operation will be torn down and on the road within three hours after the game. I don’t believe him. I can’t pack an overnight bag for a weekend trip in less than 30 minutes.

“Want to stick around and see?” Carter said.

I declined. I’m confident in the wee hours of the ESPN’s drivers had their trucks pulling onto Lake Shore Drive. All told, they’ll log more than 32,000 miles for the season.

They left Chicago and headed for Phoenix, and like Jackson Browne sang about the roadies, ready to do it all over again. After what I witnessed, I’ll be thinking of Carter and his crew Monday.

But you won’t, and that’s just as well.





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