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From Issue #43 May 22, 2014

Buss Driver

A revolution in stadium displays gave birth to the kiss cam.

By Nate Berg Twitter icon 

An obligatory public display of affection on the big screen at Dodger Stadium

Neither the date nor place was recorded, but it was likely in the summer or fall of 1980 in Dodger stadium in Los Angeles: a camera zoomed in on a man and a woman and broadcast their faces onto a massive full-color video screen above the left-field bleachers. The man and the woman kissed. The crowd cheered. A cultural sensation was born.

We know this today as the kiss cam, a gimmick that has been regularly featured on the video boards of almost every sports stadium and arena in the United States for the past three decades. During lulls in the sporting action, the venue cameras zoom in on people, making their faces billboard-sized, and under the pressure of crowd goading or stadium etiquette, or perhaps even by obligation to a short tradition, the people kiss. Hundreds of millions of people have seen the kiss cam over the years — maybe even billions.

In 1980 this probably would have been considered fantastical, if it had been considered at all. Until that year, there was no such thing as a stadium video screen. No Jumbotron or instant replay, just dot-matrix text-centric displays of orange light bulbs. And then, on July 8, 1980, Dodger Stadium unveiled the world’s first stadium video screen — 875 square feet of video in full color — during Major League Baseball’s 51st All-Star Game.

Former President Gerald Ford and actor Gregory Peck were in the audience. Mickey and Minnie Mouse danced in a pre-game ceremony. Huge American and Canadian flags were draped over the outfield. All the pomp centered on the game; but in hindsight, it might have been better directed at the video board, the first iteration of an innovation that would change sports forever.

Kiss and tell

Dubbed Diamond Vision by its manufacturer, Mitsubishi, the screen was indeed a minor celebrity that day. ABC’s broadcast of the game panned to the board to show TV viewers at home yet another screen on their screen. White text on a blue background displayed the day’s attendance. “Well, there it is,” play-by-play announcer Al Michaels explained. “Up on the new Diamond Vision board at Dodger Stadium: 56,088.”

Hired right out of college to run in-stadium production for the Dodgers in 1980, Paul Kalil was at the controls of the big screen on day one. And because he was the first person to operate a video screen in a stadium, it’s highly likely that Kalil invented the kiss cam.

He can’t say for sure, and maybe no one can. He admits he could have been the first to do it, but after 35 years in the industry he also knows how fast ideas like the kiss cam spread. “Actually, I think you could probably get about 10 or 20 people claiming its origin,” Kalil says modestly.

But even before the days of video, scoreboard operators were thinking about more than strikes and outs. Despite being limited by monochromatic dot-matrix light boards, the production staff at stadiums in the 1970s had embraced the idea of using their screens not only to inform the crowd but also to entertain. “One of the first things that came up that people really talked about in this industry were dot races,” says Kalil. These were simple bits with a few dots racing a lap around the screen. Audiences loved it, and the idea spread. “Nothing more than putting a little dot on the screen.” But the introduction of video opened far more opportunities.

The Diamond Vision screen in LA was the first of a flood. By the next year, Mitsubishi had installed Diamond Vision screens in stadiums in Oakland and Seattle, and by 1985 they were up in baseball and football stadiums from Houston to Chicago to New York. Scoreboard operators became video board operators, and what worked on one screen often worked on the others.

By the mid 1980s, video board operators had started their own professional association, and their annual convention was a chance for producers from dozens of organizations to share and compare video board tricks and gimmicks. Kalil says everyone learned and borrowed from each other, and ideas like the kiss cam and dot races were soon industry standards.

Kalil developed the blooper reel at Dodger Stadium, and he says it was an instant hit. “People all sat in their chair waiting for this thing to happen,” he says. “This was the golden charm of video screens of this time.” It was easy to go over the top, however. “We quickly learned that it could be a dominating media. I mean, it could overwhelm a game.”

