On Super Bowl Sunday, replays bring to bear a wide array of technology, but humans are the wild card
Sometime during Sunday’s Super Bowl game there will be a close call — a questionable fumble, an uncertain touchdown — and to resolve a coach’s challenge or a question about the officials’ ruling, the National Football League will turn to a higher authority: NBC Sports.
It’s taken largely for granted now, but the TV coverage of the game can and does affect the game itself. The league relies on video from the TV broadcast to overturn incorrect rulings on the field.
This isn’t a theoretical issue. The quality and availability of replay footage affects games every week of the NFL season. This year, both conference championship games hinged on replay reviews. Officials at first missed the fact that a punt had glanced off the knee of a San Francicso player, enabling the New York Giants to recover. Replay revealed the muff. Earlier in the day, the Baltimore Ravens came within fractions of a second of scoring a game-winning touchdown against New England. Replay showed the ball was stripped from the player before he could complete the catch.
In an NBC conference call earlier this week, NBC Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus and Super Bowl game telecast producer Fred Gaudelli seemed mostly resigned to the system.
“That is the broadcaster’s oblgation and what we have to do,” said Lazarus. “We take it very seriously.”
Gaudelli said, “Whether you like it or not you’re a major part of (the game) so you’d better have it right.”
Getting it right requires a deft coordination of men and machines. The technology NBC will throw at Super Bowl coverage and replays is impressive. Yet the league and the network are both mum on a human factor that could undermine the whole system.
The referee and the replay officials see the same video fans see on the telecast. The NFL provides no video of its own to watch. Replay reviews are supposed to be completed in one minute from the time the referee goes “under the hood” to look at monitor on the sidelines. If a replay shows up after that minute is over, it shows up too late — at least in theory.
To capture critical replays and air them quickly, NBC Sports will deploy an impressive array of gear: 40 game cameras, including positions on both sides of each goal line and shooting up and down both sidelines. For slow motion there will be two Sony super-slow-motion cameras using Canon 100 x 9.8 HD Digital lenses and four NAC Ikegami X-mo cameras that can slow action down even more than the Sonys.
Recording all that are 29 digital video replay sources: 27 six-channel EVS XT-2 video servers, most continuously recording three or four channels of high-def video (Continuous recording means there’s no danger of missing something, even during playback.) Video from those servers is fed to five Avid editing suites for pre- and post-game shows and two Final Cut Pro suites for bumpers and in-game highlights. There are also two super-slow-motion EVSs and 10 Sony Linear tape machines. Video can be recalled from the EVS servers instantaneously, and in only a second or two from the tape machines.
Ultimately, though, all that technology just records data. The images have to be reviewed by human eyes very quickly and then moved over.
“You’re searching to find the absolute defining angle of whatever the play can be, as it was with Santonio Holmes or James Harrison in the last Super Bowl we did,” said Gaudelli.
They narrow their search to the part of the field where the play was made. “Once you see it,” said Gaudelli, “you try to get it up as quickly as possible (in case) a coach has to challenge or the replay booth has to stop (play). Then you start searching for more angles to confirm what it is you’re seeing and hopefully not dilute the best angles.”
One of the dangers of this replay system, though, is that no mattter how good the technology, people are corruptible.
The late Chet Forte, the first director of Monday Night Football, was an admitted compulsive sports bettor throughout his TV directing career.
“I bet everything,” Forte told Sports Illustrated in 1991, “But football was my worst sport. And Monday night was the worst of the worst.”
By the time Forte left ABC in the mid-’80s, he had amassed $1.5 million in debt. Those who knew him said he cared more about the telecast than the money, so he laughed off the losses. Forte’s betting never stirred a public scandal, but in his era the broadcast’s instant replays weren’t used by the league and never affected the games.
Late in his life, as a sports-talk host, Forte warned about the dangers of relying on the TV production team, which might include gamblers, to help decide a game’s outcome. Those warnings have been ignored, at least publicly. Under the current rules, a gambler on the broadcast team in the truck wouldn’t even have to bury a critical replay, just delay it from airing until after the officials’ have made their call.
The NFL told me flatly, “There is no reason to believe that this is an issue.” But I also asked if there are background checks and screenings for crew in the NFL production trucks, mentioning Forte’s example. NBC declined comment.
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