Behind the screen: How networks have adjusted to airing NFL

·6 min read

Fred Gaudelli wasn't worried if NBC could successfully air “Sunday Night Football” games in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. His bigger concern was if the NFL could make it through the season.

So far, both things have happened.

Even though games may look the same, most of the processes around broadcasting the games have changed. Interviews for pregame features are being done remotely, announcers are socially distanced while being separated by plexiglass, and sideline reporters are in the stands.

“I went into the season with no expectations. When I left Kansas City (after the opening game on Sept. 10) I wondered if we would make it back there for Week 13 (a Sunday night game against Denver on Dec. 6) and we did,” said Gaudelli, the executive producer of NBC's NFL coverage. “There are challenges every week, but we've had the wherewithal to do it.”

No one is complaining though, even when games have been moved. NBC was scheduled to broadcast Tampa Bay's game at Las Vegas on Oct. 25, but an outbreak of positive COVID tests among the Raiders caused the league to move Seattle's matchup at Arizona to the prime-time slot.

In that case, diverting the production trucks for the four to five hour journey from Las Vegas to Glendale, Arizona, was easy. The Baltimore-Pittsburgh game was a little more difficult. The game, which was supposed to happen on Thanksgiving night, was rescheduled multiple times until it was played six days later.

“The league wants the best games in the best windows. That part has felt like business as usual. There has been more communication about if we have the windows on certain days. All those things take a lot of time and conversation,” Gaudelli said. “These are inconveniences though, and not hardships.”

The NFL remains the only major professional sport in North America in which network announcers and production crews have been at the stadiums for all games. The crews have been smaller compared to years past. NBC's “Sunday Night Football” usually had 120 production personnel along with local hires, but that is down to 90 this season.

Most of the production people are still arriving on Thursday and Friday to begin setting up at stadiums. Announcers and producers — who are used to the camaraderie of going to dinner and exchanging ideas throughout the weekend — have to do it virtually.

The biggest surprise is that new announcing teams have developed natural chemistry without preseason games or spending much time together.

ESPN's Lisa Salters said she still hasn't spent much time with Steve Levy, Brian Griese and Lewis Riddick, who are in their first season doing “Monday Night Football." Salters said she met Griese before the Week 1 game between Denver and Tennessee when both arrived to the stadium at the same time.

“I have not been in same room with the crew and yet we have put together a product that we are all proud of. It goes to the professionalism of everyone in the group,” Salters said. “It is so odd that we all have not sat down and talked or had dinner, yet a natural chemistry is there.”

Charles Davis, who arrived at CBS from FOX during the off-season , talked weekly with Ian Eagle leading up to the opener. Davis, who said he usually tapped or nudged former partners when he had something to say, has had to find a new way to communicate with Eagle due to social distancing and plexiglass separating the two.

“Thank goodness you can see through the plexiglass,” Davis said. “The situation is still the same as any other team learning as you go along.”

The biggest in-game adjustments have been for reporters assigned to the sidelines. They are not allowed on the field this year and have had to gather their information from the first row of the stands, from an area that NFL has called the moat.

Instead of being able to roam near bench areas to get information about in-game injuries or adjustments, reporters have been dependent more than usual on team public relations staffs.

“That was the main thing I was concerned about at the beginning of the season, but the staffs have been outstanding in getting information to us right away. It wasn't always this timely before,” Salters said.

Those adjustments though haven't been as big as putting together pregame shows. The two or three features per week in which reporters or former players would go to the complex to interview coaches or players is all being done virtually.

Michael Vick said he enjoyed travelling to do features for “Fox NFL Kickoff” because he could spend an hour or two with players and coaches, but they are still getting what they need under the current circumstances.

“For the players, it is convenient for them. It’s a cool way to reconnect. Sometimes people are not as comfortable doing things in person,” Vick said.

Production meetings with teams were usually done at team facilities or hotels, but they are all being done on Zoom. Davis said they are still getting the information they need for the broadcasts, but they miss out on trying to read facial expressions or body language during interviews.

Even if there is a limited number of fans in the stands, Davis said it was better compared to empty stadiums because it was easier to pick up on the flows and emotion of the game.

NBC's Mike Tirico compared doing games in empty stadiums to being in a huge, empty television studio.

“Usually that energy is provided by the fans and it is the soundtrack of the event,” he said. “I’ve heard it from the players as well and I concur that we all have to bring our own energy. I totally understand and get it because it is very different.”

Gaudelli said the most out of place he has felt in an empty stadium was late last month during Chicago's game at Green Bay.

“That was the most surreal because you know what that stadium is like on a weekly basis,” he said. “You know what it means to the community and not having fans there was eerie. It was tough.”

Even though everyone is hoping things return to normal next season, there still has been the satisfaction that the show has gone on. Ratings are likely to be down for the season — they were off 7% at midseason — but the prime-time ratings have rebounded.

“I’ve been telling people that work is twice as hard, but I’m 10-times more appreciative of the chance to do it,” Tirico said.

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Joe Reedy, The Associated Press