Gearing Up for NBC Sunday Night Football

While most will remember that NBC ended its 33 years of broadcasting professional football in 1998 when the network declined to bid for the AFC package, its football roots go back to the beginning, all the way back.

In 1939, NBC broadcast the first NFL game on network television to all of about 1,000 TVs in New York City as the Philadelphia Eagles took on the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field.

NBC also broadcast the first NFL Championship Game in 1955 and the first Super Bowl in 1967, Super Bowl III between the Baltimore Colts and New York Jets, which led to the merger of the AFL and NFL, and has broadcast three of the five most watched Super Bowls in history.

But that was then and this is now, with NBC firmly back in the pro football business.

The new NFL package continues through the 2011 season and calls for 16 regular season Sunday night games, each season's "NFL Kickoff" Thursday night primetime game, two postseason Wild Card games and three preseason games in primetime, in addition to Super Bowl XLIII in 2009 in Tampa and XLVI in 2012 and Pro Bowls in the same years.

The NFL will also give NBC flexible game scheduling over seven of the final eight weeks of the regular season for NBC SNF. Flexible scheduling, offered for the first time by the NFL, ensures marquee matchups when many teams' playoff chances are at stake.

During seven of the last eight weeks of the regular season, the NFL and NBC can decide to "flex" a Sunday afternoon game into the primetime window. The game must be moved 12 days prior to the game (two Tuesdays before the Sunday game). Flexible scheduling allows the league to showcase its most attractive matchups in its marquee package, the network primetime package, and also allows emerging teams to play their way into primetime.

To accomplish its new NFL package, NBC Sports is relying on NEP.

For major-league broadcasters and NFL fans alike, the launch of NBC SNF marks the beginning of a new era in primetime sports broadcasting. But for NEP Broadcasting, the Pittsburgh-based mobile TV production company whose trucks have provided onsite coverage at the Olympics, the Oscars and (until recently) ABC Monday Night Football, the switch from ABC to NBC is an opportunity to upgrade its NFL broadcast equipment.

"Every time the NFL broadcast rights are changed or renewed, the winning network takes that opportunity to look at the tech they're using for the broadcast, and to upgrade it," explains George Hoover, NEP Broadcasting's senior vice president of engineering. "When the last NFL deal was signed with ABC six years ago, it was time to add HD to the production process. This time, NBC wanted a truck with everything state-of-the-art, including Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound audio. The 5.1 format hadn't been accepted six years ago for live production; now it has."

NBC's decision to add 5.1 sound is understandable, given the network's heavy investment in NFL Sunday night football. A case in point: to retain the fans who watched ABC Monday Night Football, the Peacock Network paid big bucks to retain the ABC MNF team, from on-air announcers Al Michaels and John Madden to producer Fred Gaudelli and director Drew Esocoff.

It's a retention that has pleased Michaels, the former ABC MNF play-by-play announcer who was recently 'traded' from ESPN to NBC. "To me, a television broadcast unit is a team...where you can put the pieces together, but if they don't really fit, you're not going to quite hit it," he says. Having "discovered through the past couple of seasons [on ABC] that...we've together the perfect pieces," being able to recreate the same team at NBC is great news for the multiple Emmy-winning sportscaster. "To me, there's no greater thrill in broadcasting than getting off the air and knowing that everybody really hit it that night."

In the same vein, NBC is determined to provide the best-quality NFL broadcast ever seen in primetime. This is why the network is using the very latest NEP Supershooter mobile production unit available: the brand-new ND3 HD.

Launched on May 12, 2006, ND3 started its career on May 22, providing NBC's SD coverage of the Senior PGA championships. On June 15, ND3 made its HD debut at the 2006 U.S. Open Championships, then stayed on the golf beat until NBC began its NFL coverage in August. It will continue on with NBC into early 2007 with the start of the 2007 golf season.

In truth, the ND3 isn't one 53-foot truck—it's two...or three, depending on the production. This configuration makes sense—by using more trailers, NEP can provide NBC SNF's production team with ample space.

"HD equipment takes up a lot of room," says Hoover. "Having two [production] trailers gives us the space we need to carry it all, while providing lots of elbow room for the production people."

ND3's first trailer—the A truck—has two 12' by 24' production rooms. The first room houses the main production control staff. The second room is dedicated to NBC SNF's graphics staff. (A small transmission room is located between the two.)

Meanwhile, the B truck is home to the 5.1 Surround Sound audio production suite and a tape room, again separated by a small transmission room.

