Saturday, February 23, 2013

Roundup On The Double-Quick

Outside the production trucks at the Tucson Rodeo Parade.
My fretting and fussing for producing the TV coverage for this year's Tucson Rodeo Parade is over before I know it. What usually takes nearly 2 hours gets done this year in about an hour and 15 minutes, with only two brief pauses and no runaway-horse catastrophes. At least a dozen entries pulled out because of worries about the cold weather. And I think the entries that were there wanted to get on with things and get out of the cold.

Rewind five hours as I ride with an engineer and one of our crew in a spare live unit to our coverage location. Their navigational skills are not yet up to speed at 5am. But the truck is.

“Speed bump!” they yell.


I'm sitting in the back seat with a travel mug full of hot coffee. It stays in my hand, and the brew stays in the cup, instead of flying off into space.

I don't have much to do early, except get set up in the back of Access Tucson's production truck, where I'll be running my end of the show, and help the crew where they needed. Our directors, engineers and the Access Tucson people are handing the hardcore technical stuff, the stringing of wires and cables, lining up microwave shots and checking signals.

Dan and Heather arrive in plenty of time for me to get a few changes to them. They don't need a whole lot of setup; it's all in the huge briefing books I've passed to them, relaying every scrap of information I have on every entry and every bit of parade trivia I think they'll want or need. I also have a roving reporter for the opening cowbell, to be sounded by a kid cowboy or cowgirl the parade organizers haven't found yet due to the small crowds. Yesterday's freak snowfall in Tucson and warnings about morning ice are keeping people away, along with the cold. We have a roving cameraman to capture what crowds we do get.

We're set up in the parking lot of the Tucson Fire Department's warehouse. They generously let us use their restrooms –- several times in my case. All that morning coffee has to go somewhere, and I can't leave my spot during the broadcast.

Wires and cables get one last check, the anchors get into place on a scissor lift above the ground, and we strap on our production headsets. Our director working the production truck's video switcher is in communication both with the parade camera crews and the control room back at the station where another director will add graphics and commercials.

The truck director barks orders a mile a minute. I can't exactly tell when we're on the air or not, but I have a TV tuned to our station. I see when the opening animation is rolled and cue the anchors over their headsets. They start talking and we're in business. They introduce themselves and show the route. So far, so good.

Now it's time to turn things over to Ryan Foran and the little boy with the opening cowbell. We punch up the roving camera, but we can't hear Ryan. His mic had just worked, and now it was out.

“Keep talking,” I tell the anchors in their earpieces, and they ad-lib about how the parade is getting started while the little boy rings a silent cowbell. We can't get the mic, and we can't get a replacement out there fast enough. It's time to get this show on the road.

The entries – all horseback, walkers, or horse-drawn carriages – come at us nearly rapid fire. We have the opening banner, the color guard, the local dignitaries and all the rodeo VIPs up front. Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly are Grand Marshals this year. They go by quickly, waving to everybody. There's no time for words, just smiles.

A spotter calls out the number of the next float coming, and I match it against a rundown I have with me.

“118 Next!”

Several entries may be out of place or missing, so I have to rely on what my spotter sees, not my rundown order. At least four entries have canceled before the start of the parade. I'm more concerned getting the right information on what's coming up next to Dan and Heather, who need only flip to the proper page in their briefing books to find the factoids they need about the band, wagon or rider who's passing by.

“Need a number,” I prompt.

“Looking, looking!”

Several numbers are not in a conspicuous location as they come towards us, leaving us guessing until it's nearly too late. Dan and Heather are adept at verbal tap-dancing until we verify who's next. A marching band is easy to identify; a solo rider, tougher. Our roving camera's picture is going in and out as the photographer moves around, limiting when our director can take it.

Our director barks out camera commands. “Three, you're hot! Back to one! Stay with it, one! Two, that's a great shot, on two! Four, I lost you again!”

Back at the station, a graphics operator is hearing us talk about the entries and throwing up titles in the lower third of the screen over each one.

We have to run commercials around certain times, as cued by someone back at the studio.

“You wanna take a break here?”

“Yeah, after this next float, pitch to break.”

We'll keep the parade going in a box in the bottom of the screen while the commercial fills a box in the top half. Each one is only 30 seconds long, so when Dan says “we're taking a short break,” he means it.

“Stand by!” A studio person is counting down the end of the commercial to our director in his ear, and we're quickly back on the air.


Some interns who are helping and observing with our production are also doing double duty as coordinating producers: they're running information about canceled entries back to me in the back of the truck, a third voice in my ear on top of the director and spotter.

“214, 218 and 228 aren't here,” one says. No problem. Or was that 215? 216? It doesn't matter. We go with the entries that we see, give that number to the anchors, and they have the information. The rundown is only a rough running order.

It's not flawless. We hear about entries we've skipped over because they're not there, or we misidentify a carriage at first only to quickly correct it. The minutes fly by. This parade is running a lot faster than we planned. An hour elapses and we're already nearing the end, even though we've only run about half the commercials we need to run.

“What are we going to do about those spots?”

We talk back and forth with the station crew.

“We're going to do them at the end.”

After the last entry, Dan and Heather pitch to a final commercial, and we see two minutes worth of ads above a final shot of the crowds and the street sweepers moving in.

“Wrap up and say goodbye,” I prompt through their ears as we come out of the break.

I'm exhausted and frustrated that things ran so fast and not as smoothly as I wanted. But Heather and Dan have nothing but compliments. Our news director has already called in her compliments. The crew is happy. The talent is happy. If they're happy, I'm happy. I shrug off the glitches and consider myself schooled and blessed.

It's only 10:45 when a photographer gives me a lift back to the station, but my day is done. Producing yesterday's snow coverage was much harder than this. Relatively speaking, this was a breeze, a cold manic breeze.

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