While the Super Bowl blackout was embarrassing, it was repaired relatively quickly. Back in the 1960s, the technical challenges or broadcasting often were much more difficult.
As I write this, the lights are still out in the Superdome in New Orleans. This will probably go down as the biggest screw-up in major league sports. It’s also arguably the biggest boost to high-brightness (HB) lighting so far.
But this story is about the biggest previous screw-up, which I had a hand in. It’s the story of the first blimpcast of a major league baseball game. There was also a “zeroth” major screw-up, which I’ll save for the end. But on the Richter scale of sports broadcast screw-ups, that one, while funny, barely shows up.
Early Days At Shea
This was the early 1960s, when I was a college kid and a summer intern at WOR-TV in New York. If you look on the Web, there isn’t a great deal to be found about blimps and sporting events, except a couple of mentions of some Orange Bowl coverage back in 1960. I once found a reference to an ABC blimpcast of a NFL game that happened in 1964, making my experience the second blimpcast of a major league sporting event, but that entry seems to have been taken down. In any event, here’s my first-person version.
This was a good gig. The union (IATSE) got the station to let summer interns (we all had First-Phone tickets) learn to work all the production and maintenance positions, so I got to rotate between master control on the 83rd floor of the Empire State building, the WOR studios, and Shea Stadium.
On this particular day in 1964 or 1965 (I can’t remember, but it couldn’t have been earlier than 1964 because the Mets would have still been playing at the Polo Grounds, and it couldn’t have been later than 1965 because that was the last year before I headed west), I showed up at Shea, and the assistant chief engineer pulled me aside, handed me a dish and a preamp, and showed me how to access the roof.
The folks at the Rheingold Beer ad agency had decided that a blimpcast would be a swell promotional event. So, they hired the Goodyear blimp and arranged to load it up with a TK41C color-TV camera and camera control unit.
On the audio side, they split the team. Normally, veteran sportscaster Lindsey Nelson did the play-by play and former Pittsburgh slugger Ralph Kiner did the color commentary. For this event, they decided to bootleg an illegal citizen’s band downlink for Nelson in the blimp, while Kiner would broadcast from the announcer booth on the press level.
Jinxed From The Start
Trouble began when the blimp pilot got an eyeful of the camera, pedestal, and camera-control unit. This was heavy equipment. (I helped schlep those cameras into storage the time the Beatles first came to New York, and the promoters sold out every seat in the stadium, including the ones on the press level.) The camera head of a TK-41C weighs 300 pounds, and the viewfinder all by itself weighs another 50 pounds. Then the camera control unit is tidily packaged in an 8-foot tall, standard 19-inch rack.
Maybe it was the weight of that rack. Maybe it was the fact that the camera head and viewfinder were expected to be supported on a simple tripod, instead of a pneumatic camera pedestal. Apparently, the blimp skipper assessed the pounds per square inch that those tripod feet would represent and said nix.
The camera operator and the chief engineer ran back to 1440 Broadway and brought back a black-and-white TK-35. Compared to a TK-41, a TK-35 was virtually a handicam (if handicams had existed).
Naturally, all this required a downlink, which is where I came in. The station rented a microwave link from WABC, which, on the receive end, comprised a 3-foot dish and a fixed-gain 6-dB booster amp that could be inserted in the downlink coax that snaked through an air duct and into a cable trough on the press level.
There was no test flight.
So it’s game time, and I’m up on the stadium roof with my gear and a magnificent view of the World’s Fair site and all the cemeteries in Flushing, Queens, and conspicuously there’s the immense Goodyear blimp, gingerly sharing the airspace with all the jet traffic at Kennedy and LaGuardia.
The game was interesting.
First of all, let me state for the record that there was never a violation of FCC regulations, because Lindsey Nelson’s audio link simply did not work. Poor Ralph Kiner had to call the entire game himself, and he was pretty hoarse by the end of it.
Next, let me tell you that you get some interesting multipath effects when you mix together a 12-inch microwave dish, a moving source that’s at best half a mile away, and you have multipath microwave signals bouncing off acres and acres of parking lot, filled with the reflective steel roofs, hoods, and trunks of a jillion automobiles.
It would have helped to have a variable attenuator between the microwave dish and the rest of the electronics. Heck, a 3-dB attenuator would have helped, but all I had was too much gain, or not enough. What resulted was a combination of ghosting from the multipath, plus exactly the kind of diagonal herringbone you got in those days when you overloaded the front end of an analog TV receiver.
But at intervals, the engineer in the gondola was getting some dandy pictures. And every once and a while the angles were just right, and my picture stabilized, and ta-daa! The technical director punched up my feed from the blimp and out it went to millions of TV sets across the greater New York market.
Except the blimp shots were black and white. Everything else from the ballpark was in glorious color. The Mets fans watching the ballgame were underimpressed. I was told the WOR switchboard “lit up like a Christmas tree,” which is a cliché, but you get the idea.
So the impact area was a doozy, only the greater New York market and whatever metro market we were feeding that supported the team the Mets were playing. That was nothing like the number of people watching tonight’s fiasco, which I see was fixed in only 34 minutes. Way to go folks.
One More Blunder
And the other fiasco? That’s one I only heard about from the old-timers at the station. It goes back to the days when the Giants played at the Polo grounds and the TV installation was, er, jury-rigged. Among other things, that meant the camera that shot toward home plate from the outfield was on a platform above the bleacher seats and had something of a tilt in the forward direction. During this particular game, when (Jack K. let’s call him) the engineer operating the camera turned his back for a moment, the relatively lightweight TK-34 camera rolled off the front of the platform and dangled above the heads of the fans (most of whom remained oblivious, or at least as nonchalant as New Yorkers are expected to be), while sending back the most interesting video feed to the control room.
At least that’s the story they told a kid back in the day.