So here's the deal. 2 members of the Bad Idea Blue Jeans staff used to work for the Worldwide Leader in Sports. Eventually we left the Mecca of Bristol, Connecticut for other opportunities, but that doesn't mean we're above using the "I worked for ESPN" card at social gatherings. People always have questions about what happens behind the scenes with the anchors, and frankly, we have lots of stories. Starting today, we're ready to start spilling. Hopefully we'll be updating with more stories from Bristol on a semi-regular basis. Fun little anecdotes about certain anchors being massive tools, the perils of being cramped with reporters in a tiny trailer during live events, and guest analysts who made their mark (either by buying the entire newsroom dinner, or being completely incapable of coherent thought on camera. Also it's worth noting that since we're not looking to embarrass the hard working producers, directors, and everyone behind the scenes, that we will be substituting the name of any behind the scenes player with random NBA role players from the last couple decades. Enjoy!
Our first entry concerns the clip below, in which Dan Patrick was set for an exclusive interview with headphones aficionado Steve Bartman. Unfortunately things did not go exactly as planned.
That morning started like many before it. There is a 10am meeting to go over any news that happened late the night before, and set up the show for the day. This consists of the news editor rattling off what news is expected to happen that day and what games are happening that night that might be worth previewing that day. Also, since it's ESPN, this is the meeting where on a daily basis, somebody suggests some stupid feature involving the Yankees or Red Sox. Anyway, the meeting came and went like it had many days before. With the 6pm SportsCenter, there's always a feeling that something big could break during the day - a coach getting fired, a big trade; something that makes you bust your ass behind the scenes to get the story told well on a quick turnaround. This day was no different.
At 1pm the graphics and font crew arrived. These are the people who not only write and research the scores and facts that appear on screen, but also design all graphics, including that nifty fullscreen mugshot of the interview subject that appeared during SportsCenter. After a quick meeting going through an initial rundown of the show we went about our business of making Golf Leader boards, some ID fonts for athletes and speakers in the features we run, and just general full screens which are the elements used out of features to enhance the message with statistical backup. Around 2pm a call comes into the fonting room (mind you this phone is like the Batphone - whenever it rings its for more work). On the other end, an excited producer we'll call Mark Eaton says that we have an exclusive with Steve Bartman. He'll be calling in live at 6pm to answer questions.
Obviously the place is now buzzing. It should be noted that at this point the Bartman call was being kept under wraps - only the 6pm SC crew knew about it. Of course like any good secret, it got out. People started coming up to the font room to see if the rumors were true. One by one however the same question came up - how the hell did he know the number for ESPN? I mean here at the WorldWide Leader you have thousands of people who wanted to work for ESPN their whole lives and who upon graduating college searched high and low for contact info to get into ESPN (its kind of like Fort Knox - you can drive to see it, there's an address and a general telephone number - but you can't actually talk to anyone or get in unless you work there or know someone who does) and here some guy was able to get directly through to the assignment desk no less?
Now after the fact, it's easy to ask why this whole charade wasn't checked out better before putting the caller on live TV. But a few things need to be understood. First off, no more than a handful of people actually talked to the caller in the pre-screening process. Secondly, this is a pretty anonymous subject we're dealing with. Any information we knew about Steve Bartman came from news reports or publications, so every answer of his checked out. ESPN has contacts all over the world to triple-check sources for athletes, but there wasn't any source to ask about this guy that nobody had ever heard of a few days prior. Even his story about why he wasn't calling from a Chicago area code made sense at the time. His number was traced to a hotel in Pittsburgh and he said he was afraid to be in Chicago. Again, with the circumstances of the event, it seemed to make sense. The producers were justifiably skeptical, but after a few hours of trying to check things out using the few resources that were available, the powers that be were satisfied. All the pieces were in order for the exclusive interview.
As the segment was about to start there was a nervous energy. No exaggeration, every big wig at ESPN was watching this - and for Mark Eaton this was his moment. In a way, I think he pushed this through even with the shallow background check because it was one of those moments that can make a career. All throughout the day he was hearing higher ups and Dan Patrick himself question the authenticity of the call, I think in the back of his head Mark Eaton thought his 6th sense on being right about this would not only produce some great TV but an acknowledgement from his peers for having a great feel for television.
Of course as you saw from the clip - it didn't quite go over as big Mark would have liked. The McCurdy (for those who have never seen one - it's an internal communication system with a baseboard and an adjustable headset microphone that enables everyone to communicate with each other during the show. You can always tell who's new on the job when they make the obligatory "Welcome to McDonald's, can I take your order" joke) was eerily quiet during the first few questions. Usually you can hear the producer and director, but on this day everyone was just listening to the conversation - probably a first in studio television history. The fake caller was actually smart by answering the first few questions in a calm and believable manner - with each passing question you could feel the tension lifted. Of course just when everyone was beginning to relax - "Do you like Howard Stern's butt cheese?"
The control room exploded. The yelling and cursing was just sailor-esque. Mark Eaton at this point is so pissed he's cursing at everyone - from tape machine operators to prompters - obviously just directing his anger at himself towards everyone else. The director, Randy Wittman, was so flustered that he cut to a frozen piece of video tape in a panic before just going to black and being bailed out by a Tom Emanski commercial. The producer - Danny Ferry - was actually cool about it. Eaton and he had worked together for a long time, so he took the road of "He's probably being harder on himself right now then I could ever be on him." While he no doubt had some words later on, at the time he took the high road and tried to get the show back on track. Dan Patrick of course had to weigh in during the break on how foolish he felt. It should be noted that while Dan Patrick was cool under pressure and is generally a nice guy, he does have an air of "cooler than the room" to him. In his opinion this incident was not a reflection of ESPN as a whole, but rather a knock on his journalistic integrity. Meanwhile he was doing a story on jock itch 2 weeks later but that's neither here nor there.
For the rest of the show Mark Eaton didn't say a word. Since this call was at the beginning, being the exclusive and all, there were still 50 minutes left of television. Ferry pretty much took over and guided everyone through a pretty clean, if not already marred show. As a fonter, your performance is measured by how many mistakes you make during the show. Usually there are 1 or 2 minor spelling or statistical errors you hear about it after the show. If there is a big one, you definitely hear about it after the show (and repeatedly after that as well.) In that particular show I had 2 more errors and when I went down to the post show meeting Mark Eaton couldn't even bring himself to give me crap for it - he just said nice job and keep an extra eye out on Top 10 fonts.
Amazingly, nobody was fired for the debacle, although I'm sure that Mark Eaton was in the doghouse with the bigwigs for a while afterward. The buzz around campus was palpable the rest of the day. Immediately after the show, the bigwigs launched a full-scale mission to destroy all copies of the show tape. I remember being in the screening department (a large room filled with monitors where we watch and record every game, show, and news feed that comes in to ESPN) and watching PA's frantically rewind and replay the tape before it was confiscated by one of the powers that be. It was one of those days where as a lower-echelon employee, we all found it to be hilarious, but had to look over our shoulder and make sure no higher-ups were around when we laughed it off. There was a lot of walking on egg shells around coordinating producers for the rest of the day. It also changed the way ESPN screens phone calls, and you'll probably never see a live telephone interview anymore unless it's with one of ESPN's own reporters. To this day, the whole mess is a very touchy subjects, and is the elephant in the newsroom that is never spoken about in any official setting.
More stories to come shortly in our continuing "Legends from the Leader" AKA "You're with me, Bristol" series. Stay tuned.