Harold Bryant On Highlighting Black Voices In Media And Overseeing The Super Bowl

Photo Credit: Michele Crowe/CBS

Since 2020, Harold Bryant has been the Executive Producer & Executive Vice President, Production at CBS Sports. In this role, he oversees all creative aspects and editorial content for all sports programming at CBS Sports and CBS Sports Network, including Super Bowl LVIII. In being the only Black head of sports production for any of the major broadcast networks, Bryant stands as one of the most important figures in his field.

Prior to joining CBS Sports, Bryant served as a producer for the New York Knicks, New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils, as well as sports features and updates for the network’s business shows. Additionally, he worked on the 1992 Olympic Summer Games in Barcelona, Spain and as host broadcaster for the 1996 Olympic Summer Games. In the time after his career began almost 40 years ago, much has changed within the media space, and Bryant feels optimistic regarding how things are, as well as how things will be moving forward.

Harold Bryant On Highlighting Black Voices In Media And Overseeing The Super Bowl
Harold Bryant, Executive Producer and SVP, Production, CBS Sports. Photo taken in the production trailer on location in San Francisco for Super Bowl 50. Photo: John Paul Filo/CBS ©2016 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved

“The future looks great,” Bryant says. “There are a lot of talented people behind the scenes and in front of the camera that are excelling. There are also people in the pipeline, people who are learning and growing and are ready to take those next steps, but If you go back over the course of the last 30 years, it hasn’t been an easy hill to climb.”

Ahead of the big game in Las Vegas this year, Bryant sat down with ESSENCE to discuss his career, helming the biggest broadcasting event in live television, as well as the progression of Black faces both in front of, as well as behind the camera from his first Super Bowl to now.

Harold Bryant On Highlighting Black Voices In Media And Overseeing The Super Bowl
Photo Credit: John Paul Filo/CBS

ESSENCE: There are so many people that aspire to be in front of the camera, but you’ve excelled behind it. I wanted to know what led you to pursue a career in production as opposed to other fields in entertainment?

Harold Bryant: I appreciate that question. When I started out in this business and really started in college doing internships and even in-school productions, I realized you have just as much impact, influence, creativity behind the scenes, behind the camera, behind the operation, as you do in front of it. In the long run, you can have even more impact. So, right from the beginning it attracted me, the behind the scenes, the organizational structure, how you put these events on the air or on a platform.

Why the specific focus on sports?

It’s that old saying of “do a job that you love and feel like you’re never working.” I was always just an affinity for sports. I loved sports. I played a little bit here and there in high school, but nothing on a real high level, but I could always see it. I could sit with my friends and family and I could see the game. Didn’t matter what game it was, I could sit there and go, “Oh, I get it.”

The strategy, that energy that comes from a live event really attracted me to sports. I’ve tried other things. I’ve worked on movies, which have been fun. I’ve worked on industrial videos where you do training and education. I worked a little bit on the business side of things, working in a company that did business news. I even worked in news, actually I worked for almost a year in the newsroom. But sports had that, I hate to use the terminology, that thrill of victory—that’s the ABC terminology—but that’s the type of thing that attracted me to sports.

People have to deal with pressurized situations in life, but I’m just trying to figure out what is your process when you’re at the helm of the biggest television event in the world?

You rely on the preparation that goes into it, and you rely on the team. You can’t do it alone and you can’t do it at the last minute. The preparation process begins for a Super Bowl almost two years out, a year and a half out, and it gets longer and longer. We started earlier and earlier prepping. You try to anticipate, “hey, we’re going to need cameras in every corner of the end zone if there’s a controversial play. Oh, we’re going to need specialty graphics to highlight the stars. Hey, we’re going to have our set locations. Well let’s go out to the facility, survey it, figure it out in advance and not wait until the week of or the month of.”

We do this stuff for a minimum of 18 months and we’ve actually started a little bit before that; almost two years out. So when you’re at the helm in the moment, when that pregame starts, that game kicks. It’s everything that led up to it that makes it a success. Your planning and your experience if something were to happen, where are you going to go? What backup? What is your process to make sure you’re covered in that emergency or surprise situation.

With the leaps and bounds in technology that we’ve experienced in the past 25 years or so, from the production aspect, what thing or things have changed the most for you from the time you began to now?

I would say initially it was, definitely sounds like an old time. We went from standard definition to HD, High Definition. That was a huge leap in ‘99, 2000 ish, 2001. In that era just made the pictures just scream, just jump, just vibrant. Virtual technology, the virtual lines, the virtual tracers on golf, the virtual stats that you see. Now you’re getting virtual commercials and ads and all of that virtual technology and it continues to advance and evolve so that you can do more and more things. I think those are some of the things. I would say also in the last five years or so.

How can we evaluate our coverage quickly? Or if there’s something that’s missed or if there’s a storyline, we can react to it. You can’t take everything that you see on social media as the Bible, but you can evaluate it, you can pull it all together and say, Hey, there’s a theme here. Let’s address that theme. Audio as well, audio has become a very more sophisticated part of the production. Being able to not only just hear the players on the field, but doing live interviews and getting that contact with bringing the viewer closer to the game.

Now of course we’re going into 4K on the next level stuff. Those four things I mentioned, you can now mention the camera technology. Camera technology is better. You can get tighter on people. You can see the clarity of their faces. You could create a cinematic look with these shallow depths of field cameras where the player looks almost like they’re jumping out of the screen at you.

How do you feel about the future of people of color in front of the camera—the analysts, sportscasters, etc.—as well as behind it?

