Inside a nondescript semi-tractor trailer in the “TV compound” just outside the track, green-green-green transitions Versus producer Terry Lingner and his colleagues from the scripted, formatted, low-surprise world of pre-race, to the anything-can-happen realm of live sports.
Lingner says inside the truck live television production resembles a cross between “an emergency room on a Saturday night” and “O’Hare airport during a thunderstorm.”
“The adrenaline runs as high in the truck as it does on the track,” Lingner said, who has done some racing as well as race producing. “It’s an E ticket ride every time. High wire. It’s just a complete and utter rush for the whole time we were on the air; just so much fun.”
As the race producer, Lingner describes himself as the head coach who calls the plays, with director Gary Clem as the quarterback who executes those plays.
“The director is right next to me and my hand is always on him,” said Linger. “I’m talking to the announcers. Everybody has to listen to me when we are making decision on the coverage change or if we are trying to lead into a feature or to a commercial. I’ve got to drive that bus. With no time outs we cannot relax. You cannot slow down. Even under a yellow we even get even busier.”
Versus covers an oval race with about of 23 cameras (including in-car cameras), 32 cameras for a road course. Camera operators are assisted by “spotters,” who Lingner said have free reign to direct cameras at whatever they think may be a developing point of interest for viewers. The art of determining where to point cameras is as much instinctual as anything, Lingner said. “Hopefully the guy with the best instincts are upstairs watching the action for us (the chief spotter). Those guys (spotters) are so vital. They have to sense when something is going to happen.”
The feeds from all those cameras shows up in a bank of monitors in front of Lingner, Clem and others in the truck. When the race goes live, the monitors spew out a blizzard of visual information that would dilate the eyes of even the hardest-core action video gamer. The visual blizzard is matched by a cacophony of voices in everyone's earphones. Most people involved have at least three or four people in their ears, and everyone can hear Lingner. Here’s video from the Versus production truck during its coverage of the Tour De France …
“It actually makes my wife nauseous,” said Lingner of the video/audio maelstrom. “She doesn’t like it at all.” But Lingner said he thrives on the immediacy, unpredictability and insane pace of live TV.
“I could never do movies or documentaries,” he said. “I’m just not built that way. That’s the coolest thing about live TV. There’s nothing like the gratification you can have having an idea in the shower this morning and having it on TV tonight in front of millions of people. It’s cool. And you can’t do that with film or documentary.”
On top of the visual and audio chaos and unpredictability of having 24 to 29 individual points of focus (every car) on the track at one time, Lingner has another major challenge — no pre-determined breaks in the action (like TV time outs in football and basketball). For example, if a football team is going to punt, the producer can plan on neatly cutting away to commercials after the punt return. There are other built in breaks, like quarter or period breaks, half times and timeouts in most sports, but none of that in racing.
One thing televised racing does have in common with those more predictable sporting events, Lingner said, is the need for the network to generate revenue off the broadcast. And that means fitting in commercials.
“Really, my key responsibility is to get the commercials in,” said Lingner. “The Catch 22 in all of this is we are here first and foremost to run a successful business for the network. And as we start getting more successful, sales (of commercial time during the broadcast) has better luck, PR has better luck, so your commitments start growing.”
Finding a way to fit it all in with minimal disruption to the audience becomes a challenge. The key is to stay vigilant for places to insert the required commercials, Lingner said. Missing an moment for a commercial early in the race can come back to haunt you late. That scenario played out during the Versus broadcast at Infineon on Aug. 22 when coverage cut to commercials very late in the race just as some key action was playing out.
“Sometimes you just have some really bad luck with how the race unfolds,” Lingner said of the Infineon broadcast on Don Kay’s Autosport Radio weekly show on Aug. 24. Given the number of commercials sold for the race, with no yellows Versus would have had to cut to a commercial every three or four laps at Infineon to get them all in, Lingner said. When you get behind in fitting commercials in, you end up with a lot of commercials at the end of the race, which is often less than ideal.
“I really wish sometimes we could be like HBO and not have to go to commercial, or sell it like soccer and never ever have to go to commercials,” Lingner told Kay, but that’s not the reality of most American television networks. (View Lingner's appearance on Autosport Radio HERE.)
Lingner is also in constant communication with Versus’ on-air talent -- play-by-play man Bob Jenkins and color commentators Jon Beekhuis and Robbie Buhl, both former drivers. Lingner said he likes the chemistry in the booth, especially thinker/feeler dynamic between the analytical Beekhuis and the more experiential Buhl.
“I’m glad when we started this we were allowed to do a three-man booth,” Lingner said. “I think it hurts ESPN when they have just two, Scott (Goodyear) and Marty (Reid). They are both good friends of mine, but when all hell breaks loose what I can do is say ‘Bob I want you to keep it with Robbie for a second because I have to show Jon a couple of replays.’”
