TV sports directorTony Verna

(Reading Time: 2 minutes)

A television director and producer, Verna mostly worked on sports broadcasts. And it was a football game — the Army-Navy game on December 7, 1963, where Verna made a huge mark. The Naval Academy’s team was handily beating West Point’s when, in the fourth quarter, Army made a touchdown. Verna had long been frustrated that as the director, he saw all sorts of camera angles, while the viewers at home could only see one. “I’ve got to find a way for people to see what I saw in the truck,” Verna said years later. “It was all in my mind. How do I do it?” What he came up with was planned, but not used until that routine touchdown, when quarterback Rollie Stichweh broke a tackle and ran a mere one yard to get over the goal line. “You’re going to do what?” sputtered announcer Lindsey Nelson when Verna told him what he was going to do: he was going to show the touchdown again, from video tape. “This is not live!” Nelson told the TV audience as the play went over the air again after a commercial break. “Ladies and gentlemen, Army did not score again!” The audience wasn’t confused, they loved it: instant replay had been born.

Why did Verna wait until the fourth quarter? Because video recording technology was so balky, he couldn’t get the equipment to work before that. As it was, he had to borrow the $50,000, 1,300-pound vacuum tube-based Ampex video recorder from CBS’s news division. He knew that things working out was a gamble, which is why CBS didn’t announce it might happen before the game started. The hard part was queuing up the right spot. Verna’s idea was to manually record a tone on the tape at interesting moments, so a technician could hear the beep while rewinding to find the spot. Once it worked, it was a watershed event: in 2004, Sports Illustrated said instant replay was one of the “20 great tipping points” of sports. “The revolutionary premise was that sports could be improved not by changing the games but by changing the way they were packaged.” Yet the next use of instant replay wasn’t for another month, at the 1964 Cotton Bowl. “It was so hard,” Verna said. As the technology improved, instant replay became a staple of sports broadcasting. But you can’t watch that first use: video tape was so expensive, that spool was reused for something else. Indeed, that roll of tape was used when he got it: an episode of I Love Lucy was on it, and in some of the previous attempts during that game to show an instant replay, the technicians saw Lucy instead. Verna received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Directors Guild of America in 1995, but that wasn’t his proudest accomplishment. “If you change the way something’s been done in life, and you change how it’s done forever, I think that’s the most important thing,” he said in 2008. “I changed the way things were normally done. That’s very hard to do in life.” Yet CBS barely recognized him for the accomplishment. “CBS wasn’t smart enough to go out there and get a patent,” Verna said. “The technical department hated my guts because they think they should have invented it, not me.” He never made any money from his idea, but his TV career spanned more than 40 years. Verna died on January 18 at his home in Palm Desert, from leukemia. He was 81.

From This is True for 18 January 2015