Is ESPN Ready For Some Football? You Bet!

Using the majority of the seasoned crew from the network’s Sunday Night Football show is the right place to start. Having that crew led by SNF’s producer and director assures the continuity of a well-executed telecast. Assembling a new announce team will bring different voices and new perspectives to the viewers. And, Hank Williams, Jr., has some new rowdy friends coming to the show.

A new graphics package will enhance the show visually. Adding five shows originating in part or in their entirety from the Monday Night Football host city in addition to the game show will bring an unprecedented size and scale to the weekly traveling road show. Finally, providing the production crew with a new HD production truck loaded with the right tools will let them execute their vision to create the look and the sound of the next chapter of sports television’s longest-running and most successful series.

“We’ve been planning Monday Night Football for over a year since we received the rights to televise it,” said MNF director Chip Dean.

Dean, who joined ESPN just two months after the network’s September 1979 launch, and MNF producer Jay Rothman have worked together on ESPN’s Sunday Night Football since 2001.

“We’ve done more meetings during the past nine months to prepare for this than in any time I can remember for any other event,” said Dean.

“We have an all-star technical group which meets with Jay and me all the time. We did an operations review in April with all of our operations managers to discuss what’s different and how we interface with our studio people. Our camera and tape guys, what makes them so good, besides being great technicians, is they’re very production savvy—they do a great job of listening and leading the announcers.”

“We’re hovering in the neighborhood of about 400 credentials for the game and the studio programs originating at the site,” said Steve Carter, manager, MNF remote operations. “Last year Sunday Night Football had around 130 to 150.”

Televised football is a very visual presentation, combining field action with statistics.

“We’ve been working with a couple of production groups to create a new graphics package,” said Dean. This includes a new open that will be very unique and very cinematic.

“If you were looking at the visuals on the screen, you will see a new scoring clock. It has a different look and application to what’s been done with ESPN, Fox’s top line and then last year’s ABC’s Monday Night bottom line. We’re really excited about this new scoring clock and all the other graphics surrounding it which will allow us to do a lot better job exchanging information and presenting information that will be cleaner, easier to read and more defined.”

The new scoring clock will be created with one of the three Vizrt graphics systems in NEP Supershooters’ new SS25 A unit.

“Our lower-thirds are done with a Vizrt which we used last year with SNF,” said Dean. “The full-screen graphics are created with a second Vizrt. We went to a third Vizrt this year for the first time for the scoring clock because we wanted to make it the best quality, the best readability and have the most flexibility to do movement and animations.”

“In addition to high-quality graphics, the Vizrt creates realtime 3D animation,” said Isaac Hersly, President, Vizrt Americas. “Any data can be ingested by the system and displayed in realtime and the animations don’t have to be pre-rendered.

“All the objects, all the fonts, all the back plates are independent objects and when the switcher’s GPI is triggered for a billboard, all those objects are gathered from the system in realtime and animated onto the screen—and that includes sound effects. Last year ESPN did about 500 remote telecasts with our HD products.”

It should come as no surprise that ESPN put three Vizrts into SS25 to launch MNF—the network has many of the systems in its high-def digital production rooms and there are three systems in the SportsCenter control room.

Dean, Rothman and others did a graphics rehearsal when SS25 returned to NEP after the Home Run Derby.

“The three Vizrts were installed and had switcher control through GPIs. The TD can trigger graphics to happen and animate on the exact moment and on the exact shot we want,” said Dean.

ESPN’s Monday Night Football will have more cameras than SNF’s usual complement of 23, but not too many more.

“When you get a project like Monday Night Football, a lot of people think you just add a lot more stuff and you try to just overwhelm them with cameras,” said Dean. “We are efficient with where we are placing the cameras and know exactly what the goal of each camera is. For example, we’re going to coordinate the goalpost cameras with the Skycam to give us some different and unique looks both live and for analysis.”

Fletcher Chicago will provide the Fletcher cams on the goalposts and CF InFlight provides the Skycam.

“Those two cameras and two additional super slo-mos are all that we’ve added because we felt we had a good complement of cameras on Sunday Night and, again, knowing what our show is going to be. When you’re trying to develop chemistry with five announcers, most noticeably the three in the booth, you have to make sure you don’t get so involved with technology you lose track of, A) content, and B) leading what they’re talking about in the big picture of football.”

Rothman has done a couple of rehearsals with the new MNF commentator team and will have them voice a preseason game. Mike Tirico will do play-by-play along with analysts Joe Theismann and Tony Kornheiser. The sideline reporters are Suzy Kolber and Michele Tafoya.

In addition to ESPN’s Monday Night Football, five shows will be produced in part or in their entirety from the MNF host city each week (all times Eastern):

  • SportsCenter Special Edition: Monday Night Kickoff: 3:00-5:00 p.m. Bristol, CT. Studio and live segments from host city.
  • Around the Horn: 5:00-5:30 p.m. Washington, DC. Studio.
  • Pardon the Interruption: 5:30-6:00 p.m. Host city.
  • NFL Prime Time: 6:00-7:00 p.m. Host city.
  • Monday Night Countdown: 7:00-8:30 p.m. Host city.
  • Monday Night Football: 8:30-11:30 p.m. Host city.
  • SportsCenter: 11:30 p.m.-1:00 a.m. Host city.

“The studio element is bigger than the game element with regards to the number of hours the different studio shows are on-air,” said Carter. There are two trucks for the studio set or sets inside the stadium, and we have a truck for a set outside the stadium. A small truck will handle Pardon the Interruption. Three trucks are for the game. Everything is in HD except PTI, which is a standard-def show.

