CHICAGO—Saturday, September 18 was a record-setting day for the Big Ten Network, which posted its best-ever football ratings during four simultaneous early-afternoon telecasts.
And I was lucky enough to have a front-row seat.
BTN invited me to watch their production of the Michigan-Massachusetts, Ohio State-Ohio, Illinois-Northern Illinois, and Purdue-Ball State games from the network's downtown headquarters to get a look at how a major college football telecast (times four!) comes together.
After mulling this over for a nanosecond or so...I decided to accept.
So what does gameday look like from the other side of the camera?
Glad you asked.
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CONTROL ROOM, 10:58 AM
Halftime for football telecasts comes early at the Big Ten Network studios.
As in, "before kickoff" early.
It's 10:58 am Central time on a fall Saturday, two minutes away from the scheduled starts of four simultaneous BTN game broadcasts, and I look up from my notebook to hear lead anchor Dave Revsine say "Welcome in to the Buffalo Wild Wings Halftime Report."
Revsine, along with analysts Gerry DiNardo and Howard Griffith, is recording what's known as the "B-block" of the upcoming halftime shows. While the rest of the country is watching the opening minutes of the first quarter from Michigan, Ohio State, Illinois, or Purdue, the BTN crew is sprinting through three takes of a segment that will provide needed flexibility later in the afternoon, just in case the four games reach intermission at four different times.
Today's B-block will preview the rest of the day's television schedule, look ahead to late conference games involving Iowa and Michigan State, and also includes an on-air appearance from the broadcasters of a 4 pm Indiana-Western Kentucky telecast.
There's even a "dummy" ticker at the bottom of the screen that will be replaced with real scores and stats (once the games have actually, well...started).
Watching the multiple takes is a reminder of how difficult and intense live television really is: a trio of attempts at perfecting a four-minute recorded segment seems a bit surreal after watching the same staff impressively pull off a 90-minute live pregame show with no second-chance opportunities.
The control room I'm standing in contains over a dozen crew members hard at work (and occasionally, all talking at the same time) in front of their own monitors and a wall of nearly 100 additional screens.
And you thought your neighborhood sports bar had a lot of different games showing at once!
In the front row, there's a producer (who's in charge of the show's content), a director (who's organizing the camera shots), a technical director (who's punching buttons to make the director's camera preferences a reality), and an assistant director. The back row is filled with employees who are overlaying graphics, effects, and who knows what else.
Studio coordinating producer Quentin Carter is roaming the aisles making sure things run like clockwork, while Bob Lanning, the senior coordinating producer for live events, is responsible for overseeing the feeds from Ann Arbor, Columbus, Champaign, and West Lafayette.
When the halftime segment is finally wrapped up, everyone's attention turns quickly to football.
And just in time.
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CONTROL ROOM, 11:09 AM
Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase dives into the end zone for the first score in our quartet of games. Purdue follows up less than a minute later with a touchdown pass to O.J. Ross for their first points.
There's no rest for the weary in Chicago, as highlights need to be cut, game breaks need to be planned, and the A-block (or live segment) of halftime needs to be designed.
In the meantime, Lanning is on the phone with the BTN truck at Ohio Stadium.
"I assume you guys are working on the clocks. Where's the clock?"
I look closely at the monitor on the senior producer's desk and quickly understand the cause of his frustration. The "Fox Box" time and score graphic is currently missing the former element, and Lanning is on the case, barking out instructions.
"Forget the play clock, just get the game clock up."
Order is quickly restored in Columbus.
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CONTROL ROOM, 11:18 AM
A few feet away, Carter is giving instructions for what a proper Illinois game break should look like. The visitors from NIU have just tied the game at 7-7, but the Big Ten Network producer knows which conference he's working for.
"Don't use that play, use our team scoring, then just say it's 7-7," Carter says hurriedly.
The staff is preparing updates on each game to share with the other three sets of viewers as big plays happen, and it's a race to get the film "cut", the score changed, the name and stat included (ILL: Scheelhaase 9-yd TD run), and the information communicated to Revsine for an accompanying voice-over.
Speaking of that voice-over...
"Is anyone hearing Dave? Anybody?"
