The Invention of Instant Replay

On December 7, 1963, Army and Navy squared off in their annual college football game, renewing one of sport’s greatest rivalries. In the fourth quarter, Army quarterback Carl “Rollie” Stichweh faked a handoff and ran into the end zone at Philadelphia’s Municipal Stadium to score a touchdown.

Then something disorienting happened for fans watching at home on television. Stichweh again faked a handoff and ran into the end zone for a touchdown. “This is not live,” CBS play-by-play announcer Lindsey Nelson told the television audience. “Ladies and gentlemen, Army did not score again!” With that call, Nelson announced the birth of instant replay.

Instant replay was invented by Tony Verna, the hotshot 30-year-old director working behind the scenes of the Army-Navy telecast. Verna had puzzled over the idea for several years, and when he finally got it to work, he changed the way we watch and officiate sports forever. 

Video Playback before 1963

Verna’s innovation drew on several years of technological development in audio and video recording equipment. During the radio era, it was common for entertainers to do two live performances of a given show—one show during prime time on the east coast, and then another show three hours later during prime time on the west coast. The radio networks pursued this approach to appease advertisers, but the performers hated it. Bing Crosby, for example, established the Electronics Division of Bing Crosby Enterprises (BCE) in the 1940s to develop high-quality audio playback technologies that could rival a live performance. Although phonographs and gramophones had been around for decades, those recording technologies played back with lots of hissing and crackling. If Crosby could provide the networks with a high-fidelity recording indistinguishable from a live feed, he could avoid performing a second show. 

Crosby invested in a Bay Area startup called Ampex, which succeeded in reverse engineering the high-end AEG Magnetophon K4 magnetic recording machines that Army Signal Corps officer Jack Mullin had brought to the United States from Germany after World War II. Mullin used two Ampex 200 audio recorders (serial numbers 1 and 2) to record and play back each episode of Crosby’s radio show during the 1948–1949 season. 

As Crosby moved into the emerging medium of television, he encouraged engineers at Ampex and BCE to research a similar solution for videotape. In the early 1950s, BCE developed a series of prototype video recorders, the Mark I, II, and III. However, Ampex’s VR-1000 (aka Mark IV) was a superior solution. It used a set of four video heads mounted on a rotating drum that scanned transversely across a two-inch-wide magnetic tape scrolling at 1,500 inches per second. In April 1956, Ampex successfully demonstrated the VR-1000 at the National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters convention in Chicago and orders poured in at $50,000 per unit. 

CBS was an early, enthusiastic adopter of Ampex’s technology. On November 30, 1956—just seven months after the first public demonstration in Chicago—CBS used the Ampex VR-1000 to record and air the first “tape delayed” television broadcast, an episode of Douglas Edwards and the News. Ampex’s engineers won a technical Emmy award for their innovation in 1957. A few years later, CBS’s Tony Verna would use the VR-1000 to shrink the three-hour west coast tape delay into an “instant” replay.

TV Director Tony Verna

Anthony Verna was born in Philadelphia on November 26, 1933, the youngest of five kids born to Italian immigrants Severino and Gilda Verna. After attending Catholic schools, he began his college career as a West Point cadet but was medically discharged after one year following a training injury. He transferred to the University of Pennsylvania back home in Philadelphia and briefly pursued studies in engineering, but dropped out after a year to begin his career in live, local television. His first job at Philadelphia’s WFIL was opening the front doors at 2:45 p.m. to let Philadelphia high school kids into the studio for recordings of American Bandstand. Later, at WCAU, he helped produce live circus shows and acted in skits on Ed McMahon’s local morning show. When an overnight snowstorm prevented some of his colleagues from reaching the station, Verna filled in to direct WCAU’s Saturday morning children’s show. Verna quickly rose through the ranks at CBS, and by 1955—at age 22—he was directing national baseball telecasts.

