This weekend’s superbowl comes just over 50 years after the Army-Navy football game of December 1963, when we saw the very first use of instant replay. As Anna Clark wrote in Pacific Standard, the television trick that transformed the way we watch and officiate sports is thanks to an intrepid producer named Tony Verna, who would go on to achieve acclaim overseeing myriad live TV events like the bi-continental charity concert “Live Aid” and specials with Pope John Paul II. Brooke talks with Tony Verna about why it was so hard to replay live television back then, and how he found a way to outsmart his equipment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This weekend’s Super Bowl marks another anniversary, roughly. I'm talking about the Army-Navy game of December 1963, when we saw the very first use of instant replay. Just prior to that game, there was an agonizing and agonizingly slow application of the concept that had the nation on the edge of its collective seat.
CORRESPONDENT: Lee Harvey Oswald has been shot. The man who saw the shot fired said it was fired by ….
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald, two days after Oswald shot President Kennedy. It took NBC nine minutes to replay the Oswald shooting and CBS 11 minutes, but when Army scored against Navy, it took no time at all to see it again, thanks to an intrepid CBS producer named Tony Verna, who would go on to achieve acclaim directing and producing myriad live TV events, from the bi-continental charity concert, Live Aid, to specials with Pope John Paul II. We called Tony to ask him why it was so hard to replay live TV.
TONY VERNA: When the operator had to find a starting point, had to keep stop, search, stop, search, stop, search and find where the play actually happened, so that took them a while.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ten minutes or so.
TONY VERNA: Yeah. And when I tried to hasten that process, the best I ever got was like six minutes, and that was still not acceptable because the game went on. You wouldn’t know what the heck they’re talking about. The announcer couldn’t say, “Oh, about five plays ago, when that guy crossed over the middle.”
I mean, it made no sense.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So then you saw a way to make it almost instantaneous, and it was by not relying on the picture but a sound that you would embed during important plays?
TONY VERNA: I really couldn’t touch the Sony machinery, so I figured, well, I’ll use the tape to give it the brains. And that’s why I picked the soundtrack that I could only hear in the truck - you didn’t hear it at home – as a means of locating the starting point.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You weren't able to look at the picture as it went backwards, but you could hear the tone as it approached the area that you wanted –
TONY VERNA: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - it stopped at. So you could go directly to it, rather than stop and start.
TONY VERNA: When it went backwards, I heard the tones go from 3 to 2 to 1. When that guy heard tone 1, he let the machine go, and it went, and then I heard 2, rrr-rrr, 3, beep-beep-beep. And then I took it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you chose the December ’63 Army-Navy football game. There were burnt-out vacuum tubes.
TONY VERNA: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The machines slipped in and out of recording. The Lucille Ball tape that was supposed to be recorded over wasn’t [LAUGHS] recorded over. It was kind of a mess. But eventually, there was a play.
TONY VERNA: Well, in the fourth quarter, Rollie Stichweh, the Army quarterback, scored a touchdown. I merely reracked the tape, and when the last tone firmed up and I saw that it was a clean image, without Lucy, I punched it up and said –
- to the announcer, this is it, Lindsay. And that’s what they saw. They saw it in full speed, and you couldn’t tell the difference. It looked like – I don’t know, it looked like the team may have scored again.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Isn’t that what many of the viewers thought?
TONY VERNA: [LAUGHS] My announcer made sure, he said, Army has not scored again. But you have to remember that I was told not to ballyhoo the invention because we didn’t know if it would work, and my boss, Bill McPhail, was very sensitive to the Kennedy assassination, as we all were, and he didn’t want to gimmick up the game. Today, if I came up with an innovation, I would warn the viewers, but this came out of the blue. Nobody had seen anything like this before.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tell me a little bit about your background.