Inside the control room at Dodger Stadium, where a team of 30 run the cameras, graphics, replays and between-inning gimmicks

A big commitment

Susan Brooks is a producer and editor in scoreboard operations at the United Center in Chicago, home to the NBA’s Bulls and the NHL’s Blackhawks. She’s also the current president of the Information Display and Entertainment Association, the industry group for video board operators and producers. She’s been in the field for 17 years, and even though she came into it when video boards were already standard, she’s seen the industry evolve rapidly.

“When I started, stadium video boards were mainly a form of entertainment for the fans. Show some replays, put fans on camera,” Brooks says. “But I think things really started to change when team and stadium owners started to recognize the video boards as an important marketing tool.”

Once they realized that the boards could provide new streams of revenue, owners began to invest more heavily in the technology. Over time, the video boards got bigger and the resolution finer. Today, Reliant Stadium in Houston has a video screen that’s 277 feet by 52 feet — more than 14,000 square feet of video area. Churchill Downs in Kentucky has a screen that covers 15,390 square feet at digital cinematography–quality 4K resolution. Charlotte Motor Speedway has a screen of 9 million LEDs covering 16,000 square feet at 720p resolution.

Ribbons of screens and LEDs now wrap around the entirety of stadiums, adding new display space in the otherwise wasted area beneath seating decks. Specially shaped video boards are squeezed into practically every last cranny to maximize programmable space. The 875-square-foot board of 1980 seems quaint by comparison.

“The investments today are significant, which means you can’t just do ordinary stuff anymore. You’ve got to go to the highest level of production and find budgets for the programming and the talent, not just the screen itself,” say Kalil, who was with the Dodgers for 17 seasons before leaving to run his own stadium production company full time. Now under the umbrella of the advertising company Van Wagner, Kalil’s Big Screen Network Productions has produced the video board shows for 30 Super Bowls, five Olympics, and hundreds of other sports events large and small.

On the computer in his office in Westlake Village, California, Kalil shows off some of the “opens” his company has made to accompany various sports teams as they enter the field before a game. They’ve got the look, special effects, and even narrative qualities of a summer blockbuster. You can almost smell the fireworks going off in the background.

Batter up, pucker up

Dodger Stadium, the original video screen innovator, has also kept up with the times. A stadium-wide upgrade before the start of the 2013 season brought a major change to its video system. Instead of just one video board, Dodger Stadium now has two, each the unique hexagon shape of the stadium’s original scoreboard and together covering about 5,000 square feet. The right-field screen serves the traditional role of scoreboard during innings, but in between, both the right- and left-field screens become canvases for whatever the team and its production team can dream up.

During a recent game against the San Francisco Giants, the screens featured 3D animated player intros that re-created a drive through downtown LA, an animated shell game in which a ball is hidden under one of four moving hats, and multiple iterations of the dance cam, where people dancing in the audience are put up on the big screen. “They’ll do anything to get on those gigantic screens,” says Tom Darin, director of broadcast engineering for the Dodgers.

He’s been with the team for 17 seasons, and he runs the show from a control room that would rival a top-tier television station. His 30-person crew handles everything from stats to replays to graphics to the kiss cam. The studio is a blur of videos; upwards of 100 are playing on big multi-windowed displays at any given time during a game. Five human-operated cameras and 11 robotic cameras are stationed throughout the stadium, providing a near-omnipresent view of anything happening on the field or off. Darin says the robotic cameras are especially handy for catching people off-guard during the kiss cam bit, as they don’t see the cameras zooming in from the other side of the stadium.

Darin says that despite all the upgrades and technological tools and super-sized screens, the simple kiss cam remains a crowd favorite. Even the crew hasn’t gotten bored — they’re always trying to find ways to get people on camera who clearly aren’t romantic, even people who don’t know each other. No matter when it happens during a game, the crowd always gets going.

More than 30 years after its first moment on the big screen, the kiss cam has cemented itself as part of the institution of stadium sports. And though the venues and technologies have evolved dramatically in that time, one thing has remained the same: when you put two people up on a big screen in front of thousands, they gotta kiss.

Photos by the author.

Nate Berg is a writer who covers cities, design, architecture and technology for a variety of publications. He is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities, and is based in Los Angeles.

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