By Thomas Hauser
For three decades, Marc Payton has been one of the cornerstones of HBO Sports.
Payton directed his first boxing telecast for HBO on January 17, 1981 (Marvin Hagler vs. Fulgencio Obelmajias). Since then, he has personified the best of what viewers expect from the network.
Seth Abraham (the original architect of HBO’s boxing program) states, “There are certain directors whose names are associated with greatness in a particular sport. Chet Forte with football; Frank Chirkanian with golf; Harry Coyle with baseball. That’s how I think of Marc Payton and boxing. Marc has set the standard that people who direct boxing aspire to.”
Payton plans to retire at the end of this year. This is a good time to explore the legacy that he’ll leave behind.
Marc Payton was born in Kansas City on January 19, 1948. His father was an engineer for Phillips Petroleum. By the time Marc was twelve, the family had moved ten times. Then they settled in Borger, an oil town in the Texas panhandle.
Payton graduated from Borger High School as class salutatorian in 1966 and enrolled at the University of Texas. On August 1, 1966, his second day at college, he walked out of the building after an orientation session and heard a boom.
“There’s shooting,” someone told him. “Go back inside.”
Marc returned to the building, went up to the second floor, and looked out a window. Four bodies were lying on the ground below. A former United States Marine named Charles Whitman had shot and killed his wife and mother that morning. Then he’d gone to the The Tower at the University of Texas, climbed to the observation deck, and opened fire with multiple weapons on passers-by below. By the time Whitman was shot to death by an Austin police officer, he’d killed seventeen people and wounded thirty-two more.
During his senior year of college, Payton took a job at night operating the switchboard for the NBC affiliate in Austin. When he graduated in 1971, the station hired him as a studio cameraman. Then his boss moved to an ABC affiliate in Baton Rouge and Marc went with him to direct public service announcements and work on the evening news; his first taste of live television.
Growing up, Payton had been a self-described “sports junkie.” To this day, he carries a heavy anchor around his neck. He has been a Houston Astros fan since the team came into existence in 1962 as the Colt .45s. And he’d always wanted to be involved with sports television. In 1973, he moved back to Texas to work for an independent television station in Houston that needed a director for commercials and local sports.
“There was another company in Houston at the time called Mobile Color,” Marc recalls. “They furnished trucks and crews for local sports events. After I’d been in Houston a while, I applied for a job with Mobile Color. Someone else got it. I was heartbroken and left town to work for a CBS affiliate in Shreveport. Then, in 1975, I got a call from Mobile Color. They’d just signed a contract to provide video services and crew for events at The Summit [a multi-purpose sports arena that was home to the Houston Rockets, Houston Aeros, and an arena football team]. They offered me a job as a technical director and I moved back to Houston. I was the guy who came with the truck when directors like Chet Forte Sandy Grossman Joe Aceti, Tony Verna, and Andy Sidaris came to town. I got to observe them and see how they handled things technically and also in terms of how they worked with their crews. Later on, I tried to incorporate some of the things they did well into my own work.”
In 1979, Payton added ESPN to his resume. The network was in its infancy, and he directed more slow-pitch softball than he might have liked. But over the next two decades, he worked his way into an ESPN director’s chair for prime-time college football and Major League baseball.
Meanwhile, in 1980, he began working for HBO.
“Tim Braine was the executive producer,” Marc recounts. “But it was Ross Greenburg who hired me. I came to New York with a contract to direct two weeks of Inside the NFL. After the first show, Ross came into the studio, said ‘I just tore up your contract,’ and hired me for the full twenty-six week season.”
On January 17, 1981, Payton journeyed to Boston to direct his first fight. For the next three decades, he directed virtually all of HBO’s boxing telecasts. In recent years, first Mike Sheehan and then Doug Getts have directed Boxing After Dark.
“I love boxing,” Marc says. But ironically, he has attended only one fight live inside an arena; a Boxing After Dark event in Houston.
“I had great seats,” Payton recalls. “But I missed being able to see the tight shots in the corner.”
So . . . Marc Payton directs HBO’s boxing telecasts. What does a director do?
In brief, the director is responsible for almost all of the visual images and background sounds from the arena that go on the air. The producer is responsible for the rest of the audio editorial content and also for selecting between-rounds video replays.
HBO has between nine and fifteen cameras in the arena depending on the magnitude of a given fight. Payton decides which images people will see on their television screens at home. That involves instructing multiple camera operators on split-second notice as to what to shoot and then selecting the best image at a particular moment from a wall of monitors in front of him.
“My job,” Marc says, “is to make sure that the viewer at home has the best look possible at what’s going on. That means the best picture at the right time without missing anything. I hope my telecasts are easy to watch, that we don’t miss too much, and that they’re not repetitive.”
