Readers might recall my last column where ABC, flame keeper of Monday Night Football (MNF), was charged with going out in style and showing us how their coverage is something we’d miss. While they did not rise to the occasion in saying goodbye, their Super Bowl game-action coverage was superb.
So precise was their execution that you could teach a class on sports producing/ directing and production by merely illustrating what they did.
Unfortunately, they seemed so close to the moment, possibly overly fanatical about the football alone, that barely a passing mention was made about the social, cultural and technological impact of their reign. Almost without exception, they stayed focused on plays, players and storylines—but missed the biggest one of all, an autobiographical epitaph.
LEGACY OF A LIFETIME
Out in the rural West and some parts of New England, there are cemeteries long ago forgotten where the headstones are all that remain from an entire community and in some cases a culture. Why such an odd example? Because in a few years people will move beyond ABC’s coverage and forget why it was so special—nothing was left etched in stone.
It’s happened before. The Olympic Games were an ABC property until NBC outbid them. Nowadays, most people associate NBC’s coverage with the Olympics.
Incredible as it may seem, in the coming years ABC may lose much of its NFL telecast legacy despite MNF being the production that defined NFL coverage for our generation. They went out in style, schooling us on how to cover a big game, but they didn’t mark the moment—we are left to define their legacy how we see fit.
Despite huge inroads by Fox, ABC still wore the crown; others never copied ABC’s production art form nearly as well. They pioneered special, theme-based opens, commentary with obscure replays that advanced the story, fantastic city shots for bumpers and enough cameras, VTRs and graphical statistics to serve multiple storylines simultaneously.
THE ARTIST BECOMES INVISIBLE
What happened at Super Bowl this year was like a violin master showing his pupils one last lesson in how it’s done. Incredibly played music should make the violin master invisible.
Similarly, the best sports coverage appears when a production team labors so hard they suddenly disappear from the process and make it look easy. If it looks like they’re working hard, then they’re not doing their jobs at the highest level.
Viewers at home probably saw what they thought was a good Super Bowl telecast and didn’t realize how great the coverage was. Even some industry insiders became mesmerized by the action on the field.
They didn’t really notice what went into getting the shots, cutting the patterns, matching or leading the announcers, and telling the whole story. Such was the achievement of ABC’s final NFL telecast.
RISK TAKING COVERAGE
What ABC did well is best illustrated in the way they covered key plays, taking risks that only a veteran team with a high degree of group telepathy can pull off. From the announcers to the camera crew, graphics to playback, everyone was on top of their game.
For example, at one point momentum started to shift in favor of the Seattle Seahawks after they made a key interception and scoring drive against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Here is the pattern director Drew Esocoff and producer Fred Gaudelli executed:
- Seattle makes an interception; Esocoff cuts shots faster as the Seahawks move the ball down field.
- From the game camera, we see a 16-yard touchdown pass by Seattle QB Hasselbeck to TE Jerramy Stevens.
- Esocoff cuts a quick hero shot of Stevens from a Steadicam wisely pre-positioned in the end zone for just such a possibility.
- Quick cut to Seattle QB Hasselbeck for a hero/reaction shot.
- Quick cut to celebratory sideline/bench shot of Seattle players.
- Quick cut to the Pittsburgh bench with players suddenly solemn, looking introspective.
- Cut back to Seattle QB to further the contrast and tell the story.
- Cut back to Seattle bench to see a momentum-shift taking place on their faces.
- Instant replay of the “near-side” iso camera showing two wide receivers; when they separated, the operator chose the right one (Stevens) to get a close-up on the catch.
- Second replay, this time from the Steadicam that was alongside the end zone: you see ground level coverage of the ball coming at the camera, then being caught, and finally moving to a hero shot of Stevens.
ADVANCING THE STORY
Many of the best NFL telecasts will have this type of coverage at various times, but ABC pioneered it and did it all the time. In addition, they didn’t stop there but instead found a way to advance the story even more.