Beginning in 1956, CBS and other networks were using Ampex’s VR-1000 to provide taped replays of exciting sports plays, but these highlights were usually shown only at halftime or after the games. Preparing these replays required considerable time and effort. Even with the machine’s numerical counter, it was difficult to cue the tape to the precise location of the desired play. During playback, the VR-1000 initially showed 7 to 10 seconds of distorted “video hash” before the magnetic heads warmed up and showed a clear image. Given these uncertainties, preparing replays took time. 

Verna had encountered these problems during CBS’s coverage of the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. Verna would review the tapes from the day’s action and insert voice cues on the tape’s secondary audio track, which viewers could not hear. For example, he would tell the directors to watch for Wilma Rudolph crossing the finish line or Cassius Clay’s reactions as he left the boxing ring, then put the tapes on a plane bound for CBS Studios in New York City. However, his voice directions were not useful for cueing since they too got distorted in the video hash as the tape heads came up to speed. CBS’s directors told him not to waste his time.

Later, as a lead director for football games, Verna became frustrated by the long periods of inaction between plays. He also wished he could show viewers the multiple different camera angles he was seeing on his monitors, which helped explain the action. “I remember times when [receiver] Tommy McDonald of the Philadelphia Eagles would miss one of quarterback Norm Van Brocklin’s bombs, but we didn’t see why he wasn’t there for the catch,” Verna wrote in his memoir, Instant Replay: The Day That Changed Sports Forever (2008, p. 6). “All the viewers got to see was the players’ reactions, McDonald with his head down, and the Dutchman [Van Brocklin] fuming. But the viewers didn’t see why the pass wasn’t caught. I wanted to show them what I had seen on another monitor, that McDonald had been tripped leaving the line of scrimmage.” By 1963, Verna had begun to imagine an “instant” in-game replay that would allow his television audience to experience more of what he was seeing in the director’s booth. 

[In a 2004 oral history interview with the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Foundation, Tony Verna described the inspiration, invention, and impact of instant replay.}

The 1963 Army-Navy Game

The 1963 Army-Navy football game was a somber occasion. It had been postponed to December 7—Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day—following President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963. On November 24, Jack Ruby had shot and killed the murder suspect, Lee Harvey Oswald, on live television. It had taken the networks approximately nine minutes to replay the videotape.

Verna had selected the Army-Navy game to attempt an “instant” replay, but he urged Nelson, his play-by-play announcer, not to promote the idea during the telecast because he wasn’t sure if it would work. Verna borrowed a VR-1000 machine and some rolls of magnetic tape from CBS’s New York studios and trucked everything down to Philadelphia. Verna figured his best chance for a replay would be to isolate one camera on the game’s dynamic quarterbacks, Army’s Stichweh, and Navy’s Heisman Trophy winner, Roger Staubach.

To achieve instant replay, Verna thought back to the voice cues he had recorded on the tapes from the Rome Olympics. Verna’s key insight was to use 440-cycle audio tones—not the human voice—to cue each play. These tones, even if slightly garbled, were still recognizable through the distorted video hash as the Ampex machine came up to speed. Verna instructed a technician to mark each play, inserting one beep when the offensive team broke the huddle, and two beeps when the quarterback reached the line of scrimmage. If a key play occurred, Verna believed he could play back the tape starting at the first beep and allow the 10 seconds of video hash to clear as the machine warmed up; then the play itself was ready to replay starting at the second set of beeps.

During the game, Verna and his production team struggled with their equipment. The 1,200-pound VR-1000 machine, full of fragile vacuum tubes, had been jostled on the 90-mile road trip from New York to Philadelphia and was operating inconsistently. Moreover, CBS had not given Verna a brand new $300 reel of tape. Instead, he received a previously used reel that contained an old I Love Lucy episode and several Duz soap commercials. Early in the game, when Verna attempted an instant replay, he found that the Ampex machine was not fully recording over the old footage and Lucy was bleeding through! 

And during the seven to ten seconds while the pre-roll played back, I heard the tones strengthen, and lo and behold, clean video came up.

