Shift Switch: Producer of a Brewers TV broadcast
When Fox Sports Wisconsin producer Chris Withers is in the zone at work, the product that he and 30 others are furiously working to put on your TV almost fades into the background.
From the outside looking in, each day resembles organized chaos, a delicate ballet of technology, intuition and teamwork that results in an incredibly smooth end product. Because the team works so deftly, so flawlessly, the viewer can concentrate on the game – not on the hundreds of individual components that go into making it.
It just works, and it's natural to take for granted how it all came together. And chances are, you have no idea what goes into the production of every Brewers game broadcast on Fox Sports Wisconsin. I know I didn't.
In fact, I've been guilty, too, of second-guessing the crew at one time or another during a long season. After an OnMilwaukee.com "shift switch" at last Thursday's Brewers game against the Cubs, that will never, ever happen again.
We've done a lot of shift switch articles, and I'm always surprised how hard it is to walk in another Milwaukeean's shoes. But in the case of Withers, I never expected a day in his job to sail over my head like a rising line drive home run to dead center field.
But it did. My night inside the TV truck, and later in the TV booth, made me feel like it was the first day of my first job ... ever. Like I was 15 years old again, faced with flipping burgers for a busload of passengers at McDonald's. So when Withers turned the reins over to me in the middle of a tight ballgame, it's a good thing the rest of the FS Wisconsin crew knew that they should take whatever I told them with a grain of salt – or there could be a lot of unemployed TV guys right now.
There's No "I" in Team
Withers shows up at Miller Park a few minutes before me, and at 1:40 p.m. we're the first two inside the TV truck next to the south dock. The truck is air conditioned and comfortable, though not especially spacious. Without any windows, it's easy to lose track of time.
Monitors line the north wall of the truck, where Withers, director Michael Oddino and technical director Lindsey Groeschel will sit. Behind them is a graphics station called "Duet," and the computers that run the "Fox Box," which keeps viewers apprised of balls and strikes. A separate room to the left handles audio, while a room to the right is reserved for editing and cueing up replays and other video work. The crew uses the same truck about 90 percent of the time at home; on the road, it's a similar trailer with a similar layout. Withers and Oddino work together on 95 percent of the Brewers games; the pair teams up on Bucks games, too.
Everyone, of course, is connected by headset, and once the game gets rolling, it gets quite intense. All these years later, Oddino admits that his job is still exciting.
"You wouldn't be human if you weren't affected by all that," says Oddino. "Trevor Hoffman's 600th save, that was a special night. You get revved up a little bit. Even last night, when (John) Axford came in in the ninth inning, maybe some adrenaline kicked in. You can't have the pedal to the medal all the time, though."
But that kind of excitement is still hours away. Withers started working today at 8 a.m., mapping out the game format. When we settle in, we start searching for footage to use; Thursday is a busy day around baseball – there's an Angles no hitter to talk about and a crazy extra-inning Pirates game from the night before.
Withers, 31, says he wanted to work in TV his whole life. During college at St. Cloud State in Minnesota, he briefly tried working in front of the camera, but quickly decided he liked giving direction rather than taking it. He's been in Milwaukee for three and a half years, coming here from Fox Sports North, and while he's a Twins fan, he admits that he's also a Brewers backer. His job is more fun when the team is winning, after all, and producing 125 games out of the year, he knows that winning helps ratings, too.
Oddino also isn't from Milwaukee, but he travels with this team and sees the players every day. "You can't help but want them to do well. When Casey struggles, you feel for him."
"I couldn't imagine my job if I cheered against them," says Withers. "It would be no fun. It wouldn't make any sense to be not to be a fan."
At 2 p.m., we do a "crew call" in the truck; but four hours earlier, Withers already conducted a pre-game call with the talent who will work tonight's game. We methodically begin preparing clips from last night's game: sixth inning defensive highlights and Axford's closing performance. We also pull video for Cubs' starter Carlos Zambrano and the success he's had at Miller Park, as well as a promo for the new "Tony Plush" T-Shirts in the clubhouse store.
At 2:30 p.m., we prepare and print the numbered note cards that play-by-play announcer Brian Anderson and analyst Bill Schroeder will read throughout the game. About 15 minutes later, we meet up with sideline reporter Mark Concannon to discuss what he will talk about during his game hits.
At 2:50 p.m., we begin putting together audio bites from Axford. Listening to Withers and his crew banter is confusing for a newbie. It's English, of course, but with jargon like "jubbie" and "lip flap" it might as well be a foreign language they're speaking. And, even though I don't understand most of it, what I do understand is that this group is an incredibly tight-knit team.
"I think it's pretty special, not only for Chris and I, but for Brian and Bill," says Oddino. "We're really blessed. One thing about Brian Anderson is that he really understands television. He's very involved. When he talks about something on a conference call, I really perk up."
"They all put up with me, and I appreciate it," adds Withers.
Anderson, of course, doesn't take all the credit. He points to a chemistry with his broadcast partner and a willingness to improvise and let the show breathe.
"We're just talking," says Anderson. "We know what we each know, and either I can say it or he can say it, but you have to work to make it sound that way. There are a lot of times when Rock will circle something and hand it to me. Sometimes I know what he has, and sometimes I don't. When we get to the game and I can steer it, I know he'll go there."
The people pointing the cameras also need to be on the same page. It's about 3 p.m. now, and Groeschel is checking in with the seven or so camera operators, making sure everyone is properly set up for the game ahead.
Someone brings in a big jar of Swedish Fish, and Withers takes a huge handful and sets it down next to his computer, where he's already monitoring e-mail and his Twitter feed.
And yes, Withers sees any and all of the criticism of Fox Sports Wisconsin through social media, too. While it's just a part of the job, he admits that sometimes he takes it personally. "I found out that I don't have as thick of skin as I thought, maybe. I always thought I could let things roll off my back, but there's always a story. Michael and I are working as hard as we can to bring the best product to the viewers every night."
At 3:50 p.m. we get a taste of how the game will come together as Withers leads the pre-production meeting. With Oddino sitting next to him, this is where the pre-game and in-game graphics packages are assembled. Like a lightning-fast, but unusually calm symphony, Oddino orders the mash up of network banners and B-roll of fans walking through turnstiles as the picture dissolves to skipper Ron Roenicke and then to Axford. Each clip – Ryan Braun's batting practice, then what they call the "home run derby Jumbotron" – is finalized in just one take.
Only the segment called "Slaying the Dragons" takes four tries as they work to trim a few seconds off the end so everything lines up as needed.
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