In front of the camera, I would say there’s better representation. You get a little bit more openness to allowing folks into your home. Behind the scenes, there have been challenges creating that diverse group, and that’s one of the things I constantly try to educate people on and to encourage people to bring more people into the fold.

It’ll make for a better show. It’ll make for better storytelling. It’ll make your company better if you have a broader group of people working for you. Areas you might not have thought about, tapping into for a sales source or a storyline or how you represent people so you don’t represent them poorly. If you don’t have a diverse group in the room, and all of a sudden you’re talking about black and brown people, but there’s no one in the room, well, how do people know they’re being represented properly? So the same thing with women having more women. And so anyway, it’s gotten better because I really think there’s been intentional focus. It’s been intentional. You have to be intentional to make change. I would say in the last half dozen years there’s been some really intentionalities and focus on creating a more diverse workforce.

I saw that you were also able to work on the ’96 Olympics when it was in Atlanta. But aside from that, throughout your career, do you have a favorite or most fulfilling event or moment that you’ve overseen or been a part of?

Well, a couple different things. I would say the craziest moment, the most difficult moment, the most challenging moment was when the lights went out in New Orleans. I didn’t know if it was the power grid or it was the halftime show, but when the lights went out, New Orleans was definitely the biggest challenge just dealing with that blackout. 

But it did prove that everything we did leading up to the Super Bowl, we had prepped that we were able to still have cameras and a portion of our broadcast still on the air. We learned a lot from that. We had some backups, we could have had more, but I thought we handled it well. We went to reporters, we went to the studio show. We eventually got the game crew back on the air and we worked with the league. That was the most challenging moment.

I’d say the most thrilling moment was the 2019 Masters when Tiger made that incredible comeback. Everyone had written him off, saying he’ll never win another masters. Who knows, maybe he’ll win another major. Tiger was what attracted me to golf, and he brought me into the golf world, just someone you aspire to succeed. You aspire to be like him on the golf course, and it’s great to see him succeed on the golf course. So when he did that, when he kind of shut everybody up, it was just such a thrilling moment. Those are a couple of big ones. I mean, there’s other ones, other moments that have been incredible. I wasn’t leading the broadcast, but in 2001, Giants and Ravens, that was my first Super Bowl with CBS. It was great to be there. Final Four, I mean, I can go down a list of great Final Fours, but those are probably the two biggest ones for different reasons.

As the executive producer and the executive vice president of production at CBS Sports, I’m pretty sure that there are many duties that encompass your position, but if someone wasn’t familiar with your position and they were to ask you, “Mr. Bryant, what is it that you do?” What would your answer be for them?

It’s not the easiest answer. I try to explain it to my kids and to their friends. My kids have 10-year-old twins. I oversee the content and the production of all of our games and studio shows. Every element that goes into it. I don’t get into the weeds on everything, but ultimately I’m responsible for it. So that’s the basis of the job. And then you get into the vice president side of, and it’s more about the business side of it, making sure we have the right personnel, hiring those personnel, evaluating them, putting them in the right places, dealing with budgets and finance and PR and marketing. The executive producer is making sure, so it’s wearing those two hats. “Executive producer” is making sure the content is correct. You’re following those storylines. You’re creating those storylines in advance. We’re working on Super Bowl storylines already. “Hey, how are you going to cover Vegas? What’s the city going to be like? What are the efforts being put into it? What are some milestone moments or stories we can tell on football?” So there’s the content and then there’s the business side of things.

Planning, quality control, of course making sure that we have a standard. At times people think I pushed a little too hard, but I try to keep those standards, making sure that the executive groups, making sure the flow of the events, the coordination on any football Sunday we might have five, six, or seven games happening. “Hey, one’s ending, another one’s ending. Where are we taking the audience? What’s the next game? Are they coming into the studio? How are we integrating? How are we making sure they see the big picture of the day? Hey, there was a big upset down in Jacksonville. Are we making sure that everyone’s kept informed of that?” So those are some of the functions. I know it’s a little bit of a ramble, but hopefully that gives you a little bit of insight into it.

We talked a lot about things today. You have an amazing family, and  you spoke earlier about how sometimes there may be six, seven games on, I’m going through the things that you oversee—basketball, golf, tennis, etc. How do you, as the successful person that you are, maintain that work life balance from your job and your family? What are things that you do and implement to keep that balance?

It’s something you have to work at and you can’t just leave it for granted and hope that it balances out. I have to plan it actually. I have to plan my work life balance. I have to make sure that if I’m on vacation, I have to disconnect and really be on vacation. I have to look at calendars and say, “Hey, the girls are having a recital on a Wednesday night. You know what? I need to be there, everything else has got to be put on hold.” So it is something I don’t take for granted. And I work at making it a priority.

It’s not easy though. But this time of year, Super Bowl, playoffs, golf has started on the West Coast, basketball is going on around, prepping for the tournament. So it’s not easy. It’s also trying to be as open and frank with the family as possible. Let them know, this is dad’s job. I have to go do some of this. They have to understand that as well, that I can’t be there for everything. But even this morning, I was looking out at the snow, cleaning it up. All of a sudden they’re throwing snowballs at me and doing stuff like that, just taking an hour out of the day for little things like that make a big difference.

I think this virtual world that we’ve shifted to where you can work remotely or in the office has helped where I can slip out for 20 minutes, go to the bus stop, pick up the kids. That makes a difference to them and to my wife to be able to do that, be involved. Prior to this, I would leave at 8:00 AM and not get home until 7:00 PM. That was a Monday through Thursday then I’d worked Saturdays and Sundays in the studio. So the six-day a week job from September to April. So the virtual world has helped out with that work life balance. Sometimes it’s just being there and being a referee at times, I can help out.

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