Once the volume issue with Revsine's microphone is sorted out, it's time to get the highlight info to the on-site producer. The assistant director is in charge of this part of the operation, and as soon as the clip is put together, she'll relay the message to the on-campus crew. "You can tell Bob when you're ready, then I'll ask for control [from the truck]," she says to the workers typing frantically behind her.
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CONTROL ROOM, 11:25 AM
The Buckeyes have scored in Columbus, and that highlight immediately appears to take precedence over the Illinois and Purdue touchdowns. Of the four telecasts, Michigan-Massachusetts is the network's "main" game on this particular afternoon, and the powers-that-be in Chicago waste no time in updating Wolverine fans on how their southern rivals are doing.
"We're ready to do an Ohio State highlight for Michigan," the producer relays to Revsine in the green room.
Two minutes later, the game breaks have officially begun.
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GREEN ROOM, 11:32 AM
When I drag a chair in to the front left corner of the studio's green room (since all couch space has long since disappeared), I become the 14th person to cram in what can easily be termed "football heaven."
I recognize Revsine, DiNardo, Griffith, producer Bill Friedman, anchor Mike Hall, and BTN's resident stats guru, Chris Antonacci. The rest of the crowd watching football on six flat-panel TVs appears to be a mixture of spotters for the analysts (compiling video examples that will match up with DiNardo and Griffith's halftime talking points), a couple of Hall's friends, and a few other staffers (one of which turns out to be floor director Abby Rakocy, who has a headset on to signal when it's time for yet another game break).
Revsine is nursing a can of Diet Coke and shuffling through blue index cards. Antonacci is pounding away at a laptop with a power cord that seems to stretch all the way across the room. Hall is jokingly begging for someone to trip over said power cord so he no longer remains the only clumsy member of our group who's done it. Friedman is calling out interesting plays as they happen on the half dozen screens, pointing top right, bottom left, or whatever the case may be.
Griffith and DiNardo have an idea of the storylines they want to touch on during the halftime show, and they occasionally share observations back and forth as the action unfolds. Meanwhile, both men have a crew member who's taking down notes for which plays to include in the highlight reel.
"Do you want that Illinois run out of the I-formation?", one asks DiNardo, clipboard in hand, while another clarifies with Griffith if he's planning to critique Penn State's quarterback (Rob Bolden) or running back (Evan Royster).
The six screens are showing all four BTN broadcasts, as well as the ESPN2 telecast of Penn State-Kent State. The extra monitor is used for Revsine's voiceovers, and bounces around from game to game to let him know which telecast's audience he'll be speaking to next.
Shortly after, I settle into my corner of prime real estate; the magic word, "Standby", is spoken, and the room comes to a complete hush. Contrary to what most fans might imagine, Revsine is no longer sitting at the anchor desk in the studio to narrate the in-game highlight updates: instead, (starting last year), he does them right here from the couch.
"They tell me, 'We're taking the Ohio State highlight to the Michigan game.'", Revsine explained later. "Terrelle Pryor to Sanzenbacher, or whatever. I have a card with the play-by-play people, so I just look at my sheet to find the Michigan play-by-play guy.
"[In my earpiece], I can hear them lead to me, 'And now to Dave Revsine in Chicago with a Discover Game Break."
Honestly, I don't know how he keeps it all straight. In one three-minute span shortly after I arrive, Revsine pulled out his slightly-louder-than-normal "announcer voice" to separately describe Michigan's go-ahead touchdown to viewers watching Ohio State, Illinois, and Purdue.
“Thank you, Eric. Michigan was trailing early against UMass: Michael Shaw though, goes in for the touchdown. 7-3 Wolverines, Denard Robinson has thrown his first interception of the year. Eric…”
"Thank you, Tom. Michigan trailed early against UMass, they’ve taken the lead though now. Michael Shaw with the 1-yard td plunge, 7-3 Wolverines. Denard Robinson has thrown his first interception of the year.”
"Thank you, Wayne..." and so forth and so on.
After each update finishes, we receive the "We're clear" announcement and the discussion, friendly banter, and analysis quickly resumes.
And boy, was there a lot of banter.
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GREEN ROOM, 11:44 AM
I spend most of the second quarter hanging out in the green room, and quickly realize there's no way I can record or sum up all of the quotes, insights, and jokes that are flying around me.