From the Steadicam replay just mentioned, ABC dissolved to a third replay from a high-end zone camera shot, looking toward the defense. From that vantage point you could see an iso of a Pittsburgh defender getting picked off by a member of Seattle’s offense to make sure Stevens was open to catch the ball.
Color analyst John Madden pointed out how flawlessly Seattle executed the pick and advanced the story in describing what we were seeing. However, another flawless performance was given by the ABC crew in getting the shots and replays needed to fully tell the story and showcase another level of prowess—covering the “inner game.”
ABC ended the sequence by showing the point after attempt with the goal posts electronically enhanced to grow taller and thus make it easier for viewers to tell if the ball is in or out during a high kick.
Then Esocoff cut to Pittsburgh’s quarterback who was about to come into a game with a changed momentum. Finally, ABC went to break with another low-angle, end zone replay of the touchdown.
The entire sequence from the TD pass to the commercial rollout happened in roughly 60 seconds. Every shot told another aspect of the story and despite the skill and coordination involved, the execution looked effortless.
TECHNOLOGY AS A TOOL
The production team did a solid job with Skycam as well. Unlike some networks, ABC realized that while it’s a great angle, it’s not as easy to tell distances during live action as the traditional game-coverage camera angles from the stands.
Thus, ABC used Skycam only sparingly. When Pittsburgh RB Jerome Bettis came off the field on a close-up, in addition to following his face “up-close and personal,” Esocoff cut to a Skycam reversal shot behind Bettis so you could see the reaction of his teammates and preview where on the sideline Bettis was headed (toward or away from particular coaches/players).
That type of cut also helped viewers understand the psyche of the team...body language, facial expressions and activity level can say a lot for how a team is doing at any given moment. The “up-close” shots only get you into the mindset of one person, not the aura of an entire team. ABC showed both.
ABC also employed a high corner camera for replays. This angle came into favor with Fox director Sandy Grossman, who overused it in the 90’s by cutting to it quite often for live game action.
ABC instead used it for wider-angle replays that often have more impact than any isolation shot ever could. They were wise in most everything they did, using specialty shots and graphics for maximum storytelling impact, plus for informing and entertaining the audience.
A MISSED GOODBYE
So where did ABC fall short? The biggest omission was that they never said goodbye!
After the game, there was a two-shot in the announce booth with a sullen looking Al Michaels beside an unfazed John Madden; Michael’s face looked like tears could come at any moment.
Michaels referenced the moment, but oddly enough it was lost on his announcing partner. After shaking hands, Madden gave a cursory return thank-you before plowing into more game analysis.
I suspect that while Michaels has broadcasting in his blood, Madden is a football man first and a broadcaster second. A color analyst is supposed to focus on the game and discuss techniques—just at that point, though, we were more interested in a fond farewell.
The missed opportunity comes on the heels of two other ABC Sports presentations: the last Monday Night game and a special MNF: 36 that ran the night before the Super Bowl. In both cases, the production team focused on the best plays and players in the MNF era and put very little emphasis on the production process, the Monday Night crew, the funny opens, fan poster board notes over the years and the myriad of antics in the booth.
Any sports broadcaster can run a highlight reel of the best plays they’ve shown in their years of coverage. The plays and players didn’t make ABC stand out nearly as famously as the gimmicks like the Halloween night broadcasts with Jack ‘O Lanterns carved out in the faces of the announce team.
OH, THE PLACES WE WENT
In the end, ABC did a first-class job at the Super Bowl and gave us a great telecast. Their opening sequence was MNF entertainment value at its best: a reading by Harrison Ford and several NFL legends of Dr. Seuss’ final book Oh, the Places You’ll Go, Dr. Seuss with NFL footage in the storybook world’s TV sets.
Directed by Mark Teitelman, it was ABC at its finest. Although they never said goodbye on-air, it serves as a nice way to summarize the network’s 36 years of coverage:
“Congratulations! Today is your day. You’re off to Great Places! You’re off and away! Fame! You’ll be famous as famous can be, with the whole wide world watching you win on TV... Oh, the Places You’ll Go...”
Farewell ABC, you taught us well.
Lee Henry is a veteran network sports producer/director. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.