SBJ/March 24-30, 2014/Colleges

Inside Turner, ready for tipoff

Twenty minutes before the Turner Sports studio team launches its coverage of the NCAA tournament’s “First Four,” Steve Smith and Grant Hill sit behind the studio desk filling out their brackets.

“Can Iowa State beat Michigan State?” Hill asks Smith, the former Spartan.

“Oh, yeah, Iowa State’s legit,” Smith replies.

With the clock winding down toward the start of their pregame show last Tuesday night, Smith and Hill finish their brackets and hand them to Chico Robinson, the 22-year veteran chief of security at Turner and CNN — and on this night, the bracket manager for the office pool.

The Event Operations Center gathers Turner’s digital team, split between March Madness  Live and NCAA.com.
Photo by: MICHAEL SMITH / STAFF
Soon after, with the start of the show approaching, the joking and small talk subsides. The set manager informs the crew of Hill, Smith, Seth Davis and host Matt Winer that they have two minutes before they hit the air.

It’s almost showtime and the tension builds in cavernous Studio D on the ground floor of Turner Sports’ Atlanta office, adjacent to Georgia Tech’s campus.

Then, suddenly from the back of the studio, Robinson shouts, “Hey, Smitty! You forgot to pick Memphis-George Washington. Who you got?”

“George Washington,” Smith says.

The first night of Turner’s NCAA tournament coverage launches seconds later, with Winer’s powerful voice telling viewers, “It’s time to dance.”

Of the tournament’s 67 games, 22 will be broadcast on CBS and the rest on Turner’s trio of TruTV, TBS and TNT. The studio teams, however, are a mix of mostly Turner and some CBS talent.

Winer leads what is essentially Turner’s No. 2 studio team. The headline group — Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Clark Kellogg — will work out of New York beginning with Thursday’s games.

But on the first official night of the 2014 tournament, Winer, Davis, Smith and Hill own the airwaves.

In the hours leading up to the start of Turner’s coverage on TruTV, Davis worked the phones, calling Iowa coach Fran McCaffery to check on the status of McCaffery’s 13-year-old son, Patrick, who was scheduled to undergo surgery on the day of Iowa’s first-round game. The conversation paid off during the studio show when Davis explained how the coach would be with his son during the surgery, then leave to coach the game.

Davis uses the two hours before the show to “nugget-ize,” he said, collecting nuggets of information on the teams playing that night and writing it down on index cards.

“It’s like writing a story,” Davis, the longtime writer for Sports Illustrated, said as he thumbed through customized team reports on Mount St. Mary’s, Albany, North Carolina State and Xavier. “You collect as much information as you can, but you probably only use 1 percent of it.”

At 6 p.m., Turner’s studio foursome starts the pregame show smoothly. Winer pitches to his experts for reports on two relative unknowns — Albany and Mount St. Mary’s.

Steve Smith is comfortable and it’s clear that his mission is to have fun. Davis, who has been drinking Roots Juice, a mix of kale, parsley, lemon, cucumber and pear that he got from Smith, beams like a kid on Christmas morning. This is his time of year.

Hill, the newbie, is noticeably nervous. This is his first year on the set for the NCAA tournament and he stumbles as he breaks down Albany’s methodical, slow-down style. Hill’s thoughtful manner doesn’t seem to fit the need for quick sound bytes in the studio.

During a break between games, Hill sits with executive producer Tim Kiely, known as “TK” to those in the studio. TK encourages Hill to jump in with his own commentary during highlights of the first game.

“Yeah, go ahead, interrupt me any time,” says Winer, whose dry wit keeps everyone loose, but is sincere this time as he promotes more input from Hill.

During halftime of the second game between N.C. State and Xavier, Hill jumps in during a highlight with a quick comment about the Xavier center “playing big.”

Hill adds nothing to the highlight and he knows it. He puts his palms up in frustration.

As Winer continues with the highlights, Smith is about to roll out of his chair laughing at Hill’s comment. Smith bounces up and down in his chair until Hill finally cracks a smile.

Meanwhile, on the second floor of Building 1020, 40 members of Turner’s digital team have March Madness Live up and running. They sit nearly shoulder-to-shoulder in a relatively tight space called the Event Operations Center, a room that typically sits empty unless Turner’s digital group is working on a big event. Empty pizza boxes from Mellow Mushroom and a refrigerator stocked full of Coca-Cola products sit just outside the studio in a break room.

