NBC’s perennially top-rated Sunday Night Football broadcasts will sound fairly normal this fall, executive producer Fred Gaudelli promised Thursday, but they will feature fewer crowd shots due to few if any fans attending games.
Gaudelli joined play-by-play voice Al Michaels, analyst Cris Collinsworth and sideline reporter Michele Tafoya for a media conference call ahead of next Thursday’s start to the 15th season of SNF. Discussion of COVID-19 adjustments outweighed any talk about Xs and Os, though Collinsworth pronounced himself ready for the ritual, however different it may be.
“I can’t remember a year when I’ve been more excited for football,” Collinsworth said. “To get something back to normal, to get anything back to normal. We all understand – there’s a lot going on in the world. … But first and foremost, we’re excited for football.
The season starts next Thursday night at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium with the Chiefs hosting the Houston Texans. The L.A. Rams-Dallas Cowboys matchup on September 13 at SoFi Stadium marks the official Sunday night kickoff. The season’s debut has been anything but guaranteed as the nation has battled a summer surge in coronavirus infections. Steps taken by the NFL — ditching preseason games and implementing strict testing protocols — seem to have helped.
“The NFL has had a more systematic approach” than other sports, Gaudelli said. The NBA’s bubble in Orlando, FL, has been widely hailed for preventing a single positive COVID test by a player, but such a setup would be unwieldy for the NFL given the league’s volume of players and coaches.
Football in general will not be in full force this fall due to the pandemic, with many states banning high school play and college conferences like the Big Ten and Pac-12 canceling action through the end of the year. The full-contact nature of football has raised medical officials’ concerns about potential spread. The NBA, Major League Baseball and the NHL have returned to action without fans, though, buoying TV network spirits.
Rules in certain states will allow a limited number of fans at about one-third of NFL stadiums as the season starts, so the aesthetics of the games will be unique. The Chiefs-Texans game will be played before about 18,000 people, who will be required to wear masks and sit at a distance from each other.
Given the usual visual grammar of a football telecast — picture Green Bay’s Lambeau Leap or Cleveland’s Dawg Pound — Gaudelli acknowledged that the look of the games will be different this year. A new 8K camera suspended over the field will enable close-up angles and replays of the field, replacing some wide-angle spectacle or the usual densely populated fan shots with “intimate replays,” the producer said.
While he stressed that he was not intending it as “a shot at Fox,” Gaudelli said creating digital fans as Fox has for baseball telecasts was not in the plans. “It becomes a little bit of a gimmick,” he said. “It’s not realistic.” NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball telecasts have featured significant audio sweetening and Fox has digitally inserted fans into crowd shots.
Michaels said he wasn’t concerned about maintaining the proper energy and tone despite few or no fans. “When I did the San Francisco Giants in the ’70s, I got used to doing games with no fans,” he deadpanned.
Gaudelli said the sound will be “as authentic as it can possibly be” because of the league’s production arm, NFL Films. Its crews have been gathering sound for the past four seasons in 30 of the league’s 32 stadiums. (SoFi in LA and Allegiant in Las Vegas are newly built for 2020.) Audio engineers in each city will “score” games, feeding some baseline audio into the stadium and also twiddling the knobs for viewers at home based on touchdowns, interceptions, sacks and other action on the field.
“We all thought that was the best way to go,” Gaudelli said.
The call only glancingly touched on protests against racial injustice or NBC’s production plans for the national anthem, which has proven to be a complicated aspect of NFL games in recent years. Gaudelli said some of the “virtual graphics” used to present statistics and player information will be “redeveloped” to account for lack of fans. (Often, those visuals are laid over stadium or fan backgrounds.) He also said NBC Sports is looking to integrate a “virtual fan mosaic,” as other sports have done, enabling fans to connect with games and be seen from a distance.
Tafoya said her usual sideline duties will be handled from a designated “moat” several well back from the actual sideline. “I’m bringing binoculars to the game for the first time,” she quipped.
Gaudelli closed by noting that Michaels, who will turn 76 in November, will get a few weeks off in order to minimize travel. Mike Tirico will step in to call the games he will miss, starting with one in New Orleans later this month.