Imagine watching five football games at once with a dozen buddies, and the setting really isn't that much different. A big play happens in one of the games, and people start murmuring (or yelling) and pointing...while the rest of us try frantically to figure out which screen they're looking at.
In the meantime, I make my first contribution to the broadcast when I pull a bottle of water out of the mini-fridge behind me for Revsine.
Also during the second quarter (in some semblance of chronological order):
11:44 - DiNardo pulls out his Blackberry and dons a pair of glasses to do a bit of in-depth research.
11:45 - Griffith very matter-of-factly informs Hall, "Hey Mike, that is not your pad, nor is it your pen." Much laughter ensues.
11:46 - We have a Joe Bauserman sighting in first-half relief of Pryor at the 'Shoe. Someone uses the phrase "transfer prevention."
11:47 - Massachusetts goes back on top at the Big House. Friedman: "UMass is gonna give them a game."
11:47 - Game breaks continue, including this well-designed segue: "Thank you, Wayne- looking at quarterbacks on the run..."
11:48 - Revsine: "Pryor to Purdue is the next one?" (It's funny not being able to hear the other side of all these conversations, by the way. All of a sudden, Dave is talking seemingly to himself without any more warning than a "Standby", and it's strange to imagine that there are actually millions of people listening to him at that moment.)
11:49 - Questionable wardrobe at one game site with a few fans choosing to sport not-so-flattering overalls. After a brief green room debate, it's somehow determined that "in-state, it's okay."
11:50 - "Let's do a show on overalls."
11:51 - Revsine jokingly references the great game former UMass hoops standout Marcus Camby is obviously having for the Minutemen. (But not during the in-game update, of course...)
11:53 - Ohio State continues their recent trend of poor special teams performances by allowing the Bobcats a kickoff return touchdown, but the play comes back on a penalty. The analysts and producers confer, ultimately deciding to include the near-highlight in the postgame show (to be properly dissected), but to leave it out of the clips for the faster-paced halftime segment.
11:56 - Griffith: "Coach, what's your take on Michigan?"
DiNardo: "Running backs."
Revsine: "Right now, it should be trying to win the game!"
11:57 - OSU tight end Jake Stoneburner pulls in a reception. Griffith quickly asks Antonacci, "How many catches is that for him?" The answer comes in mere seconds.
11:57 - We get our first "false start" on the game breaks. The room quiets at the word "Standby", but it's surprisingly followed a few moments later with "Stand down." Commercial? Sideline report? Mascot fight? Still not sure what happened on that one.
11:58 - Lots of good-natured razzing, including someone asking Griffith, "Did you get a bronze statue for that, Howard?" Before the former NFL fullback could respond, someone else chimed in, "No, only papier-mache for Howard!"
12:05 - Revsine wraps up the last first-half game break, hands the headset to a crew member, and the trio of on-air performers exit toward the studio as halftime looms. I make my way back to the control room for what I had been told would be, by far, the craziest part of the day.
I wasn't disappointed.
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CONTROL ROOM, 12:11 PM
"Come on, Purdue, take a knee," one of the producers mutters.
The delicate maneuvering of trying to get all four games to break for halftime as close together as possible has begun, and it's just as chaotic as I expected, if not more so.
Lanning is clearly in charge here, but his best-laid plans have to be flexible enough to account for a late touchdown (Michigan), a game with no sideline reporter (Illinois), an official review (Michigan), and whatever else might happen in the control room's version of a two-minute drill.
"It looks like we'll get Purdue by itself," Lanning finally decides as the game from Ross-Ade Stadium nears intermission. "Send everybody else to B-block."
In the front row, the producer and director are making sure the order and sequence of the A-block is all set. "UMass/Michigan will be the first highlight..."
But as they're talking, Michigan jumps on top of the Minutemen 21-17 with their second touchdown in less than a minute. Not the greatest timing for the BTN gang, since the Purdue-Ball State halftime show is just about to kick off.
"...and they just scored a second touchdown," the producer says with more calmness than I would feel.
While Revsine is down the hall welcoming viewers to Chicago, Carter is shouting, "What happened on Michigan?" 90 seconds later, Resvine is describing the Wolverines' highlight package to the Purdue-Ball State audience, complete with video of the most recent touchdown and up-to-the-second statistics.
"Good job," a few different crew members say as the incredibly smooth string of clips rolls by.
