Ever wonder what it is like to create a live Sports TV show from scratch? Here’s play-by-play of a day in the life of a Sports TV Producer from a guy who has lived it— Brian Clapp, Sports Producer, CNN/Sports Illustrated and Fox Sports Northwest.
CNN/Sports Illustrated was a 24-hour Sports news network that was on the air from 1996-2002 and helped launch many great sports TV careers. We only fell a few million viewers short of really making it big.
My job description as a Sports TV Producer was straightforward - condense all the drama and action of the sports day into 30 easily digestible minutes. My goal was a little bigger. I wanted my shows to be a conversation starter, debate causer or bar room argument initiator. Sports are about drama and action, but they are just as much about talking smack with your buddies over a few beers. Getting people talking about your show was true success.
4 pm: Grab my daily log from the Assignment Desk. The Assignment Editors put out a ‘daily feeds’ log that lists every game going on that night, every press conference scheduled and a list of feature stories that are set to run that night. This is your play book – don’t lose it.
Tip: Be nice to the Assignment Editor. They are the offensive lineman of the newsroom, vital to the success of every broadcast but get little notoriety unless they mess up. Include them in your coffee run and teriyaki drive-bys. These guys are the key to late-breaking news and insure all of the best content is available in time for your show.
4:30 - 5:00 – Create my ‘A block’. The ‘A block’ is the section of programming between the show open and the first commercial break. This is your first chance to really grab your viewers and show them ‘whoa this is something I have to watch’. The most important stories will be in the A-block, but you can’t fire all your bullets at once, it’s a long show and you have to spread out the good stuff.
5:00 – 5:45 - Fill in the rest of my show content. Now that the A-block is done it’s time to figure out how to make the rest of the show interesting. Most of the content falls into one of three categories:
Feature packages are things like feel-good stories, analyst segments or investigative reports. These pieces would generally run between 2-4 minutes long, in TV that’s a pretty big chunk of your time. I always found a good spot for the features and then filled in around them with other content. Some guy told me once to put all of your big rocks in place first, then sprinkle the pebbles in around them. That guy got fired a month later, but it kind of works.
Tip: Keep building the energy even if you have to manufacture it. If you run out of ideas, turn on ESPN and copy what they are doing. I'm kidding. Sort of.
5:45 – 6:15 – Build my teases: In live TV production teases are one of the most important elements of a show. Teases are the pieces of video just before a commercial break that describe what is coming up next. Well written, compelling teases make an audience return to see more. This means you have a good chance of keeping your job for at least one more day.
6:15 - Insert Sportscaster assignments: I always try to know my Sportscasters strengths and weaknesses well so that I can put them in a position to succeed. Some Sportscasters know football incredibly well but struggle with NASCAR. Make your anchors look good by giving them the stories they are most comfortable with. If they make it big maybe they’ll take you with them.
Tip: Always give equal air time to each Sportscaster – not only does it make for a better show, but 75% of Sportscasters will count how many times they are on camera vs. their co-host and will let you know if it is unequal.
6:30 – Show Meeting: This is the first time Sportscasters, Executive Producers and other staff members are going to see the fruits of your labor. You present your show rundown like it’s a work of genius …and then they all tear it to shreds.
Prepare to hear questions like:
If you get through a show meeting without someone complaining that means everyone is so unimpressed they don’t even know where to start - not a good sign. I like to spark debate, I’ve never shied away from any sports arguments or defending my position. Bring it on!
Tip: Have thick skin. You will constantly be second guessed or made to feel like you don’t know what you are doing. In fact, you might figure out that you really don’t know what you are doing.
7:00 - 10:30 – Writing, Marking and Watching: For the next 4 hours before show time you are sitting in the newsroom with a TV in front of you, beside you and above you… all broadcasting sports. Every night is a day at the sports bar, sans alcohol. People argue over their teams and random debates break out over who’s the best barefoot placekicker of all time (Tony Franklin). Sometimes you get some work done.
I’ll break it down into a little more detail
7:00 – Finish tweaking rundown: After the show meeting I’d make some adjustments to the rundown to get it just right. I respect everyone’s opinion and will concede changes often, but at the end of the day I’m getting judged on this show so it has to feel good to me.
After finalizing the rundown, I’d give the Associate Producer their assignments for the night.
Tip: The Associate Producer is your assistant so that means they can get you dinner, or they can write the entire show while you watch the 1986 NBA Championship for the 7th time. They are usually super energetic and want to prove themselves. Let them.
7:30 – Talk with Research dept: These guys are the true studs of the newsroom; they are always coming up with nuggets of information that the audience can regurgitate to their friends and look smart. I can’t tell you how many times I was in a bar and would pull out some random sports fact gleaned from the research department which made me look cool.
Tip: It took me 10 years to figure out most women do not think random sports facts gleaned from research departments are cool.
8:00ish – Dinner while watching the Celtics, Red Sox, Patriots, Bruins or Revolution. Yep I’m a Boston guy.
9:00-10:30 – Writing, marking and copy editing: The Sportscasters and Writers have completed most of their scripts. I spend this time copy editing, checking facts and marking the scripts with directorial prompts. Marking scripts consists of inserting commands that the Director will follow. At CNN/SI Producers marked the scripts, at other places I have worked Directors marked their own scripts - it just depends.
10:30 –10:50 Time to run through all the last checks and make sure everything is ready to roll.
11:00 – Get in the control room and go live. During the show you are constantly watching the clock. My rundown is built for an exact amount of time, but Sportscasters sometimes talk slow or fast, or a highlight comes in longer than you expect – you are always adjusting on the fly. Its organized chaos and I love it.
Tip: You can speak remotely into your Sportscasters ear while they are on set through what is called an IFB. Do not abuse this privilege; I once had an anchor pull out his ear bud because I was annoying him. My wife wishes she could do the same.
11:30 – Show review: we take 10-15 minutes and talk about how things went – what we liked, what didn’t work and what we can do better the next time.
12:00 – Head to the bar – last call isn’t until 4am and tomorrow doesn’t officially start until 4pm.