Behind the Scenes With NBC’s Sunday Night Football Operations Team
Despite the lack of preseason prep, the productions are as big and impressive as ever
When it comes to live sports productions, it simply doesn’t get any bigger than NBC’s Sunday Night Football. In 15 years together, NBC’s SNF production and operations teams have seen just about everything. However, with no preseason games on which to prepare for the SNF slate this year, the crew found itself in Kansas City for the highly anticipated NFL Kickoff Game two weeks ago facing a challenge unlike any they had seen before. And despite an array of obstacles, the SNF team pulled it off.
“It felt like we were sitting there with our parking brake on,” says NBC Technical Manager Keith Kice, “and then we had to go a hundred miles an hour instantly. That’s how we started off the season.”
The production team started off strong, delivering a top-flight NFL Kickoff Game at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium on Thursday, Sept. 10 and following it up with the debut of Los Angeles’s SoFi Stadium on Sunday, Sept. 13 and the heart-pounding Patriots–Seahawks matchup despite smokey conditions in Seattle on Sunday, Sept. 20. With the SNF season in full swing, NBC Sports Group VP, Operations, Tim Dekime looks back at the taxing weeks leading up to Week 1.
“Those two weeks prior to the kickoff game were probably the most difficult weeks that Keith and I have ever worked on,” says Dekime. “We had to set up an entire game production — not just a preseason-level but a full SNF-level show. Right out of the box, we had to live up to the standards that we’ve established over the years to make it a perfect game. It was a thrash, and it was extremely difficult, but we got through it, and we’re really proud of the entire team.”
Stamford Steps Up: New Workflows for Social Distancing, Remote Working
To socially distance the crew, NBC added a truck, NEP Supershooter 22B, to its fleet of NEP ND1 mobile units onsite and shifted both graphics and edit teams to its broadcast center in Stamford, CT (one editor is also working remotely from his home in Daytona Beach, FL). With fewer bodies onsite, NBC moved its replay room into areas previously housing graphics and edit.
To manage this decentralized workflow, NBC added 18 JPEG 2000 circuits to its normal transmission plan. The broadcaster has increased the number of muxed paths in and out to help accommodate the edit and graphics operations and now has a total of 45 transmission paths between Stamford and the onsite production. Although NBC Sports Group is no stranger to this at-home production model, having used it for multiple Olympics and several events during the pandemic (including the NHL, NASCAR, Triple Crown horse races, and the Tour de France), SNF takes the involvement of Stamford to a new level.
“We’ve done this before,” says Kice, “but not to this magnitude. It’s great that we weren’t the first ones to have to do this and figure the whole thing out. NHL and several of the other sports have already done [remote production] back in Stamford. That way, we already had plenty of experience to get it done right.”
In addition to graphics and edit, NBC has relocated rules analyst Terry McAuley to a studio in Stamford, where he is connected to the SNF announce booth. This provided NBC with the necessary space to socially distance announcers Al Michaels and Chris Collinsworth. NBC also added four panels to the background LED screen to cover the foot and a half of space between Michaels and Collinsworth (also out due to social distancing is the much ballyhooed “Collinsworth Slide”).
In all, Dekime says, about 15 people have been relocated from onsite to Stamford, including researchers, loggers, and the replay operator who works directly with Collinsworth.
“I have to be honest: it has gone very well so far,” says Dekime. “We’ve done it for three games now, and we haven’t had any difficulties in handling graphics, edits, or anything else from Stamford.”
SkyCam Goes 4K for SNF
SNF once again has one of the largest camera complements of any live sports production, rolling out 40-plus cameras, largely a mix of Sony HDC-4300’s and HDC-4800’s.
After initially exploring the use of a C360 system attached to the SkyCam, NBC instead opted to deploy a 4K SkyCam system — the first ever to be used on an NFL production. The SkyCam system’s 4K camera is integrated with a Sony record/playback server that allows the replay operator to pan, zoom, and cut out HD images from the 4K frame. Beginning last night, the SkyCam system was upgraded to a Sony HDC-P43 4K camera running at 120 fps.
“For years,” says Kice, “we’ve talked with [SNF Executive Producer Fred Gaudelli] about going to a high-speed camera on the SkyCam, but it never ended up happening. So, when the opportunity presented itself to do a 4K SkyCam and he saw what he could get out of it with no limitation to the normal flight of the SkyCam, he was pretty excited. And we’re really excited to have the opportunity to be the first NFL games with a 4K SkyCam.”
Empty-Stadium Impact: Adjust Camera Positions in the Stadium, in the Booth
With largely empty stadiums as a backdrop this season, NBC has opted not to use its standard camera position in the announce booth to open the SNF show. Instead, it has deployed a Panasonic robotic camera inside the booth for the show open featuring Michaels and Collinsworth.
“Fred made the determination that, for a game without fans, we will not open up with Chris and Al with the view behind them with the empty stands,” says Dekime. “We will either use that [robo shot] or go right to our working shot with them sitting in front of the LED wall.”
With the freedom of handheld cameras limited by social-distancing regulations, NBC has also added four robos in the hallways to capture players and coaches exiting the locker room during the pregame show.
“We’re adding a lot of robotics to help cover all the back-of-house areas that you can’t get to anymore with standard handhelds due to social distancing,” Kice says.
With few or no fans in the stadium, NBC has added a camera outside the venue to capture exterior shots and overlay them with virtual graphics. In addition, the team has tweaked several camera angles to account for social distancing within camera wells and also is taking advantage of empty stadiums to position cameras where seat kills would typically be required. For example, in Kansas City, the low-end-zone positions were raised from 6 in. to 3 ft. off the ground since they wouldn’t be blocking any fans.
Last night, NBC also tested Canon’s new CJ20ex5B 4K UHD broadcast portable zoom lens. The company is looking to potentially use the new lenses on its Steadicams to satisfy the needs of both pregame and in-game shows since Steadicam lenses often have to be switched out between pregame and kickoff to serve the opposite extremes of the focal range.
Keeping the Crew Safe: Navigating Health and Safety Protocols
NBC is permitted 46 people on the field in the four hours prior to kickoff and during the game. All must get a COVID-19 test within 48 hours of kickoff and pass a temperature check when they arrive on game day. In addition, NBC has contracted with Bio IQ to provide at-home tests to the entire SNF crew. Each Monday, when crew members arrive home, a test kit is waiting and is overnighted to the lab. Results are available prior to the crew member’s boarding a plane for the next week’s game.
One of the other big challenges that NBC’s ops team must face is access to the stadium: each venue has its own health protocols. And, once crew members are in the stadium, the NFL’s new tiered-credentialing system can complicate venue access.
“We’re doing everything we possibly can to keep our crew safe,” says Dekime. ““It’s a very different world in which we have to work now, with the rules and regulations, and we’re doing our best to stay on top of it. We’re a large group, and we’ve got a lot of resources so we’re doing the best we can. We hope to build a routine [so that] the stadiums and networks have some kind of uniformity going forward. But it’s going to be a very different year for all of us.”
Despite the challenges, NBC has three games under its belt. And, with the pandemic likely keeping stadiums empty or at limited capacity for the foreseeable future, Dekime and Kice are proud to be able to deliver live football to fans watching at home.
“Since nobody is allowed in many of the stadiums,” says Kice, “the only way that a lot of people are going to be watching football is through the images that we put out there on the screen. It’s great that we can help provide them with that. Hopefully, this will be a plus for everybody emotionally and bring people a little sense of normalcy.”