Lanning has more important things to worry about, like the three other games that are still finishing up their respective second quarters. He flips the switch to talk to the on-site producers in Columbus and Ann Arbor:
"I'm gonna try and get Michigan and Ohio State in together," he says. "Get the interview, then a common break.”
But what about Champaign? The game that looks like it will definitely hit halftime last has picked up pace. "Illinois is gonna catch up to everyone," someone yells from the front row.
"And they've got an official review at Michigan now," another crew member chimes in.
"Illinois will come here for A-block live," Lanning confirms, as he flips the button to talk to the truck in Champaign. "We may need you to fill in a little," he tells the producer there.
"Six seconds left in OSU, 12, and 40. Stay inbounds, STAY INBOUNDS."
Illini coach Ron Zook has just put on a BTN headset in Memorial Stadium, ready to do a halftime interview with the announcers since there's not a sideline reporter available, but Lanning decides with a quick glance at the screen in front of him that it simply won't work.
In Columbus, Charissa Thompson is already two questions in to her discussion with OSU coach Jim Tressel, and trying to line up the pacing of a pair of different interviews two states apart isn't a good option.
"Forget Zook," says Lanning. "Take my count."
To the rest of the room, he gives the final word on the subject: "We're bringing OSU and Illinois to Chicago for A-block."
A few moments later, the Purdue halftime is basically over, the analysts are explaining the highlights to everyone who had been watching Ohio State or Illinois, and the Michigan viewers are getting the recorded B-block (which is actually uploaded from Houston).
The big clock on the wall (and the stopwatch in the front row) are king now, and rapid-fire reminders get thrown out every few seconds to keep the whole staff on the same page:
"Coming up on a three-shot."
"Now the interview with Rodriguez."
"Ohio State and Purdue in this segment."
"Don't forget the EVS highlight."
At 12:43 Central time, Revsine, DiNardo, and Griffith get their last halftime audience (the Michigan viewers), and by 12:46, it's all over.
"And we're clear. Good halftime, everybody."
Translation: Time for lunch.
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CONTROL ROOM, 12:52 PM
As Lanning sits in the quickly-vacated control room and reflects on the previous half hour (while munching on a piece of chicken), he sums up the juggling process of steering four different games in and out of Chicago at halftime.
"We just want it to be fluid," he tells me.
Lanning also explained that the coaches understand the nature of the business, such as Zook being prepped for an on-camera interview and then getting a "Thanks, but we're not going to be able to get to you" message.
Depending on the situation, he said, the truck may go ahead and record an interview at that point to use before the second half starts or in a postgame highlight.
It's obvious that everything is negotiable, and personally, the on-the-fly adjustments were a thing of beauty to watch.
I'm an untrained observer, Bob, but I'll give you an A for fluidity.
Oh, and I'm definitely going to pay closer attention to halftime shows from now on (especially since I'm still a tad annoyed with myself for never catching on to the fact that a big chunk can be pre-recorded!).
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GREEN ROOM, 1:10 PM
Back inside the green room, third-quarter storylines are quickly unfolding: Purdue quarterback Robert Marve has been replaced due to injury, Illinois lineman Hugh Thornton is lying motionless on the Memorial Stadium turf after a nasty collision, Penn State is refusing to put away an outmanned Kent State squad in Happy Valley, and Ohio State gets a safety to pad their lead in Columbus.
"They tell you not to move," Griffith says as he stared at the huddle around Thornton in Illinois.
"Did that ever happen to you?"
"Yeah, in Champaign," Griffith replies.
"I don't really know," the former Illini standout says with a shrug.
After a few tense minutes, the room breathes an audible sigh of relaxation when Thornton gives a "thumbs-up" signal to the crowd while being carted off the field.
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GREEN ROOM, 1:17 PM
"I don't have a good feel for Penn State," Revsine says, as he asks Antonacci for input on what the Nittany Lions have done so far.
Hall, ever the jokester, cuts in quickly.
"It's in Pennsylvania," he responds. "The mascot is the Nittany Lions. Their coach is Joe Paterno?"
Antonacci shoots back sarcastically, "I'm sorry, we're actually doing TV here."
The jokes continue as the games roll on:
Bill Friedman remains convinced that "UMass is not going away."
Revsine shoots right back with, "Well, eventually they are!"
