There’s a problem in the control room, and Alan May is involved.
“He’s definitely gone over,” producer Ryan Billie tells the crew over headset. “We’re over by :30.”
TV control rooms do not like surprises. They are dark places, populated by glowing lights and tense voices yelling out questions, requests, orders or expletives…or some combination thereof. It all lends an air of modest confusion and panic – two things that are not good in live TV.
But this one, Control Room A at CSN Mid-Atlantic headquarters in a downtown Bethesda office building, is relatively calm. Relatively. Throughout the last half hour, line-ups were juggled, graphics adjusted, plans changed and changed again. And now, Alan May has gone long at the telestrator and something needs to be done.
“What are we dropping?” asks the director. “I don’t know yet,” says Billie. He has about :20 seconds to make up his mind before the commercial ends and it’s back to live studio. Everyone’s waiting, but something will work out. It has to.
All in all, just another evening at CSN Capitals Pregame Live.
The Team Behind the Talent
Statistics don’t lie. It’s a flat fact that the 2015-16 Washington Capitals are perhaps the single best, most tenacious, most broadly talented team in franchise history. It’s also equally accurate that Washington hockey fans have probably the single most talented, capable and committed broadcast team to be found anywhere in the NHL…although statistics here are harder to find.
Earlier we profiled CSN’s field crew – the team that brings you the actual game, at home or away. Of equal importance is the group that brings viewers the pre- and post-game coverage, as well as filling the intermissions with crucial insights about what’s going right or wrong out on the ice.
Of course, Al Koken and Alan May are the faces we know best, but just like the field crew, there’s an entire team that clicks together game nights that make watching the Capitals on CSN only slightly less as great as going to Verizon in person. That team recently invited us to sit in and watch what goes into just one program – in this case, the pregame before the Caps match against the Bruins at TD Gardens on January 5th.
The evening actually starts in the afternoon for Ryan Billie. He’s the lead producer for tonight’s coverage, and by 2pm he’s already at work doing research, sorting through all the possible topics and video elements, and building the program’s rundown. Speaking as broadcast journalists (former and current), it’s very much like the work that goes into producing a nightly newscast: some elements you know, some you anticipate but get jettisoned, and some things just pop up clear out of nowhere.
The trick, says Billie, is being prepared for all of it.
“I’m from around here; I’m a Caps fan, so for me this is a thrill,” says Billie. “I have 23 minutes of content time. I put a show together, and it tells me I’ve only got a minute left, and six more minutes of stuff I want to do. But clearly, each evening the most important thing is the game coming up: we try to do as much about tonight’s game, but knowing that there are other stories lines that don’t always cross.”
Injuries, he says, are a good example. “Orpik’s out for this game, but he’s been out for a month. His absence isn’t ‘news’ – they’ve been playing without him for 20 games now – but it’s still a story. So if there’s a way to weave that in, it’s difficult but it’s worth it.”
“Holtby’s another great example,” says the former ESPN college football producer. “How many ways are there to say ‘Holtby’s great’? You try to; I mean, Braden Holtby is the best goaltender in the NHL. But even we get tired of it; even we’ve said it a hundred times. So we have to find a way to keep things new.”
Each person on the pregame program has a job. Keeping things new, “and real” as Billie says, is Courtney Laughlin’s. Among other duties, she tracks social media sites across the day – hearing what people are saying, engaging with what fans want to know, and then injecting that into the night’s program.
“Social media is really a kind of story-telling,” she tells us as she preps in the control room. “We’re actually creating a package with a theme. Usually the night before the show, Ryan and I will talk and he’ll ask: ‘Courtney what are the common themes going on, what are the stories people are talking about?’ So we try to craft something that echoes that theme, and ask questions that generate conversation.”
This evening Laughlin continues that engagement right up into the broadcast, looking for ways to tell an improptu story, in effect, with no safety net. No small feat, given how unpredictable and snarky social media can get.
If Laughlin is there to share what fans want to say, then Alan May is the guy fans want to hear what he wants to say.
The Little Nuances of the Game
May arrives a little later than Koken, who has been pouring over the program’s elements to find the very best way to present it all to the audience. Both Koken and May are perfectionists: Koken, every inch the broadcaster, choosing his words with utmost care, and May reviewing piles of digital footage, looking for the one little thing on the ice that tells the greater story.
“When I first started I always had three words that wanted to come out, so I was always fighting to say just one and end up stuttering,” says May. “I always try to make sure not to be condescending to our viewers, but try to educate if we can. I remember one of our producers always saying ‘Oh, don’t you think that’s a little over the top?’ And I said if I show them, then they can say ‘Alan May showed me that’ and now they’re going to be looking for things that aren’t so obvious. Why they’re having failures and success; the little nuances of the game.”
Showing and not just telling – what colleague Craig Laughlin has called “The Why” – is what May excels at, and his tool of choice is the telestrator. Just as there’s nothing accidental about what comes out of Al Koken’s mouth during a broadcast, May’s telestrations are intricately choreographed.
“There’s a couple programs on TV they just talk but they’re not saying anything,” says May, declining to identify which ones specifically. “Is it because they just don’t know the game, or not willing to work hard enough? You can go on TV and do nothing, or you can go on and show people. If you show them, they start to become a better fan.”
Producer Ryan Billie says that from the moment it was introduced, May poured over the mechanics of the telestrator – learning what its limits were. “Smokin’ Al” says he’s equally impressed.
“He’s really embraced doing it,” says Koken, looking up from his stacks of notes for tonight’s broadcast. “Not just showing how a player gets from point A to point B, but the techniques, tools and abilities on that telestraitor to show someone where a play originated and how it developed. He’s unbelievable at that.”
“I’ve been extremely impressed with not only how quickly he grasped it but how eagerly he wants to do it,” says Koken of his colleague. “He makes it look outstanding; it pops off the screen. Like you said, if you watch, you get that full breakdown of what’s going on. I think it’s the best stuff we do on air.”
Al Koken may be selling himself a bit short. His role in all this is, in turns, both obvious and hard to pin down. Koken is clearly the voice of the program: the metronome, the man with the facts, the anchor that keeps the ship from drifting off course. If something has happened in Washington sports in the last 40 years, and maybe longer, Koken may well have been there.
But to watch Koken work is to see an old-school broadcaster in action – in the very best sense of the term. We’ve seen it in those we learned from decades ago, when being on TV was less about the anchor and more about the story. It seems for Koken, the less he says, the more he communicates. Words are important, and shouldn’t be use to just fill dead air. Al Koken is the guy who draws the outlines of a story, then lets others step in to fill it out.
Between them, and the other key members of the team such as the editors, director and graphics persons, they make a team that’s the rival of any other we’ve seen. It’s hard work, expectations are high, and we imagine the complaints many.
But there they are, every game day. Always trying to do better, to teach more…and to figure out what to do when you’re :30 seconds over.