'Oh, the madness!'' Greg Gumbel yelled to no one in particular Thursday as the first batch of NCAA Tournament games unfolded, every one close and intriguing, just the way CBS likes them.
This was deep within the CBS Broadcast Center on West 57th Street, where since 1998 Gumbel has emceed America's annual hoops festival, one of the most complex events to cover in television.
Truth was Gumbel was being a little facetious, aware he was speaking to a studio full of TV veterans who make it all look easier than it is.
Yes, March Madness was playing out on the courts, but mostly the studio was calm - surprisingly so given the logistics of moving up to eight blocks of viewers around the country.
Still, Gumbel said, "It can be confusing and can be a little hectic . . . It's not perfect. I will admit on more than one occasion, I've thrown people back to a city where there was no basketball.''
He said that Wednesday, before the 2010 event began. Thursday, sure enough, there was an early glitch.
The surprise is that sort of thing doesn't happen more often.
Gumbel credited a team that includes producer Eric Mann, stage manager Tony Mirante, analysts Greg Anthony and Seth Davis and many other cogs in the intricate machinery of the studio show.
For the NCAAs, CBS uses the same set as "The NFL Today,'' a show Gumbel hosted for two years. He said the tournament is more complex because instead of leaving a game to show a highlight, often the idea is to go from one game to the next - live.
In the first two rounds, it's all about games, so even during halftimes, the studio announcers get to speak sparingly, and even then rarely on camera.
"At times we're just voices in the mist instead of actually being seen on camera,'' Gumbel said.
That mostly was true Thursday, although with multiple games climaxing at once, Gumbel frequently had to appear with seconds' notice.
"Let's just say there have been times we've taken a walk down to the men's room and gotten an urgent call back to the set,'' he said.
When not on camera, Anthony and Davis kept one eye on the bank of screens showing every game and another on their laptops. But they can't follow everything.
Editorial consultant Wayne Fidelman, sitting in the back of the room, shouted updated nuggets for announcers to use, such as the ongoing saga of Notre Dame star Luke Harangody's scoring woes.
CBS often is criticized for the timing of its game switches, decisions made by top executives in a room separate from the studio and from Mann's control room.
But sometimes Gumbel and the analysts have no choice but to vamp while waiting for a timeout or a commercial in one set of markets while others prepare to move.
"We just have to wait until they're ready to go,'' Gumbel said. "We have to be able to fill, and hopefully fill time intelligently.''
The crew had time for a five-minute break when all three games were early in the second half, but other than the relative quiet of the 5 to 7 p.m. slot, the days are long.
The longest are the first two, but the studio team will be back at it early Saturday, rehearsing for the second-round marathon.
Gumbel recalled his first tournament in '98, when CBS Sports president Sean McManus saw him on the first day and asked whether he was OK.
"Why?'' he asked.
"You looked like you were leaning,'' McManus said.
As the first three games Thursday produced a one-point decision, one overtime and a double overtime, Davis shouted to the studio crew, "Look at this first window! We're doing all right!''
Only nine more windows to go 'til round two.
Kellogg crackles for CBS
Clark Kellogg begins his second NCAA Tournament as CBS’ lead analyst today in Buffalo, following a rookie year that largely was uneventful, with none of the colorful unpredictability of infamous curmudgeon Billy Packer.
What did Kellogg's boss, CBS Sports president Sean McManus, think of his first NCAAs alongside Jim Nantz? McManus praised the “seamless’’ transition from Packer to Kellogg, including Kellogg’s move from studio to game sites, which is not always easy. He also pronounced Nantz and Kellogg “the best one-two team in college basketball.’’
Still, he said, he misses Packer’s personality and presence.
“It’s like John Madden,’’ he said. “Cris Collinsworth is doing a great job . I think it’s a terrific broadcast. But you don’t replace a John Madden or a Billy Packer no matter who you replace him with.
“But there comes a time in everyone’s life when you have to make a transition, and I think we made the transition at the right time and I think it’s been as seamless and as successful and as smooth as I could have hoped for.’’
Madness reigns in early window
On his way from overseeing CBS' coverage of the NCAA Tournament to overseeing the CBS Evening News, Sean McManus stopped by the network's annual viewing party.
So what did he think of the early fireworks? "I don't ever remember having an overtime, a double overtime and a buzzer- beater in the first two windows,'' he said. The game-switching maneuvers in the first window, he said, got "a little crazy.''
The emotional backdrop of this tournament for CBS is the fact that it could be the network's last, with the NCAA considering opting out of its deal - which has three years and $2.1 billion left on it - and ESPN poised to enter any bidding.
McManus declined to take a position on the notion of a 96-team tournament. But he did note that historically, when sports have expanded postseason fields amid initial criticism, the net effect has been increased interest.