TONY VERNA: I went to West Point for a year, and then I dropped out and went to University of Pennsylvania, the Ivy League school, and studied metallurgical engineering for a year and then dropped out of that. And that summer I was living with a well-known nightclub singer and movie star, and that arrangement went sour. And I needed the money to go back to school, so I took a job as a roustabout in a circus, which was televised. [BROOKE LAUGHS]
[LAUGHS] I was rigging high wire acts. I was a crazy 19-year-old. And I’m out there rigging high wires, and I look down and this guy’s waving his arms. The elephants went that way and the clowns went that way. And I said to the other guy, I said, who was that down there? He said, that’s the director, and then a few months later I became the director.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Who was the movie star?
TONY VERNA: Ah, that remains a secret.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
TONY VERNA: You know, I’ve written several books, and my fifth book was my autobiography. And when I went to the Vatican, the secretaries there didn’t want to know about technology. They wanted to know if I slept with Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly. [LAUGHS] That’s what they wanted to know.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Obviously, instant replay didn't just transform the viewing experience. It revolutionized officiating and analysis.
TONY VERNA: Now, I didn't do it for officiating. I invented it because I had a need. The camera had to go where the ball is. And say the ball was thrown to second base to catch the guy sliding, while the other one came across home and scored, you didn’t see the one home – coming home and scored. So there was always something missing there. You see what I mean – the cause and effect angle.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
TONY VERNA: In other words, if I was doing the Game of the Week in baseball with Dizzy Dean and I couldn’t get that across, Dizzy Dean would say, ah, partner, you missed it. [LAUGHS]
I would do games and go back to Toots Shor’s which is a watering hole in New York and Toots and other gamblers would say, did – didn’t that crumb bum go out of bounds on that play? And I said, my God, these guys are really bettin’ on these games! [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Once you proved the concept, were there any constituencies who were against instant replay?
TONY VERNA: Well, they were reluctant, let’s put it that way. The directors at the time were frightened to death of live television. That’s why I was able to make a name for myself, not only in sports but news and in entertainment, parades, beauty shows, musicals.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Live specials for Mother Teresa.
TONY VERNA: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Kentucky Derby, musicals with Roy Rogers, Liberace.
TONY VERNA: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly, as you mentioned.
Sinatra. All because people were scared of going live without Tony Verna.
TONY VERNA: Well no, Dwight Hemion was a live director. He did most of the Sinatra shows, and Bob Finkel did Perry Como.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
TONY VERNA: But they stayed in their own sphere. Frank Chirkian only did golf and did it massively well but, you know, you couldn’t take him out of that zone.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So patents, that’s what you’re into now, right?
TONY VERNA: Yes, I have seven on the market right now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What are they?
TONY VERNA: They have a patent for instant voice alerts where if you’re driving down the highway, it could say to you, there’s activity in the back of your kitchen door.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oh!
TONY VERNA: So then it will say, we’ve alerted your security company and that type of thing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do any of today’s inventions or capabilities leave you dazzled? Who would ever have thought that we could simultaneously speak to the entire world?
TONY VERNA: Not so much that, but I – Omni Magazine gave me the courtesy of calling me one of the top minds to predict the future, along with Bill Gates and Carl Sagan, and I predicted that someday you’ll have a mist in your living room and the ion camera will show you the football field and you can walk around it. And that’s where my mind has gone. I won’t be around to see that, but you probably will.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did you say an ion camera?
TONY VERNA: Yes, rather than using electrons the ion would supply the energy and the mist would accept it as a recording device. You know, a vapor suddenly makes an image appear.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm - sure sounds cool.
TONY VERNA: Well, someday they’ll be tackled in your living room. See, that’s the whole point. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Tony Verna, thank you very much.
TONY VERNA: You’re quite welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tony Verna is the inventor of instant replay and a general renaissance man. He lives in Palm Desert, California.
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BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman, Chris Neary, Laura Mayer, Alana Casanova-Burgess and Meera Sharma. We had more help from Kimmie Regler. And our show was edited - by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Andrew Dunne and Rick Kwan.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for News. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.