Lance Barrow has developed a ritual for Super Bowl Sunday, a little something to fortify himself before sitting down to watch the hours-long spectacle that will unfold this weekend. He checks in with loved ones and mentors, who over the years have included noted sportscasters Pat Summerall and John Madden.
Barrow’s view of the Super Bowl is decidedly different from that enjoyed by tens of millions of TV viewers each year. When Super Bowl 50 kicks off on CBS this Sunday, Barrow will be sitting in the network’s broadcast facility at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, trying to figure out which of around 70 different cameras, hundreds of staffers and an arsenal of new sports-TV technology to put into play. “It will be like a little city,” he suggested. He is the coordinating producer of the event, likely to be the biggest that CBS — or any other network, for that matter — will telecast all year.
Yet for Lance Barrow, Super Bowl 50 is just another football game — well, more or less. He has worked 12 of them over the years, after all. “They are still going to play two quarters, and then they’re going to have halftime, and then they are going to play another two quarters,” said the 60-year-old producer.
Everyone — Barrow included — involved in the production realizes there’s a lot more at stake. The annual Super Bowl telecast has become the most-watched event in TV history, and has broken new audience records in each of the past two telecasts. For CBS Corp., it’s an opportunity to enjoy outsized advertising revenue and lend a promotional halo to everything in which the company is involved: TV shows, the Showtime cable network, CBS News, CBS Radio. “It’s always nice to have the most-watched show in history, but we can’t control it. A lot is going to depend on how close the game is in the final minutes,” said Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports. “I would love to have it be the most watched of all time. That would be great for all of us, but if it’s not, life will go on.
That’s not to say CBS isn’t readying a few tricks to make the broadcast more compelling. CBS will for the first time in a Super Bowl deploy eight custom-molded pylons that house 16 cameras. The idea is to film the goal lines and sidelines on each side of the match, so that viewers can get a field-level view of plays. The technology has been used in the recent past by ESPN.
CBS will also employ a replay system that gives viewers a 360-degree perspective, thanks to 36 cameras strung around the upper deck of the arena. Producers can freeze a particular moment and revolve the camera view around the play. Viewers can catch a glimpse not only of what the quarterback sees, but also the safety’s perspective.
And you thought John Madden’s telestrator was neat.
No one wants to overwhelm the broadcast with stunts. “You have so many elements you can use at your disposal, and what you don’t want to do is force something into the game,” said Barrow. “You shouldn’t do that just because you have the capability of doing it.” But it’s hard to dispute what McManus called the “wow factor” of being able to show high-resolution images from the field of play — like one that might show whether both of the receiver’s feet were on the field of play when he caught a pass — that could not be done in the recent past.
CBS has also taken steps to make sure its Super Bowl broadcast isn’t overwhelmed by a freak happening. The last time the network had the gridiron classic – Super Bowl XLVII in 2013 – it had to contend with the unexpected. The game came to a halt early in the third quarter when a power surge cut electricity to a decent chunk of the Mercedes-Benz Super Dome in New Orleans. The result? Lower year-over-year ratings for the first time in several broadcasts.
In 2016 CBS will have three sources of power, “land power, battery power and diesel-powered generator,” said McManus, and if one goes out, the other two are ready to serve as backup. A correspondent from CBS News will be available to cover any disruptions in play for the broadcast, and CBS Sports sideline reporters Tracy Wolfson and Evan Washburn have been given instructions to cover any interruption aggressively. “We will be prepared to do a really good job if there’s a news story that happens to take place during the Super Bowl,” said McManus.
Barrow has tossed the incident aside. “That was something way out of our control,” he said. “That’s out of my memory. That was a long time ago.” He can draw upon plenty of other experiences. He has worked the event for CBS since 1978, and is also the coordinating producer for the network’s “Thursday Night Football” games.
You won’t find him getting ratcheted up as the network moves from pre-game to coin toss to kickoff. “Nobody needs to tell you it’s a big game,” he said. “But you have a lot of people watching your personality on that day, and if you’re up in the sky, nervous and afraid, everyone else is going to be nervous and afraid, and we get into this business to do the big events. You want to be part of the big events that your network has.”
Besides, he has more on his mind. After the last play of Super Bowl 50 is complete and the post-game analysis begins, Barrow has somewhere else to be. He needs to get to Pebble Beach by Sunday evening to start taking charge of CBS Sports golf coverage of the Pebble Beach Pro-Am. That’s when he will really know the day is complete. “If I’m not having dinner at the Tap Room at the Lodge in Pebble Beach by Sunday around 9 p.m. [Pacific Time], something is wrong.”