Lights, camera, action!

When I learned I would be coming to Las Vegas to write this series of columns, one of the first ideas I had was to give fans a behind-the-scenes look at how the telecast for the world’s richest rodeo was produced and put together for Great American Country (GAC). I had the chance to tour the TV compound and hang out in the main TV truck during Round 8 – Wrangler Patriot Night in honor of the  Pearl Harbor anniversary – and it was a heck of an experience.

I’d been in TV trucks before – the first time while a student at Auburn to help out on a basketball game broadcast and then again a few times while working as a media relations coordinator for the LPGA Tour. It’s always fun to be in the nerve center of a national TV broadcast, and Wednesday night was no different.

I’ve known TV producer Matt Shults for years, as he has been part of the production crews for the PRCA’s elite rodeos for quite some time. He agreed to give me a tour of the TV compound and lay out the procedures and ins and outs of the GAC production, which is a joint venture between Winnercomm and Jeff Medders’ Geronimo Productions.

With millions of dollars of equipment, the TV compound is enclosed by a chain-link fence and protected by a security guard.

We met up before the rodeo, and Shults explained how he and Director David Newman serve as coaches of sorts in the television truck, barking out orders and directions to camera operators, graphics coordinators and a host of other staffers who make the show happen each night. Shults and Newman have extremely difficult jobs in organizing the production of the telecasts, but they have been doing it so long, they nearly have it down to a science.

“I use the analogy of a traffic cop, because I’m telling the moving parts where they’re going,” said Shults, who is working his eighth Wrangler NFR this year. “David Newman gets us where we’re going, and we’re always trying to stay just ahead of what we’re doing. Live TV is never predictable, so it’s very challenging.”

Two massive satellite dishes beam out the Wrangler NFR telecast from the Thomas & Mack.

Shults described how there are 1,000 moving pieces that have to come together and function correctly for the show to come off. Every show is different, which is what makes it both challenging and fulfilling for Shults and the crew.

“It’s like a golf swing – there are so many moving parts, and if one thing fails, a viewer notices,” said Shults, who has also produced basketball, football and softball telecasts. “It’s about trying to get us where we’re going so we can have a smooth show and someone at home can’t tell the difference. Every night, there’s something that might bother any one of us because it doesn’t look right or didn’t fit in where we wanted it to go, but the idea is for the viewer at home to never know the difference.”

There are roughly 50 people working on the broadcast each night, 22 cameras capturing the action as it unfolds (including ones in the timed-event chute and barrel racing tunnel) and more than 6,000 feet of cables running into the Thomas & Mack Center. The compound consists of two TV trucks, two production trailers and a pair of massive satellite dishes that beam the show back to GAC’s headquarters in Knoxville. The feed is also piped to Canada and to area Las Vegas casinos that show the rodeo broadcasts as they happen.

More than a mile of cables run through the TV compound, to the Thomas & Mack Center and back to the TV truck.

Some segments are pre-taped to be used throughout the broadcast, and with GAC inserting a hefty number of commercials into each night’s telecast, the rodeo usually runs a few minutes ahead of the actual show on TV because of what Shults accurately calls a “compounding tape delay.” There are hundreds of puzzle pieces that need to be put together to produce the broadcast, and that is the job Shults and Newman are faced with each night.

Shults and Newman are constantly looking for new elements to introduce to the broadcast – whether it’s a new camera angle or fresh segment – to enhance the show’s production value and give the viewer a more accurate view of the rodeo.

Shults said his day at the compound usually begins mid-morning and lasts until 11 p.m., two hours after the rodeo ends. Much like a football coach, he watches tape of the previous night’s broadcast to study it, look for what worked and what didn’t and see what changes he wants to make for that night’s show. Preparation is key, and Shults said most people don’t realize that a live show broadcast “takes at least five times the amount of time and planning than they think it does.”

After a pre-show meeting with the TV talent – which consists of Medders, Butch Knowles, Don Gay, Joe Beaver and Jennifer Smith – it’s off to the truck to get things in line for the broadcast.

Ahh, the truck.

It is a tech geek’s dream. Hundreds of tiny TV screens, dozens of mixing boards, computer screens and more switches and knobs than I’ve ever seen. This broadcast is being produced on a brand new truck, which I was told was worth AT LEAST $16 million. One sound mixing board alone was valued at $800,000, and the equipment housed in that truck could make NASA jealous!

Hundreds of TV monitors and dozens of computer screens and mixing boards fill the TV truck.

They keep the temperature pretty cold in the truck on account of all the high-tech equipment, much the same way an operating room or a live TV set are kept frigid. It had been a while since I’d been in an enclosed space that had padded walls and a padded ceiling (just kidding!), but the interior had a festive atmosphere because of holiday decorations the crew had put up.

The crew is, admittedly, a funny bunch of squirrels. They love taking jabs at one another, having fun away from the crunch time and even roping a dummy steer in the compound. It was “Mustache Night” at the compound, with several staffers – women included – donning fake ’staches for a photo op and even wearing them throughout the production.

They explained that, when you’ve been working in a field as long as many of them have, it’s important to keep the mood light and fun among the crew. I couldn’t agree more.

Approximately two dozen people work in the truck during the broadcast, from engineers, graphics coordinators and assistant directors to tape operators, replay producers, audio coordinators and video operator. The truck is a flurry of activity, to say the least.

Shults, Newman and assistant directors barking out orders, other staffers announcing updates and more countdowns than Kasay Kasam on speed could produce. It’s like an organized Tourette’s convention.

Director David Newman calls out orders while Producer Matt Shults (middle) helps direct traffic.

Every person has a specific job, and they all do it exceptionally well. It’s a great example of specialized labor and an illustration of specialty professions at their best.

You can see the pieces of the puzzle in their separate spots on the screens, and then they all come together through the crew’s communication and organization to become the finished product that millions of people see on TV. The production is a living, breathing thing, and you can almost feel its heartbeat while sitting in the trenches in the truck.

It was quite the spectacle to behold, and I’m so glad I was able to experience it again. The crew didn’t miss a beat – or any rides or runs – throughout the rodeo, and the result was a quality three-hour-and-30-minute telecast viewers could enjoy.

I left the pros to do their work midway through the barrel racing, hearing things like “Leaders are good” and “Two more until break” being called out.

As I watched the bull riding from the Wrangler NFR press room, I couldn’t help but think about the perspective I’d gained during the broadcast. It’s amazing to see the telecast from the inside out, and the finished product speaks for itself.

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