Telestrator continue to be quite a draw
By Howard Manly, Globe Staff, 09/01/00
Of all the new gizmos used over the years to help explain plays on the football field, there's nothing more endearing than the telestrator, television's equivalent of locker room chalkboards.
Developed in the late 1970s and glorified by John Madden in the '80s, the telestrator has survived because it enables analysts to break down a play. It takes all the guess work out of the equation. It answers the question why.
That's when it is working. Charlie Jones, the legendary play-by-play man, tells the story of telestrators being ``the most skittish'' pieces of equipment ever designed. Back in the '70s, when Jones called AFC games for NBC, the telestrator ``might have worked half of the time,'' Jones said. ``It was one of those things where, two hours before kickoff, some harried engineer was working on it with a look on his face suggesting, `I don't know if it's going to work today.' If it worked, it was great. But if it didn't, we just talked.''
The telestrator has come a long way. The original design was a ``piece of junk,'' said Frank Trizano, a former CBS engineer. Network technicians had tinkered with enabling viewers to feel as if they were in the locker room, but it wasn't until Len Reiffel came up with a better design that ``telestrator'' became a household word.
Reiffel was the deputy director of the Apollo lunar-landing program until he started Telestrator Systems in 1976. The CBS ``chalkboard,'' as it was called then, was perfect for Madden. The former Oakland Raiders coach used a stylus pencil with an electronic eraser to circle key players on the frozen screen just before the ball was snapped. He then traced offensive and defensive routes to show how the play had materialized. The replay would illustrate his description of the dynamics of the play. The camera shot was from high above the 50-yard line in order to provide a panoramic view.
To ensure the instrument worked during the 1982 Super Bowl, Reiffel stood behind Madden in the booth.
The technology evolved over the years; CBS has the latest version for use by Phil Simms this season, and, by all accounts, it's fairly easy to operate. It has to be. Simms is not known for his computer literacy.
``It's not brain surgery,'' said Mark Wolff, CBS's lead NFL producer.
The new technology enables Simms to use his fingers on a touch-screen to point to players or spots on the field to diagram what happened. ``It's a real good teaching tool,'' Wolff said. ``We could probably use it on every play. But we will probably limit it to glaring mistakes or successes on offense and defense. Phil will be able to answer the question why did something happen with more than just words.''
During games, Wolff sits in a nearby production truck and is in constant communication with Simms and play-by-play man Greg Gumbel. Simms can ask for the ``all 22 coaches look,'' which tells Wolff that he wants the camera angle from above the play. From his touch screen in the booth, Simms then can draw circles, boxes, arrows - all in different colors. Simms also can move players around the field to show where they should have been on a busted play.
The danger, of course, is overuse. Like any toy, telestrators can be addictive at the expense of other tools and talent.
Fred Gaudelli, ESPN's senior coordinating NFL producer, said that the key is not to miss the snap of the next play. ``Joe Theismann could probably draw forever on the thing,'' Gaudelli said. ``But we try to do it during the most appropriate time. It's a juggling act. We try not to force it. It's like a painter's brush. You can't talk about a beautiful painting unless you know how to paint.''