"Yeah, they can't stay in Ann Arbor forever—think how much class those guys would miss," Hall deadpans.
Revsine ends the chit-chat with a grin: "Oh, you were speaking METAPHORICALLY?"
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GREEN ROOM, 1:39 PM
After patiently waiting for the final game break of the afternoon to come and go, postgame producer Bob Schmelzle convenes an informal meeting to plan the upcoming show. For the next ten minutes, Schmelzle, Revsine, Griffith, and DiNardo discuss each game, what angle each analyst will take, and which order the points should be made in.
At one point, Michael Shaw rips off a 50-yard gain in Ann Arbor, and the meeting is quickly paused.
Revsine has a good amount of input and control over the structure of the show, and he frequently gives suggestions for which analyst should jump in after a given highlight ("Coach is first on Michigan and Ohio State: Howard's first on the rest) or what tone the critiques should take.
"No one has anything nice to say [about Ohio State]?," he asks with surprise. "They won 43 to nothing and we're going to pick them apart?" This leads to a slightly more positive angle on the Buckeyes' rushing attack, although DiNardo reiterates that Ohio State should be measured at a higher standard ("We're talking about them as a possible national title contender, right?") and still has areas to improve on.
During the meeting, word comes that Thornton, the Illinois lineman, is in the hospital but has movement in all of his extremities. Revsine makes a note to include that information in the postgame wrap-up.
The three men obviously have a good on-screen rapport, and it carries over to this setting as well. At one point, Griffith says with a chuckle, "That's not what you said yesterday."
DiNardo immediately responds by laughing, "It doesn't matter what he said yesterday!"
With only two or three minutes left in the Purdue game, the meeting disperses and it's off to the studio to get ready for the postgame show, which will last all the way until the much-hyped Big Ten Icons premiere at 3:00 pm.
This time, I tag along.
"Watch out for the power cord," Hall jokes as I head for the door.
No worries, Mike.
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STUDIO, 1:59 PM
The last five minutes before the cameras roll are full of activity: a touch-up from the makeup lady, a debate over whether Boilermakers backup quarterback Rob Henry is a true freshman or redshirt freshman ("Just say 'freshman' if you're not sure," Revsine scolds one staffer when he discovers the incorrect information), and Antonacci running back and forth from his computer to the studio desk with updated statistics.
I'm really not sure how Revsine, DiNardo, and Griffith are able to process all of the data as it comes flying their way; I'm almost positive Revsine didn't even have time to look at one of the cards Antonacci dropped off in front of him before picking it up a few minutes into the broadcast to share its enlightening contents with the world.
"I use a lot of the stuff," Revsine said later. "Chris brings me stats, and I kinda set myself up by doing my own notes during the course of the week, just to have everything that’s pertinent that I think is good.
"Winning streaks, for example, or say Indiana is 3-0 when they gain at least 350 yds in a game, that kind of thing: just for informational purposes.
"Then I try to get a feel for how the game went, what I want to ask Gerry and Howard. I use them as a resource a lot. 'What did you think about this? What did you think about that?' I just try to use all of my resources: Chris, Gerry and Howard, everything that I’ve compiled."
Finally, everything is ready--or as ready as it can be--and Rakocy, the floor director, tells everyone, "Twenty seconds."
Griffith tries to keep things loose, replying with a chuckle, "Until what?"
"Oh, just this little television thing we're gonna do," she answers with a smile.
After about five minutes worth of discussion and analysis, Revsine tells the viewing audience that they'll be heading to Michigan for bonus coverage. During the ten off-air minutes that follow, the guys decide how they'll address the Wolverines' defense (which has allowed 37 points and counting to the FCS-level Minutemen), DiNardo changes what he's going to say about Illinois (which is in a dogfight with NIU), and he relays the new talking points to Revsine (next to him) and Schmelzle (through his headset.)
There's some concern that keeping all the extra viewers in Ann Arbor too long could diminish the lead-in audience for Icons, but Revsine isn't buying that line of thinking. "We have to stay with the game," he tells his producer emphatically. "You're not losing any Ohio State fans if there's a chance that Michigan's gonna lose."
The viewers get to see the rest of the game, the Wolverines ultimately hold on to stay undefeated, and Revsine welcomes the new audience at 2:20 pm.
Forty minutes to Icons.