While Buhl and Jenkins carry the broadcast, Lingner and Beekhuis will have what amounts to an off-air, side conversation during which Lingner sends replays to a monitor in the announcer's booth and talks with Beekhuis via communications link about what points he could make. Then Lingner works with the director to cut to the replay where Beekhuis can make the points on air.
At the same time, pit producer Joe Goodrich is directing the infantry -- pit reporters Lindy Thackston, Robbie Floyd and Jack Arute -- and is in constant contact with Lingner and several others. So after Jenkins finishes a point and while Beekhuis is narrating the replay, everyone may hear Lingner say "Jack, you pick it up from Jon" and Arute jumps in to make a point that has been pre-discussed behind the scenes 30 seconds earlier.
Those kinds of side-discussions and back-channel quick conferences go on constantly during the broadcast, making TV production the work of über-multi-taskers. Lingner said you have to be able to focus on one thing and still be highly aware of about seven others at the same time to make it in the business.
“Being on air is the hardest job,” said Lingner, “I’m convinced of that. They are the ones laying it all out there and if we don’t have good chemistry … The network can give me all the bells and whistles in the world, but if the people don’t like your announcers, you’re sunk.”
Lingner says he hears from the fans after broadcasts, both positive and negative. “You always take feedback in a positive way,” said Lingner. “I’d say we’ve been treated pretty well so far.”
But, just like the drivers, all the preparation and planning and anticipating can only get the TV crew ready to take the green. Once the race starts to unfold, you have to roll with it.
“That’s what’s fun about sports,” said Lingner. “You can format the opening, maybe do three or four closes depending on how much time you have. Clearly, you have checklists and want to get certain things on the air. But a mistake a lot of producers can make is to think you have the event figured out ahead of time. You gotta rip the paper up and go with what’s going on. You gotta have the confidence and the support to do it.”
Q and A with Terry Lingner, Versus Race Producer
What are the guiding principles of a producer?
“Make” TV not watch it ... entertain, educate, and finish stories. Create and maintain a culture where we’re accountable as a team. Live TV that has 29 centers of focus (29 cars) needs everyone to collaborate. My personal goal in every show is to make the viewer wish they were here. Also, keep the announcers relaxed and promote good chemistry on the air. We can have all the bells and whistles but if the viewers doesn’t like or trust your announce team, you’ll fail.
How does information come into the truck?
We have a chief spotter that is our eyes. He is placed with our battle camera so he can move the coverage quickly. We also have a person in race control feeding info; we have a person monitoring the radio broadcast and Twitter. The pit spotters monitor team radios. The announcers can kill their mics and talk directly to me. Finally we have a production assistant with a driver check list.
What are the unique challenges of road courses?
The main problem is the extra set up and cable needed. The extra geography. Believe it or not, the nondescript tracks (where a lot of the track looks the same) are harder to direct: (Edmonton, Cleveland, Miller Motorsports Park, etc). It's harder to communicate to the viewer where cars are on the circuit, and when camera people can see action out of their normal coverage area, you can be tempted to take wrong cameras.
How do you determine where to place cameras on ovals and road/street courses?
We always try and find a signature shot first, such as Turn 9 at St. Pete to include the yachts, Turn 2 at Sao Paulo to show the stadium, Turn 1 at Indy for the scoring tower and pagoda. Past that we like to have good coverage coming and going. Meaning it’s more important to be able to have cameras that can see more instead of cameras that deliver artistic shots. The camera people are always fishing for passes and accidents when they are not on the air. Isolation has to be thought of very early in the process. Many times the back of the race car tells more than the front. Also, whenever possible, we try to get the cameras lower to show more speed.
Are you in the ear of the booth guys?
Always. As mentioned, there has to be great collaboration and teamwork, but there is one head coach that has to drive the telecast. That is the producer. The producer is constantly giving direction and suggestions to the talent. I really pushed for a three man booth so that I could communicate better by asking two of the three to “hold down the fort” while I communicate with the third. I discovered this very early on in the early '80s with ESPN when I produced Bob, Benny Parsons and Ned Jarrett. Of course Monday Night Football leads the way.
What’s the most misunderstood part of the job?
It’s funny, what’s misunderstood is that there actually is a producer. In film the director is king. In live sports the producer has to guide the broadcast.
What do you enjoy most about being a producer?
Very quick or instant gratification. I could never make movies or documentaries. I have to move fast, and I love the high wire. Been doing it for almost 30 years, and it’s never felt like work. I feel so blessed and fortunate. I love the creativity needed and the people doing it “with” me, not “for” me.
What do you enjoy least about being a producer?
Rain outs, past that, I’m good ... let’s go racing.