PITTSBURGH — Broadcast crews sometimes face the same challenges as the NFL teams they cover. Both adjust to personnel changes, schedule adjustments and study game tapes.
Although NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” featured new faces in the booth and production truck before the season started, the broadcasts continue to deliver at a high level.
“Sunday Night Football” is on pace to be prime time’s top show for the 12th consecutive year. Through last Sunday’s overtime game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Arizona Cardinals, it is averaging 19.8 million viewers, a 2% increase over last season.
“Everybody made a big deal out of all the changes, but I’ve known these guys forever. I’ve worked with them 1,000 different ways,” analyst Cris Collinsworth said. “We all have ideas, but it has been very collaborative from the beginning.”
Collinsworth, NBC’s top analyst since 2009, remained in his role while everything else shuffled around. Mike Tirico took over play-by-play after Al Michaels went to Amazon’s Prime Video. Melissa Stark became sideline reporter after Michele Tafoya moved on and Rob Hyland took over as coordinating producer. Fred Gaudelli remained with NBC and is executive producer for Amazon’s “Thursday Night Football.”
Collinsworth doesn’t do his slide into the frame during the opening segment anymore. That seems to have resonated the most with fans.
“I’ll never get away from that, so I gotta come up with a new gimmick,” Collinsworth said. “I get people that will slide from behind the corner of buildings. It’s just fun.”
Tirico and Collinsworth called 21 games — mostly Thursday nights in 2016 and ‘17 — before this season. Tirico and Hyland worked together on Notre Dame football, Triple Crown horse racing and Olympics prime-time shows.
“I’ve worked with Rob on probably 75% of the NBC events I have done, and I got to work with (director) Drew (Esocoff) the past couple of years on games. So there were so many answers to any of those questions you would normally have coming into a new situation,” Tirico said. “The familiarity allowed all of us just to start from a far more advanced place than if we would have come in not knowing each other.”
Stark, who returned to the sidelines after a 20-year hiatus, had worked with Esocoff on ABC’s “Monday Night Football” and knew Tirico and Collinsworth.
“It’s been awesome. To join such a talented and well-run group, all I had to do is concentrate on my job because everybody else is doing their jobs at such a high level,” she said.
Esocoff kept intact most of his camera crew and technicians.
With Collinsworth owning Pro Football Focus, the announce and production teams get a PFF scouting report on the upcoming matchup on Monday. Collinsworth then sends a series of four videos, each averaging 30 minutes, on Wednesday and Thursday, looking at each team’s offenses and defenses with keys and tendencies.
After meetings and phone calls with teams, there’s a production meeting on Saturday morning at the hotel where most of the production team meets with Tirico, Collinsworth and Stark to trade final ideas or hone things they might use during the broadcast.
The crew spent part of a production meeting before the Chiefs-Chargers game looking at off-balance throws from former All-Star shortstop Alex Rodriguez because some of Patrick Mahomes’ delivery is similar. During meetings with Mahomes, he mentioned Rodriguez was his favorite baseball player growing up.
The production meeting looked at 10 throws from Rodriguez, with one showing similarities in deliveries even though they are from different sports.
“It’s a broadcast, not a narrowcast. If we can’t make it relatable to fans of other sports or casual fans, we’re not doing our job,” Hyland said.
ROLLING WITH CHANGES
The schedule is the biggest challenge for “Sunday Night Football,” with this season being no exception. Because originally scheduled second-half matchups sometimes fall flat, there have been four times when a game was flexed. Sunday night’s game between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers replaces the Los Angeles Rams against the Chargers.
The four flexes before the regular season’s final week are tied with 2018 for the most in a year.
“It gets to be expected late in the year. We have a group of 200 that is used to it,” Esocoff said of the schedule changes. “It’s a grind sometimes getting mobile units from one place to another, but it usually comes off like expected.”
Flexes can have some benefits. When the game on Nov. 20 between the Kansas City Chiefs and Chargers replaced the Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers, it marked a rare time where “Sunday Night Football” had a team for two straight weeks. The Chargers were at the San Francisco 49ers a week earlier. Meanwhile, the Chiefs were making their second SNF appearance in three weeks.
That meant production crews didn’t have to shoot updated introductions for new players or edit graphics of acquisitions in new uniforms.
When the Miami game against the Chargers was flexed to prime time on Dec. 11, the team had to shoot and tape linebacker Bradley Chubb and running back Jeff Wilson in their Dolphins uniforms after they were involved in midseason trades.
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