On Media: The cold facts: Thunder rocked for WDRB

I am not a big Thunder Over Louisville fan. I’ve had the Thunder experience and have grown weary of the whole thing. I’ve done the blanket on lawn (in the cold), the private party in downtown office building, Slugger Field, the Science Center fund-raiser, the “see if you can see it” view from various parts of town.

Every time I’ve gone, I’ve contemplated a plan to get home in a reasonable amount of time after the show, and every time I’ve ended up either stuck in a parking garage or a traffic jam that lasted more than an hour. Not my idea of a good time, but the obstacles to getting a good seat seem to enhance the experience for many.

A lot of regular folks who get invitations to a corporate tent see it as a great perk. Big shots like Jim King, the Metro Council president who owns King Southern Bank, told me he keeps renting a tent atop the Witherspoon Garage as a primo corporate hospitality event.

WDRB-TV’s Bill Lamb, another corporate tent buyer at Witherspoon, likes the event so much that he says he’ll probably continue the hospitality portion even when his station is not broadcasting the show next year.
Still, I’ve decided that the best venue for Thunder is my couch. So did about half a million other folks, according to ratings information from WDRB-TV/Fox 41.

During the fireworks, the station had a 35.6 rating, and more than half the TVs in the market that were on tuned in. According to Ray Foushee, the station’s marketing and research director, that makes it the most-watched program ever seen on the station outside of Super Bowls. It was the most-watched Thunder ever, at least on TV.

To give you an idea, the Extreme Makeover show on ABC featuring Patrick Henry Hughes had a comparable audience in February.

The audience number climbed throughout the day, ratcheting up to a 10.8 rating for the six-hour air show and 18.4 for the 90-minute pre-fireworks broadcast. On Monday, Foushee said advertisers and viewers were sending congratulatory e-mails.

“I’m unaware of any glitches in the entire broadcast, which probably happened because we’d done it in HD the year before,” he said.

I went downtown Saturday afternoon, intent on discovering some unusual aspect of the massive television production. Fox 41 was touting it with over-the-top superlatives, including Lamb’s assertion that it was “the single biggest, most complex production ever undertaken by a local TV station in the history of American broadcasting.”

It’s hard to argue his point, given that few U.S. stations have events like Thunder to take on. Eleven hours, all in HD, which looked pretty damn good on my TV.

The numbers are impressive. The 21 HD cameras. Miles and miles of cable. The $215,000 production expense, and the 200-plus people involved in the broadcast.

Inside the production truck, driven straight from last Monday’s Final Four in San Antonio, news director Barry Fulmer pointed to dozens of monitors, telling me which one was live. It was a dark cave, illuminated only by shots of reporters in various locales, readying themselves for their turn at a stand-up.
I thought a more interesting numbers story was available outside the truck, where Roger Van Fleet held court over a homemade barbecue pit he fashioned from an abandoned TV trailer and an oil tank. Van Fleet’s numbers were eye-popping.

Flanked by a table full of barbecue sauce bottles, he was cooking 50 pounds of brisket, 80 pork medallions, 80 pounds of chicken breast and 70 pounds of pork, all to feed lunch and dinner to 150 staffers.

Fox 41 first used HD cameras last year, the last of a four-year agreement between local stations that designates only one station to carry the day-long event. This year, a new drawing was held, and Fox 41 got the rights again.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do at next year’s Thunder,” said Fulmer, who’s been in charge of the telecast for two years running.

Next year, the production turns to WHAS-TV. General manager Mark Pimentel said the station recorded Fox 41’s production and plans to review it, and also said WHAS has plenty of staffers who have experience from Thunder productions in years past. He didn’t make any commitment to produce the show in HD, but wrote in an e-mail that we “love the idea of doing it in HD and will explore that.”

Rick Redding, Louisville’s media critic, writes about media and politics on his blog, http://thevillevoice.com