As Fox Soccer Channel’s Nick Webster told me, “Americans have more access to soccer from around the world than in any other country on earth.” That is undoubtedly true. On any given weekend, you can flip around the dial and find the EPL, Serie A, La Liga, the MLS, the Bundesliga, the Mexican leagues, French Ligue 1 and an odd assortment of other broadcasts from around the world, not to mention the weekday Champions league games.
Much of that bounty is provided by Fox Soccer Channel, which has become the most valuable kitchen to feed America’s expanding soccer diet. This last Saturday, they were nice enough to let me be a fly on the wall to see how their Saturday EPL package is put together. Working out of a fairly non-descript office building in West LA, FSC employs a mere couple hundred people (compare that to the names the scroll by for the credits of any single NFL broadcast) who put out a variety of original programs and broadcast feeds coming in from all over the world.
For their Saturday broadcasts, the process starts earlier in the week putting together the clips and animation for their Saturday preview show. Fox will request from Sky in England tapes of the managers’ weekly press conferences, game highlights and other recordings, and cut and animate that footage for the commentators to discuss.
For the Saturday pre-game show, those commentators are Christian Miles and Warren Barton. One of the “pleasures” of the having FSC headquartered in Los Angeles is that they are eight time zones away from England, which means their pre-game show begins at 6:30 am. Call time for Miles, Barton and the crew is 4:30 am. If that sounds a wee bit early, consider the relief that the crew must have felt when ESPN picked up the lunchtime EPL game on Saturdays. When FSC had that game, the crew had to be in their seats and ready to go at 3:30 in the morning.
From 4:30 until 6:30, producer Jaime Trujillo, Miles, Barton and the rest of the broadcast team analyze their video packages, discuss and refine their commentary and rehearse their on-air banter. These rehearsals are as valuable to Jamie and his team in the control room as they are to the on-air talent. They plan when to roll their video and animation, time the commentary to make sure their commercials fit, and properly teleprompt the commercials that Miles reads live.
The studio is a surprisingly small room, made smaller by the set of Super Sunday Plus, which is pushed up against a side wall. It is kept cold to prevent the commentators from sweating under the hot TV lights, and has several big screen TVs dotted around the room so that the commentators can see the video and animation that they need to talk over. The control room down the hall is also small, and is right across from the new control room that will be activated in January when FSC begins broadcasting in high-def.
For this week, FSC’s game was Sunderland v Liverpool, so that meant lots of “Rafa on the brink” discussion as they talked about how Gerrard and Torres were missing and the team’s poor run of form on the 6:30 pre-game show. Aston Villa’s upset of Chelsea was completed just before broadcast so Miles and Barton had to quickly plan their comments on that game right before going on the air.
Of course, the one thing they cannot rehearse or pre-animate is the teams’ starting lineups, which becomes available about five minutes into the broadcast. For the production team, the line-ups drive a sense of concentrated urgency. Once the production team gets the lineups off the internet, one graphic producer has to quickly and accurately put all the names and positions onto an animation piece, and he finished his work with just seconds to spare. Miles and Barton are seeing the lineups for the first time at the same moment we at home are – and have to provide their insights (Liverpool started Jay Spearing?!) on the fly.
The pre-game show ends with Miles providing his last comments as the teams come out of the tunnel and the tense no-nonsense mood becomes suddenly jovial. Some of the production team meanders into an adjoining room where a bank of TVs is broadcasting all the games from England and staffers are taking notes on the timing of the important plays and goals so the clips can be retrieved for later use. Miles and Barton are watching the Sunderland v Liverpool game so they can provide their comments at halftime, and Darren Bent’s goal off the balloon becomes the obvious talking point.
Meanwhile, down the hall, in one of a half dozen little phone-booth like rooms, two commentators are huddled in front of a television calling the Sunderland v Liverpool game in Spanish for the FOX Sports en Español broadcast. During the mid-week Champions League broadcast, all the booths are being used to tape the broadcasts in Spanish for either live broadcasts or replays of the games in Spanish. Those are the same booths that Christian Miles ducks into to provide commentary for games from Spain, Italy, Germany and other non-English speaking countries.
The halftime commentary is trickier to produce than the pre-game show. There are no rehearsals and because of the more frequent commercials, the time for commentary is far more compressed. Timing is everything. In the NFL, the referee is not allowed to blow the whistle to start the second half until the TV people give him permission. There is no such luxury for the folks at FSC. If the commentary runs over for just a few seconds, they can’t cut the commercials and are liable to rejoin the game just after the kickoff or run the game with a few seconds delay – neither choice is really all that great for a crew that prides itself on its production technique. That is exactly what happened on Saturday, and just as he was about to organize the delay, producer Jaime Trujillo caught a lucky break – Sunderland started the second half with a substitution which delayed the kickoff just enough for them to broadcast everything in real time.
After the final whistle blows in Sunderland, Miles provides a voice over for the result and Barton heads off for a quick taping for the foxscoccer.com website. As busy as this all seems, this is actually an easier day because the normal wrap-up show has been pre-empted by a Serie A game.
Throughout the day, one thing becomes clear: all the FSC employees seem to have a real passion for soccer. As Trujillo emphasized, he takes pride in the way his production team “respect the game.” I asked several different people at FSC about the new investment ESPN is making in the EPL, and while they admire ESPN’s technical ability, the FSC team takes pride in their ability to authoritatively deliver soccer in a focused way that ESPN never will.