They moved into the room four years ago, when Turner first took over the NCAA’s digital rights. Turner and CBS share nearly all of the NCAA’s rights, from broadcast to sponsorship sales. But digital, including March Madness Live and NCAA.com, is Turner’s domain.

Roughly half of those in the Event Operations Center work on MML, while the other half man NCAA.com, where traffic is eight to 10 times greater during the tournament than normal. Those include everyone from product managers to developers and advertising support.

They monitor MML across phones, tablets and desktops to make sure the score is synced with the video, the stats are updating, the social media arena is churning, and the advertising is where it’s supposed to be.

They also watch 21 screens on the wall in front of them. Those TVs show the game broadcast and MML for each platform. Mark Johnson, Turner’s vice president of business operations for Turner Sports and NCAA digital, is dialed in to the TV in the upper left corner, which shows traffic patterns by Conviva, Turner’s partner that measures video streams, unique visitors and other metrics. The traffic on Tuesday night will be nothing like Thursday, when March Madness Live will peak during the tournament’s 16 games that day.

Grant Hill and Steve Smith watch a game in the viewing room, and join the others on set (below).
Photos: MICHAEL SMITH / STAFF
When Turner first moved into the Event Operations Center in 2011, it was a crude space. With no ceiling tiles, the HVAC system and numerous cables were exposed, making the space drafty and loud. Members of the team moved some of their own desks and chairs into the room so they’d have a place to work together.

In the last few years, they have transformed the room into a high-tech studio. Employees are grouped by platform. For example, Apple iOS managers are
connected by headset, and they have their own chat room. Same for Android and Windows.

“It’s definitely a much more professional room,” Mark Johnson said with a smile.

Turner Digital could conceivably operate both MML and NCAA.com with each person sitting at his or her desk on the eighth floor, but Johnson likes having everyone in the same room once the games begin so they can react quickly if there’s an issue.

Hania Poole oversees the MML team, and David Moll directs the NCAA.com site. Both report to Johnson. Matt Hong, Turner Sports’ senior vice president and general manager, takes a chair in the back of the room.

They’ve been coming to the specially designed digital studio a few times a week since late January to rehearse. They’d take the feed of a regular-season game and plug it into MML to start working out any bugs.

While no major glitches are apparent on opening night, Johnson wants to keep working on the social media component, where viewers can follow Twitter posts with March Madness hashtags and chat in the MML chat room.
“We’ll continue tweaking that process,” Johnson says.

He knows the biggest test is still to come on Thursday and Friday, when Turner expects the majority of more than 50 million video streams during the tournament. Johnson is confident the system can take it. He said it’s built to withstand 10 times that amount of traffic.

Downstairs, the TruTV studio team watches the late game in the viewing room. N.C. State pulls away against Xavier behind ACC Player of the Year T.J. Warren.

The wide corridors between Studio D, where TruTV’s team analyzes the NCAA tournament, and Studio B are filled with a who’s who of former NBA stars. Studio B is home to NBA TV, where Isiah Thomas and Chris Webber are breaking down the night’s action from the NBA. Thomas, Webber and, later, Rick Fox gather in the viewing room to watch some of the NCAA game, as well as the NBA games that are on the wall of TVs.

As the hour passes 11 p.m., Winer, Davis, Smith and Hill report back to their studio desk for the final segment of the night. They review the highlights of the NCAA tournament’s two opening games. They also look ahead to the games to come on Thursday and Friday.

Smith asks on-set researcher Joe Underhill, also known as “Underdog,” to double-check the pronunciation of St. Joseph’s Halil Kanacevic.

“Can’t get his name wrong,” Smith says loudly across the set. “His momma’s watching.”

Hill smooths the rough edges on the highlights as he gets a second wind. The red-eye flight from California the night before seemed to wear on him earlier in the evening.

Off air, the crew jokes about what was on TruTV before they came on the air.

“Most Horrific Car Crashes,” Winer says in his booming announcer’s voice. The crew cracks up.

While they’re careful not to call the first night of the tournament a trial run, it’s clear that it won’t be anything like the 12-hour marathon on Thursday, when the tournament hits full steam and both studio teams in New York and Atlanta will be guiding viewers through games on all four networks.

On this Tuesday night of the First Four, though, nearly six hours after they first came on the air, the Turner team still seems relatively fresh.

“You’re not going to be here Thursday?” Smith chides an observer in the studio. “That’s when it’s going to get crazy.”

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