Directors must deal with cameras malfunctioning during a telecast. There’s also the bizarre; everything from a riot at Madison Square Garden in the aftermath of Riddick Bowe vs. Andrew Golota to an idiot thrill-seeker known as “Fan-Man” parachuting into the ring during a heavyweight championship fight.
Payton is alert every moment. Things are happening live in front of him and there’s no “erase” button.
Executive producer Rick Bernstein, who began working with Marc at HBO in 1980, notes, “On fight night, the director is the caption of the ship. If he guides the telecast in the wrong direction, we sink.”
Or to use a different analogy, one might liken the executive producer of a sports telecast to the owner of a restaurant. The onsite producer is the restaurant manager. The director is the chef in the chaos of the kitchen. Without a good chef, the food is mediocre.
A director can’t turn John Ruiz vs. Hasim Rahman into Marvin Hagler vs. Thomas Hearns. But he can make any fight a more entertaining viewing experience.
“There are two types of directors for televised sports,” HBO blow-by-blow commentator Jim Lampley says. “Most directors follow the game pursuant to a well-established formula and choose their images accordingly. Cut-from-the-pattern directors can last in the business for thirty or forty years but they’ll never be great. A handful of directors resist the formula. Every selection they make is an individual choice. If they choose badly, it’s a disaster. But when those directors do their job well, they give viewers a much fuller picture of the event. These are the great directors. Marc Payton is a great director.”
What makes a director great?
It starts with preparation.
When HBO is televising a fight from a new venue, Payton conducts an onsite survey several months in advance to learn what has to be done. He scouts for camera locations, cable runs, where lights need to be placed, and the like.
“Yankee Stadium [where Miguel Cotto vs. Yuri Foreman was contested] was tough because of the long cable runs and camera locations,” Marc says. “We had to build huge camera towers for that one. Cowboys Stadium [where Manny Pacquiao fought twice] is so big that, no matter what we did, it was a bit impersonal. The MGM Grand and Mandalay Bay are easy. They’re like well-oiled machines. And I love Madison Square Garden.”
During fight week, Payton arrives on Wednesday for pay-per-view events and on Thursday for World Championship Boxing telecasts. The rest of the week features meetings, meetings, and more meetings. He prepares and rehearses his crew again and again for fight night and, if one is scheduled, for the pay-per-view weigh-in show.
“I like things organized,” Payton says. “I like order. I like to uncomplicate things and keep them simple.”
“Marc reminds me of Dwight Eisenhower preparing for D-Day,” Seth Abraham observes. “Eisenhower thought of everything and every contingency that might happen and then went over it again and again so he was prepared for any eventuality. That’s Marc.”
Then there’s raw talent.
The selection of images is an art form. Payton has an excellent eye for choosing and framing shots. Telecasts mix tightly-scripted segments with the unpredictable flow of a prizefight. Marc delivers the images that best capture the drama of the moment. He makes a fight feel big and, at the same time, sees intimate details that make a telecast special.
It was Payton who instructed the camera to come in close on the horrific cuts that Vitali Klitschko suffered against Lennox Lewis and left an image that’s as indelibly scarred in the memory of viewers as Joe Theisman’s broken ankle is for those who were watching Monday Night Football twenty-eight years ago.
Marty Corwin is director of television production for Top Rank and has interacted with Payton on numerous HBO telecasts where Top Rank had its own international feed.
“You can teach someone to be a director,” Corwin says. “You can’t teach someone to be a great director. What sets Marc apart is his wonderful ability to tell the story of a fight and everything that goes with it better than any director I’ve ever known. Any director can get the flow of the action right. Marc, through his camera selection, shows viewers the fighters’ physical condition and state of mind. He’s objective. He doesn’t impose himself on the event or get locked into a predetermined storyline. He follows the story of the fight as it happens and lets things unfold without missing a bit of drama. He gives you a clean show every time.”
Great symphony conductors have a sense of pacing. But they also know what their musicians are capable of doing and bring out the best in them. That leads to Payton’s third great asset: his temperament.
The members of HBO’s production team are effusive in praising Payton.
“Marc is completely reliable and honest . . . He’s forceful when he has to be, but he never steps out of his lane and he’s never unkind . . . He never complains . . . I’ve never seen Marc panic or lose his composure . . . He’s loyal to everyone and engenders loyalty in return . . . It’s wonderful when a director with his talent is also such a great guy.”
Payton teaches by instruction and also by example. He never just goes through the motions. He enters rooms quietly and says hello to everyone. He’s as happy hanging out with the crew as he is spending time with high-priced talent and corporate executives. He always makes new crew members feel welcome. And he doesn’t just show up during fight week. He keeps in touch with his crew between telecasts.
When Marc talks – not just in the truck, but also in production meetings and planning sessions – people listen. Everyone on the team trusts him.