The heart of the ND3's production room is the Sony MVS-8000A production switcher with four mix effects, backed by an eight channel Abekas DVEous dual twin HD DVE, a 160 x 128 Grass Valley Trinix HD video router and an Evertz 192 input MVP multi-image display processor system controlling 24 Panasonic 32-inch LCD monitors.

The ND3's tape room has ten Panasonic 32-inch LCD monitors. All of them are routed through the Evertz MVP, allowing this production unit to switch between football and golf production configurations at the push of a button.

"The Evertz system is a necessity," says Hoover. "Tape operators working an NFL game usually have two cameras assigned to them and they seldom switch inputs. In contrast, for golf they need to see up to 50 camera locations at once so they can cut the show properly. Each tape position has two Panasonic LCD panels stacked in front of it. With the help of the Evertz unit, the screen can accommodate the feeds."

For recording and playback, the ND3 has a pair of Sony SRW-5500 HD VTRs and two Sony SRW-5000 HD VTRs, plus a Sony DVW A500. It also has 11 EVS HD LSN XT video servers, a four channel EVS Spot Box for instant replays, two EVS LSM XT[2] servers with Super Motion and four Lance Slo-Mo controllers. This area has its own Evertz 144 input MVP system and 12 Panasonic LCD monitors (10 32-inch front and two 32-inch monitors back).

Graphics are rendered using a Pinnacle HD Thunder still store and two Pinnacle Deko 3000 CGs. The room is also equipped with 10 32-inch and two 17-inch Panasonic LCD monitors.

For audio, the NC3 B is equipped with a Calrec Alpha digital audio console with 86 dual layer faders, a Grass Valley Concerto analog/AES 512 x 512 router (configured as 192 x 192 analog stereo and 320 x 320 AES), a Dolby E multi-channel encoder/decoder, a Dolby Pro Logic 5.1 Surround encoder/decoder and a Dolby AC3 encoder/decoder.

Add Digicart units and Denon CD players, plus a suite of 5.1 Genelec Monitor speakers, and the audio booth is complete. "This room has enough depth to let the mixer hear 5.1 in full surround," notes Hoover. "That's not possible in smaller, older audio booths."

Then there's ND3's C truck—a non-primary post truck. "For most productions, ND3 uses two trucks," says Hoover. "The third unit is used for effects audio and Final Cut Pro editing."

The Final Cut Pro edit station is wired for two users with a shared storage array. In addition to NLE editing, ND3 C also has a linear edit bay with a Grass Valley editor, Graham-Patten DESAM console, and Grass Valley Kayak switcher, plus a Sony SRW-5500 HDCAM/HDCAM SR VTR and Sony HDW-M2000/20 HDCAM VTR.

For audio effects, ND3 C uses a Calrec Q2 audio console with 60 dual stereo faders (48 with mic pre-amps).

To say the least, ND3's camera roster is impressive with 12 Sony HDC-1000 fixed HD cameras and eight Sony HDC-1500 handheld HD cameras, each with a fiber CCU and a total of 14,500 feet of fiber optic cable. (ND3 also comes equipped with two Sony HDW-F900 HDCAM camcorders.) To serve its dual football/golf missions, ND3's cameras are equipped with a range of Canon zoom lenses, namely three HD 100x, nine HD 86x and three 70x lenses. The unit also comes with seven Canon 22x7.8 handheld lenses and two Canon 11x4.7 wide-angle lenses.

Audio is captured using eight Sennheiser MD46 stick mics, six HMD-25-1 announcer headsets, six MKH 816T long shotguns and six MKH 416T short shotgun microphones, 15 EV RE 16 hand mics, six Shure Beta 87 talent mics, 11 Sony ECM 55b and five 77b lavaliers and two Crown PZM-30F mics.

Communications are maintained over a Telex ADAM 180 square matrix intercom backed by three Gentner QKTs, three Telos One interfaces and 12 Motorola walkie-talkies.

With this much muscle on its mobile production bench, it's not surprising that NBC is feeling pretty cocky about its Sunday Night Football broadcasts. "We're doing the show of record after all the games in the afternoon have been played," declares Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports & Olympics.

As for NEP Broadcasting? As the mobile production supplier to NBC and ESPN (for its Monday Night Football broadcasts), this Pittsburgh company will continue to be America's prime NFL source this fall, and in the years ahead.

James Careless covers the television industry. He can be reached at