CBS brings sanity to the madness


To the viewer, the NCAA tournament is three weeks of joy and pain, drama and comedy, simplicity and complexity, with a little bit of basketball thrown in for good measure.

That's all thanks to the players and coaches on the 64 teams, of course, but CBS, the tournament's network of record, should get a good deal of the credit for creating the March Madness monster.

CBS' mastery of the tournament is amazing when one considers the logistical nightmare the event has become, from the technical end. From noon today until approximately 7 p.m. Sunday, the network will televise 48 games and beam bits and pieces of them to every corner of the world.

No other annually televised event, sporting or otherwise, demands more precision nor exacts such a toll on its cast and crew.

"The fatigue factor is tremendous," said Bob Fishman, CBS' lead NCAA director. "Four games in one day is a real chore. By the third game, the crew is really winding down. You start to lose mental focus."

With all the things that must happen to get the tournament out, it's a miracle that the minuscule number of glitches that occur each year isn't significantly higher.

To start, the network sends a crew of about 30 people, from the technical, production, administrative and support ends to the eight host sites of the first- and second-round games. Each crew is armed with six cameras, two graphics machines, 13 microphones and four videotape machines.

The signal from each game is beamed by satellite to the CBS Broadcast Center in New York, where it is then routed to the individual areas of the country where it will be seen.

The task is so monumental that the network brings eight production trucks to CBS headquarters to handle the feeds, which go into the building, where a team of three men -- Rick Gentile, the senior sports vice president of production, and studio producers David Winner and Eric Mann -- makes the calls on when to switch a region from one game to another, how long to keep the nation on a game and so forth.

But if the pace is frenzied at headquarters, it's no less so at the actual game sites.

For Fishman, 45, who has directed all but one of the past 13 Final Fours, this will be the most stressful of the three tournament weekends because coordinating producer Bob Dekas, who normally makes decisions like calling for replays, will likely be so tied up talking to executives in New York that Fishman will have to act as director and producer.

"The Final Four is a piece of cake compared to this," said Fishman. "On Thursday and Saturday, we're just part of a dog and pony show. You almost feel like you're not doing basketball."

The site of this particular dog and pony show, the Baltimore Arena, gets a slightly passing grade from Fishman as a television locale. The lighting in the 34-year-old building is "excellent" and the size is cozy, certainly much more so than the Kingdome in Seattle, where the Final Four will be played, so the play-by-play camera will be closer to the action than usual.

But the building has its downsides, as well, that might make the four telecasts from here less than optimum. The worst of those is that the angles in the upper deck of the Arena are not good, so the high corner camera that Fishman likes to use to help analyst Billy Packer illustrate the game will not produce terrific pictures.

"I wouldn't rate it on my top 10, but it's adequate. It's older, and compared to some of the newer buildings, it's not great, but it's functional," said Fishman.

Still, with all the havoc the tournament can wreak on one's sanity, Fishman, who has won five Emmys for NCAA coverage, has a seat that many would kill for.

"It [the tournament] is one and done," said Fishman. "The emotion that you see in the fans and in these kids and their coaches is incredible. It's the most genuine emotion you get in any sporting event. It's great television."

Another Terps ratings victory

Maryland's two Atlantic Coast Conference tournament games on Channel 54 did extremely well, according to Chris Mecchi, ratings researcher at channels 45 and 54 and this week's official "On the Air" ratings provider.

Friday's Maryland-Florida State quarterfinal posted a 10 rating and a 16 share of the audience, with the final half-hour winning the time slot and beating the local news. Saturday's semifinal match with North Carolina did even better, posting an 11/26.

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