“Marc is the human glue that bonds the HBO production team together,” Jim Lampley states. “He has a kind word for everyone and treats all people as equals. Equal with each other and equal with himself. It’s not an affectation. It’s how he is. It’s never about Marc. His focus is always on what’s presented to viewers and the crew that’s helping deliver it to them. The crew doesn’t feel that the telecast is his. He makes them feel that it’s shared by all of them. He makes everyone around him better. And on top of everything else, he’s a magnet for great cameramen, great engineers, people with creativity and talent. They all want to work with him.”
“Marc taught me a lot,” HBO boxing analyst Roy Jones says. “He helped me way beyond what it was his job to do.”
As television technology has gotten more sophisticated over the years, Payton has mastered it at every turn. But he has never let the technology overwhelm the hardcore human drama of what’s happening in the ring.
The nerve center of HBO’s fight night telecasts is an onsite production truck with equipment valued at eight-to-ten million dollars inside. Payton is joined in the truck on fight night by a crew that usually includes the executive producer (Rick Bernstein), a producer (Dave Harmon, Jon Crystal, or Tom Odelfelt), a technical director, two graphics operators, a clock operator, two ORAD coordinators (who provide virtual elements), and a technical manager. There’s an audio booth and video-tape area in the back of the truck. A second unit used primarily for storage and small editing is nearby.
The truck has basic camera monitors, replay monitors, graphics monitors, and the like; close to thirty monitors in all. In some ways, it feels as though everyone has come together in quarters as tight as a submarine to play a giant video game.
Payton sits in the middle of the front row with a wall of monitors in front of him. Throughout the telecast, he scans the monitors and tells the technical director which images he wants viewers to see on their home screens. At the same time, he’s communicating with the camera operators, telling them what to shoot. It’s essential that he be aware of his crew’s tendencies and everything that’s going on around him.
In a way, Marc is like a racecar driver making split-second judgments at 150 miles per hour as he navigates through a crowded field,. Or one might analogize him to a quarterback going through his reads before hitting the receiver who’s his third or fourth option.
“People think that directing a boxing match might not be challenging,” Rick Bernstein says. “You’re not talking about twenty-two men on a football field or a baseball game where important action is taking place away from the ball. It’s two fighters in a twenty-by-twenty-foot ring. But on premium cable, there are no commercials. We can be on the air for three hours or more without a break. We don’t send things back to the studio for a halftime show. There are times when it feels like a runaway train.”
In the truck, Payton is a reassuring presence; calm and collected but very much in control. Some directors impose their will by the decibel level of their commands. Marc is not a screamer, but everyone knows that he’s in charge. Because of the culture that he has created, everyone is pulling in the same direction. There might be problems behind the scenes, but viewers watching at home don’t know it. Everything is designed to make the telecast look seamless.
“Fight night can be crazy,” former HBO commentator Larry Merchant says. “You never know what’s going to happen. You might think you do, but you don’t. It’s live and it’s instant, and you have to react in a hurry. You can go in with a script, but things don’t always work out the way you think they will.”
“In all the years I worked with Marc,” Merchant continues, “things always seemed under control at his end. I never found myself asking, ‘Why are we doing this?’ or saying, “Uh oh. I’m talking about one thing and the camera is showing another.’ He’s a craftsman. He knows what he’s doing. And on top of all that, he’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever known. No one asks for Marc’s autograph or to have their picture taken with him. But I probably should have a long time ago.”
Ross Greenburg oversaw Payton’s work at HBO for decades; first as a producer, then as executive producer, and finally as president of HBO Sports.
“Marc was a genius at the helm of a telecast,” Greenburg says, summing up for everyone who has worked with Payton over the years. “He had an eye for a shot and was a cinematic storyteller. When Hearns succumbed to Hagler after those brutal seven minutes and fifty-two seconds, it was Marc who cut to the overhead camera and had it zoom into Hearns flat on his back. As Angelo Dundee was telling Ray Leonard, ‘You're blowing it son, you're blowing it’ between the twelfth and thirteenth rounds, it was Marc who cut to the corner hand-held and told his cameraman to zoom into Ray's swollen left eye as he readied to desperately launch himself at Hearns to knock him down in the thirteenth and out in the fourteenth. It was Marc who cut to the hand-held camera after Buster Douglas's uppercut and lefthand knocked down Tyson as Tyson reached in vain for his fallen mouthpiece. It was Marc who kept his cool and followed the story as ‘Fan-Man’ flew into the ring disrupting the Holyfield-Bowe fight. Marc covered the sport with all of its artistry and brutality rolled into one. More than all of that, he treated his staff with love and respect. He rarely raised his voice. But he demanded perfection and was determined to get the very best out of his cameramen, audio personnel, replay operators, and entire hand-picked crew. He stayed loyal to everyone on the staff, and his team followed him everywhere. He made every one of those men and women feel like their job was a part of recording boxing history. But he was the conductor. He called the shots. And like every great artist, his life's work will live for the ages.”
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org . His most recent book (Straight Writes and Jabs: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing) has just been published by the University of Arkansas Press.