The Baltimore Ravens marched past the 50-yard line in overtime, tied at 17 with the New York Jets. Eighty thousand Jets fans at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J., and thousands more quivering on couches across the New York City area could feel the knot in their stomach, a side effect caused by years of ingesting an awful green drug called Jets football. Baltimore kicker Matt Stover would have a shot at a field goal to win the game.
For TV viewers, the drama was heightened by an amazing rainbow of colors instantaneously shading each 10-yard increment. Stover's conversion percentages, or stats on how well he has kicked from different yard lines, flashed on the screen--92% success inside the 10-yard line (the red zone), 98% between the 10 and 20 (orange), 89% between the 20 and 30 (yellow), and 69% between the 30 and 40 (blue). For Jets fans, it looked like the terrorism-alert matrix. Moments later, Stover nailed a 42-yarder from the blue zone (the end zone adds 10 yards to the distance), giving the Ravens a 2017 come-from-behind victory.
Just how do they bring that football magic to TV every week? The production of television football has become a high-tech command performance. Behind the scenes, as Stover was getting ready to make that kick on a November Sunday afternoon, the CBS Broadcast Center in New York City looked like NASA control. The network was broadcasting four games simultaneously across the country (all of the CBS affiliates in Texas, for example, aired the Houston Texans--Indianapolis Colts contest, while New York, Baltimore and even North Dakota got Jets-Ravens). Hundreds of workers monitored screens in some two dozen control rooms, cutting highlight packages and instant replays from different angles, inserting graphics and stats boxes and alerting on-site directors of impending game breaks.
In a stained, windowless room at CBS headquarters, a group of twentysomething men in football jerseys and jeans typed furiously behind four rows of computers. They work for PVI Virtual Media Services, the New Jersey company that produces the field-goal graphic and also projects some of the more viewer-friendly innovations--the digital line of scrimmage and first-down lines--onto the screen. (PVI is not the only company in the first-down business. Sportvision, of Chicago, holds the patent for the technology and provides the service for Fox, while Sportsmedia Technology Corp., of Durham, N.C., works with ABC.)
As the game unfolded, an operator conferred with the spotter in the stadium to gauge the placement of the first-down marker. He then punched the yardage into PVI's vMagic software program, which lets the operator preview the lines on a screen. After a quick review, he hit a green button on a square control pad, putting the lines on the air. Said PVI senior systems operator Alan Bress: "It's like playing a video game at this point."