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Canzano: ESPN's fuzzy Pac-12 football broadcast issue comes into focus
ESPN says it has fixed the problem.
ESPN hated me last college football season. The network was unhappy after I criticized it for airing a series of fuzzy, low-budget-looking Pac-12 Conference football games.
It wasn’t your TV.
It wasn’t your eyes or your cable connection.
I’m here to advocate for you — the Pac-12 football fan. I wrote a couple of columns on the subject after noting the puzzling, low-definition, early 1990s-quality broadcast for the Washington State vs. Oregon game that aired on Nov. 13.
I learned that ESPN had the minimum number of cameras (six) at the game. Also, staff and contractors who worked that game told me the network sent a sub-standard production truck to the event, used a back-up spotter, and didn’t have a stage manager present.
It appeared to be cost-cutting by the network and I wondered if the Pac-12 might want to bring the issue up in the next round of media rights negotiations. An ESPN spokesperson read my column last November and wrote to tell me, “The notion that we are doing Pac-12 games on the cheap is patently false.”
Bill Rice, a camera operator with more than 30 years of experience, worked the game that evening in Eugene. I tracked him down and Rice told me that the production truck was in his ear for most of the game, imploring him to get his shot in focus.
“The truck kept saying, ‘Tighten it up’... ‘Tighten it up’... it’s almost like a back-focus problem,” Rice told me.
The shot appeared in focus on his camera. It just didn’t appear that way on the truck monitors and in the living rooms of viewers watching the game. Everyone else was getting a low-definition picture.
I later found out that ESPN was aware it had a broadcast-quality problem weeks before I wrote about it. ESPN had initially blamed the poor broadcast quality on user error, but the issue kept popping up, regardless of who worked the equipment. The network even dispatched a frustrated supervisor to an early-season football game to see it up close for himself, but he came up empty, too.
Said the ESPN spokesperson late last season, “One of our crews has experienced some isolated technical issues this season that we are actively working to fix.”
When I told Rice about this, he shot back: “It’s the truck. It’s the truck. That truck is from the 20th century.”
I went on a mission and tracked the rig down. It’s owned by CSP Mobile Productions, a Maine-based production company ESPN and a variety of others contract with. The truck itself was built in 2012, but most of the equipment inside was manufactured a decade earlier.
ESPN later confirmed it removed the truck from the rotation. It swapped it out for a newer truck from CSP. That seemed to help, a little. But I’m here to report that the network eventually figured out what was happening — and it had nothing to do with user error.
The issue, per an engineer who worked to solve it, was compatibility between the Sony-manufactured cameras being used to capture the action on the field and the non-Sony Camera Control Unit (CCU) in the CSP-owned truck.
The camera function (framing and focus) at a football game is controlled by the camera operator. The color balance, shutter speed, hue and other technical aspects are controlled remotely by an operator in the truck stationed at the CCU. That team member is charged with working with somewhere between six and 12 cameras, and has the task of making the shots from all those different cameras look consistent.
“Take notice of the differences in the picture on your screen early in the game this season,” a veteran CCU operator explained to me. “You’ll typically see some variances in color and hue of the grass between the different cameras in the first few minutes of the game, or as the sun sets, and the lighting in the stadium changes. But after the first series or so, a good CCU operator fixes the variances between all the cameras and the viewer never notices it again.”
Be sure to look for that this season. Also, expect a clearer picture on your television screen. Because ESPN thinks it has fixed the issue.
Bill Hofheimer, senior director of communications for ESPN, told me on Wednesday morning, “We took a look at this in the offseason and will be using a new vendor this fall.”
ESPN’s college football staff is conducting its college-football staff seminar in Charlotte, N.C. this week. The network is busy game-planning the production strategy for the season. A second source who works in the remote trucks on the game-production side for ESPN told me that the trucks that will be used this season are now all wired with Sony CCU’s.
“Everything this year is more standard across the board, tech-wise,” the source said.
That’s great. Because ESPN is now the most likely bidder for the Pac-12’s Tier 1 broadcast rights. The conference needs ESPN to be at its best and fans of the conference deserve high-quality football productions.
Several viewers in various parts of the conference footprint reached out to me in the last couple of weeks to ask if ESPN’s chronic “fuzzy broadcast” issue of 2021 would be a permanent part of the future of the conference.
I’m here to report it won’t be.
But turn on your TV this season to be certain.
BONUS: Don’t call the preseason Top 25 football poll “meaningless.” It had some financial meaning for Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. He collected a $15,000 bonus for his team being ranked in the AP poll this week.
The Utes are No. 7.
Whittingham will collect another $10,000 bonus if Utah is ranked in the College Football Playoff rankings at any time this season. He’ll also collect $150,000 if his team finishes the season in the Top 25 in either the playoff rankings or the final AP poll.
It got me thinking about Oregon first-year coach Dan Lanning, who did not collect a bonus after the Ducks were ranked No. 11 in the same preseason poll. Don’t feel sorry for Lanning, though. His six-year contract has a line of notable incentives:
Oregon State coach Jonathan Smith also has some interesting incentives in his contract. He collects $50,000 if he leads the Beavers to a bowl game this season. Smith also is entitled to a $75,000 bonus if OSU wins the Pac-12 championship game.
If OSU wins 10 games this season, Smith merits a $100,000 bonus. He also has incentives for winning nine ($75,000) or eight ($50,000) games. And if he’s the Pac-12 Coach of the Year, Smith will collect a cool $25,000.
GAME DAY: There are only eight Power Five Conference football programs that haven’t had ESPN’s College Game Day show make a visit.
Cal is among them.
The other seven: Duke, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Rutgers, Syracuse and Virginia.
Cal has been the road opponent for a Game Day broadcast three times: 2004 (at USC), 2007 (at Oregon) and 2015 (at Utah). Bookmakers set the over/under on total victories this regular season for Cal at 5.5 wins. Maybe that keeps expectations for the season in check, but let’s construct a possible Game Day scenario for the Bears anyway.
Let’s say Cal beats UC Davis and UNLV to start the season. That’s a 2-0 start. After that, the Bears are at Notre Dame in Week 3 followed by a home game vs. Arizona. A 3-1 start to the season isn’t inconceivable.
Then, the Bears play road games at Washington State on Oct. 1. and Colorado on Oct. 15, followed by a home game vs. Washington (Oct. 22). I’d bet against Cal being 6-1 at that point but it’s not totally unthinkable given the schedule.
The following Saturday — Oct. 29 — Oregon is scheduled to visit Berkeley for what could be a decent game. Justin Wilcox has been a tough matchup for the Ducks. There are some good storylines given Wilcox’s connection to UO and the fact that he was offered, and turned down, the Oregon job.
Would Game Day go to Berkeley?
It would require a compelling on-field start to the season by the Ducks. Cal would also need to be a solid surprise (6-1 or 5-2 and ranked?) for the game to feel nationally relevant. It’s not the wildest scenario. But there are some other factors that would need to fall into place, too.
That same weekend, the Big Ten features Michigan State at Michigan in a rivalry game and Ohio State plays at Penn State. The SEC games on Oct. 29 include Florida at Georgia and Mississippi at Texas A&M. Cal would likely need the shine to come off those other matchups, too. But if Cal is going to host Game Day this season, that’s how it happens.
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