Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A kiss is just a kiss

Audience members take centre stage when the smooch cam comes calling during the big game / D12

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Pretend you’re the host of a news and entertainment program, and that a good chunk of your workday is spent in front of a television camera. Now pretend you go to a Winnipeg Jets game, and you wind up on the Jumbotron during the club’s nightly, Smooch Cam promo.

Just another day at the office, right? Wrong.

"For someone who was on TV every day, you'd be surprised how nerve-wracking and shocking it actually was," says Kim Babij-Gesell, the former face of Shaw-TV's Go Winnipeg.

Two years ago, Babij-Gesell, now the communications co-ordinator for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, was at the MTS Centre with her then-boyfriend, Taren Gesell, for a game between the Jets and New Jersey Devils. At the 10-minute mark of the second period, the Jets' in-house emcee announced it was Smooch Cam time. (In case you've been living under a package of breath mints, a smooch cam, or kiss cam, is a diversion whereby cameras at a sporting event pan the crowd. People who end up in the cameras' sights are expected to canoodle.)

"My first reaction was 'My goodness, we're on TV," says Gesell, in regards to spotting himself and Kim on the giant video screen. "My second reaction was, "MY GOODNESS WE'RE ON TV AND WE HAVE TO KISS!"

Seconds after the duo locked lips, their phones "blew up." Seems everybody they knew who was at the game was texting them, to rate their performance. Or rather, lack thereof.

"I hate to say it but we failed miserably; it was a peck two 80-year-olds would give each other," reports Babij-Gesell. "We looked ridiculous."

"Since then we've talked numerous times about how it's going to be, if we're ever on the Smooch Cam again," Gesell says. "Definitely much slower and more sensual. But it's probably like hoping you win the lottery twice; it's never going to happen."

The Smooch Cam has been a staple of North American arenas, stadiums and ballparks for years. Short of carbon-dating a bottle of lip gloss, it's difficult to determine when and where fans were first persuaded to make kissy face but researchers -- yes, people have researched this topic -- tie the promotion's roots to the invention of the Jumbotron in the early 1980s.

What is common knowledge, however, is the day the smooch cam proved that just because you're the most powerful person on the planet, you're not necessarily the most amorous, too.

Last summer, U.S. President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle attended a basketball game in Washington, D.C. When Kiss Cam-time rolled around, guess whose mugs landed on the Jumbotron?

Problem was, instead of planting one on his better half, the prez put his arm around Michelle, smiled and gave her a gentle tap on the shoulder -- the sort you might give your pet, to thank him for not begging at the table.

Within seconds, boo-birds in the crowd let the leader of the free world know what they thought of his effort.

Steven Harper didn't have to worry about spending a night on the couch when he attended the Jets home opener in 2011.

"When the PM was here, we had strict guidelines of when we could put him on the big screen," says Kyle Balharry, the Jets' director of game production. "If we had put him on the Smooch Cam, I'm sure his people would have been very upset with us."

Balharry says the team grants visiting celebs the same consideration. Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez went to a match between the Jets and Carolina Hurricanes, for example, and the team decided it would have been in poor taste to include them in the Smooch Cam shenanigans.

"We usually try and respect national and international public figures," Balharry says. "Bieber and Selena had a private area to watch the game and it was important to protect their privacy." (Good decision: after Bieber and Gomez wound up on the kiss cam at an Los Angeles Lakers game, Gomez tweeted, "That was probably the most humiliating thing that has ever happened to me.")

Lately, some organizations have come under fire for staging what takes place at kiss cam time. At a minor-league baseball game in May, the camera found a fellow talking on his cellphone. Twice he shooed his girlfriend away when she tried to get him to hang up and give her a smooch. After he ignored her advances a third time, she stood up, dumped a full beverage in his lap and stormed off, on the arm of the Fresno Grizzlies' mascot.

A couple of days later, the pair appeared on network television, where they admitted their falling-out was a hoax, meant to drive ticket sales for the team's next game.

Balharry says what you see at Jets games is what you get.

"We ask our camera people to start scoping out the crowd a bit in advance, to try and figure out who's a couple and who's not," Balharry says. "Granted, there have been occasions when we've made a mistake and put people up there who aren't together at all. But that can be amusing, too."

Not unlike figure skating and synchronized swimming, Smooch Cam is a judged event. Balharry and his director, Rob Marion, are responsible for picking the nightly winner of a Klondike Ice Cream Bar gift pack.(Isn't it romantic: back in the Moose days, the sponsor was Chicken Delight and the victors went home with a bucket of wings and thighs.)

"You certainly get a wide variety -- from pecks on the cheek to couples who are really making out," Balharry says. "But the ones people seem to like best are the older couples; that always seems to warm everybody's heart."

If you're not one for public displays of affection, the safest place in the house, according to Balharry, is to be as near the centre line as possible, on the same side of the rink as the camera operator.

Or you can simply do what Balharry did.

One time, Balharry and his family were watching a game from a private suite. When it was time for the Smooch Cam, Balharry's spider sense started tingling.

"Sure enough, I saw the camera guy looking around the building, trying to find me. I said to my wife, 'Quick, let's go, let's go...' but she must not have heard me. Because when the screen flashed to us, all you saw was her sitting by herself, and my butt racing up the stairs."

david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 7, 2013 D11

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