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CONTROL ROOM, 2:33 PM
"If you're just joining us, or in case you have a really bad memory..."
With that, Revsine kicks off the final half hour of postgame highlights. Back here in the control room, things are crazy once again, with five or six people all talking at once.
The wall of monitors shows coaches' press conferences, big plays from each game, and the leftover feeds from each on-campus production truck.
Highlights are being edited and updated as fast as humanly possible: I hear "Can it be ready in two minutes?" and it strikes me as a familiar and routine question in this setting.
Producers are trying unsuccessfully to get an update on the injury status of Robert Marve, and although Lanning attempts to help by calling the truck in West Lafayette, there's no new information to pass along.
During the next break, the Illinois highlights are cued up for Revsine, DiNardo, and Griffith to watch before the segment when they'll actually air. Meanwhile, one of the screens in front of me shows a cameraman in studio moving helmets, lights, and cameras to try and set up the perfect post-commercial shot.
When the Illinois segment starts a couple of minutes later, the lead-in image is a familiar orange helmet positioned by itself under a spotlight. Nice work, Mr. Cameraman.
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CONTROL ROOM, 2:53 PM
"We're running short on time, Dave," the producer tells Revsine after four of the five highlight packages are out of the way. "I've got one more break to get in during the next seven minutes."
Revsine explained later that he hears the producer in his earpiece regularly throughout the studio shows, but (countdowns not included), he said they usually wait until Griffith or DiNardo start talking before giving him instructions.
"Unless it's a total emergency," he clarified. "It's maybe once a weekend that someone talks to me while I'm actually speaking. 'We've got Tressel right now, go to Tressel NOW', or that kind of thing."
No emergencies yet in the postgame show, but time is obviously of the essence.
After the final set of highlights, that last all-important commercial break begins at 2:57. The decision is made to cut a "Three Stars" feature ("Sorry guys: it's a really nice graphic, but we don't have time for it," the producer tells his back-row graphics staff) and the final 40 seconds of show time are planned out.
I admit to being a little bit worried as I heard the rundown: how exactly would Revsine start at 2:59:20, fit in a State Farm billboard, the Sprint "epic play", final thoughts from Griffith and DiNardo, and still finish up by the "hard off" deadline of 3:00:00?
No cause for concern here. Not only did the host fit in each of the aforementioned requirements, he even managed to save himself a few precious seconds to tease Icons, mention the 3:30 program following it, and remind viewers of the Indiana telecast coming up at 4:00.
As the music played, the camera faded, and Keith Jackson's voice filled the screen, the vibe in the control room was a happy, successful, one.
"Nice job, everybody. Good show."
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From what I can tell, there's really nothing like BTN's simultaneous telecasts anywhere else in college football. Other networks aren't airing four or five games at once with the same pregame/halftime/postgame talent keeping tabs on all of it. "The NFL (on CBS and FOX) is really the only thing to compare it to," BTN's Mike Vest says later.
And after seeing how crazy the Chicago headquarters can be with four games on at once, I can only imagine this coming weekend with FIVE!
It makes for a long day for Revsine and his fellow employees ("I got here about 7 am and left around midnight," he said. "That's pretty typical."), but you won't hear them complaining.
"I thought we had a pretty good day," Revsine concluded as he looked back over the weekend's work. "I'm proud of it. You know, it's live TV...
"We’ve got Ohio State and Michigan on our air, which is a big deal for us. I thought the [pregame] feature on Brock Mealer was unbelievable, one of the best things we’ve ever done. I was proud of that. Can’t imagine anyone could do that story better than we did it.
"A couple of games that were really exciting, a couple of games that weren’t, which is to be expected from the non-conference.
"I continue to be proud of where we are. I felt like we’d be good all along: I know that we have great analysts...I’ve got to believe we’ve exceeded some external expectations.
"In the time I’ve spent in sports television, I’ve seen a lot of products, and I’m proud of what we’ve got."
He should be.
Because from my point of view, the BTN gameday production is even more impressive behind the scenes.
Tim Cary is the author of COLLEGE FOOTBALL COMPREHENSIVE, an in-depth weekend wrap-up posted each Monday on BleacherReport.com. Tim can be reached on Twitter at @TimCary or by e-mail: CFCmailbag (at) yahoo (dot) com.
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