By the fourth quarter, Navy led Army 21-7, and Verna’s team had made about 30 unsuccessful attempts to instantly capture and rebroadcast a play. In his memoir (p. 14), Verna remembered the excitement that followed Stichweh’s touchdown as his production team assembled the first instant replay: “It was an isolation that George Drago had caught on his camera and which John Wells immediately rewound and then hit the play button. And during the seven to ten seconds while the pre-roll played back, I heard the tones strengthen, and lo and behold, clean video came up. My technical director Sandy Bell, punched it up while I shouted into Lindsey [Nelson’s] ear, ‘This is it!’ And when that Instant Replay hit the screen, we got Lindsey’s famous on-air shout, ‘This is not live! Ladies and gentlemen, Army did not score again!’”

Given the production’s team’s hesitancy to promote instant replay during the telecast and the nation’s somber mood, Verna’s innovation initially went unnoticed. Magnetic tape was expensive, and per CBS policy at that time, the 1963 Army-Navy game tape was eventually reused for some other event and taped over. Ironically, there is no extant footage of the first instant replay. 

[In this YouTube video, believed to be from NFL Films, Tony Verna described how he introduced instant replay during the 1963 Army-Navy football game.]

Verna’s Legacy

Instant replay was quickly perfected and readily adopted. One month after the Army-Navy game, Verna’s crew used the same cueing and replay techniques at the Cotton Bowl, where #1 Texas defeated #2 Navy, 28 to 6. Announcer Pat Summerall made his national debut during that game and popularized the use of the term “instant replay.” By fall 1964, CBS production crews included instant replay for most of its National Football League (NFL) games, and the technique quickly became a staple of sports broadcasting. Over time, with improved recording and playback equipment, viewers were eventually able to see dramatic slow-motion replays that highlighted the beauty, ferocity, athleticism, and close calls in many different sports.

Occasionally, an instant replay would show that an official had missed a call on the field. For example, during an April 1977 baseball game between the Houston Astros and Atlanta Braves, the stadium scoreboard operator showed a replay which clearly highlighted the umpire’s errant call. When fans booed, the four-man officiating crew left the game in protest. Despite initial resistance from referees, the National Football League (1986), the National Hockey League (1991), the National Basketball Association (2002), and Major League Baseball (2008) eventually adopted instant replay to aid officiating

Players, coaches, and fans hold a range of views about the use of instant replay as an officiating tool. Advocates promote instant replay to ensure accurate officiating and just outcomes; detractors argue that instant replay slows down the games and removes the spontaneity, unpredictability, and controversy that make sports so exciting and entertaining. But there is little argument about the entertainment value of instant replay; it has fundamentally altered the way we watch sports. 

As for Verna? He went on to pursue a decorated career as a producer of live sports and entertainment events. Among his many achievements, Verna directed five Super Bowls, twelve Kentucky Derbies, the NBA championships, the Stanley Cup finals, and the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. In 1985, he co-directed the Live Aid concerts—viewed by 1.5 billion people worldwide—to raise money for African famine relief and then filmed a Christmas special with Mother Teresa. In 1987, he directed a “Prayer for World Peace,” which beamed Pope John Paul II’s recitation of the rosary to 1 billion people in 100 countries, in what TV Guide called “the most elaborate and ambitious satellite interconnection in broadcast history.” And Verna continued inventing. He earned numerous US Patents for sports broadcasting technologies, including the “Instant Football Widget” (US Patent 7,596,759, issued in 2009), which places a real-time digital rendering of a football at the correct field position as viewers track the game on their computers or mobile phones. 

Verna earned two Emmy awards for producing NFL football games and the Los Angeles Olympics. In 1995, the Directors’ Guild of America presented Verna with its Lifetime Achievement Award for Sports Direction. Verna battled leukemia and died in January 2015, but his legacy is assured. “What should it say on my tombstone?” Verna mused in an interview with the Pacific Standard. “Son of Italian immigrants. Invented Instant Replay.”


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