ESPN will roll a D5 machine for what they call a history record of the game and will also roll up to four DVDs. Those could be line cuts, ISO cuts, quad splits, net returns or whatever production is requesting. Those DVDs can then be viewed on laptops during the crew’s flight home.”

“In our planning during the off-season, the studio group and ourselves have become really smart in how we will work together,” said Dean. “It won’t be an intrusion on how they produce their studio shows and how we produce the game. At the same time, we’re helping enhance their studio shows by sharing facilities, be it seven cameras or sharing clips off the EVS servers.”

Dean and the rest of the production team will use exhibition games to prepare for ESPN’s Monday Night Football’s September 11 debut. “The preseason will be like a training camp for us as well to getting ready for the opening game. To prepare ourselves, myself included, for things like when will Tony Kornheiser talk, what he’s going to talk about, is it on the field, is it off the field?”

“If you’re a sports fan, you know that MNF was traditionally an ABC venture and they created this history of 36 years of great moments,” said Dean. “We’re going to try to touch on that and try to keep the tradition going forward in some capacity. They created Monday as a great sports night, we will follow suit with that and probably try to become more than just a football game and try to be more entertaining to more people because we know we’re serving a broader audience than a Sunday Night game.”

“Hank Williams Jr. will be with ESPN’s Monday Night Football and will continue to perform the intro,” said Bill Hofheimer, director, ESPN Communications. “This year Hank has an All-Star jam band representing musical influences from country and classic rock ‘n’ roll to hip-hop.

“In addition to the Monday Night Football intro there will also be another intro to the show each week. It will definitely have a special look and feel in terms of a new era of Monday Night Football on ESPN.”

Pittsburgh-based NEP Supershooters’ new SS25HD production truck rolls in with 12 Grass Valley LDK 6000 mkII WorldCam cameras and one Grass Valley LDK6200 super motion camera all with Canon lenses. SS25 made its production debut with a short trip to nearby PNC Park during MLB All-Star Week. ESPN used the dual-trailer truck for its coverage of the Home Run Derby.

SS25’s A unit has the production control room, graphics, robotics and Final Cut Pro editing. Audio, video, and tape are in SS25’s B unit. Though not used for the Home Run Derby, the C unit has super slo-mo, the 1st and 10 equipment, audio submix and an operations office. It will travel with the MNF show.

“The truck performed extremely well,” said Carter. “Everyone was very happy with its first show.”

The LDK 6000s will play a big role in putting ESPN’s signature on the show.

“With more than 1,500 cameras sold, there are a couple reasons why the LDK 6000 has become so popular,” said Jan Eveleens, general manager of Grass Valley’s camera division.

“Because it’s a multi-format camera, it can do 720p and 1080i both native.”

Another key element is that the company supports triax on its HD cameras. “Ninety percent of our cameras are triax and 10% are fiber,” said Eveleens. “Our clients say HDTV would never have been able to penetrate the market so quickly and get so much different material on the air if it was not for the capability of having triax transmission.”

According to George Hoover, SVP, Engineering, NEP Broadcasting, SS25 is the only truck with a floor plan that has the EVS operators sitting back-to-back. The replay room is a single expando. Six EVS operators face the driver’s wall and the other six face the passenger wall. The floor plan allows the EVS operators to swivel in their chairs and talk face-to-face with each other. Because the room is so spacious, there’s enough floor space to have an aisle between the two rows of chairs.

Evertz’s MVP with its Multi-Image Display Processor technology and flat-panel displays with improved input resolution and improved response time make this floor plan possible. The wall-mounted displays have smaller footprints than glass displays and weigh less. In addition to permitting a tape op to design his or her monitor wall, the system uses fewer cables, which is another weight reduction.

ESPN uses the MVP in its Bristol production facilities, so it’s no surprise to see the same proven technology being used in SS25.

“We’re the first ones who could handle HD, SD and analog on the same BNC,” said Orest Holyk, director of sales for Evertz. In order to make sure the product was dependable, the company developed its own operating system. “Bare bones, very simple, very easy, it reboots the entire system within 15 seconds. There are no hard drives, it’s all solid-state.”

“For the game, it’s accurate to say it’s a tapeless show,” said Carter.

All replays will come from the six EVS HD LSM XT[2] 2 In, 2 out servers and one EVS HD LSM XT[2] Server with Super Motion.

“Sports productions have been evolving over the years from tape-based replay to server-based replay,” said James Stellpflug, Technical Product Manager for EVS. “Our servers are based on the idea they’re always recording. Consequently, the producers have the benefit of never missing a single moment of action from any sporting event.”

SS25 is equipped with the EVS IP Director system. MNF will use one person to log the entire game. The logger will use IP Director to log the program feed and the system will bind itself to all the clips made on the EVS network. IP Director will take a play such as a quarterback’s touchdown pass marked by the logger and will automatically show a producer all the clips on the network matching that play.

Producers for the other onsite shows such as SportsCenter will use their own IP Director to get highlights clips during the game without creating a direct impact on the game truck.

All the audio sources from the announcers’ mics to the parab picking up a punter’s foot hitting the ball will travel through SS25’s Calrec Alpha all-digital audio console. The console has many features that lend themselves to a large sports telecast like MNF. A single central section of controls make it easy for the mixer to assign a source to any of the 86 dual layer faders.

SS25’s Alpha uses Bluefin technology that Calrec introduced at NAB this year.

“It provides 480 mono DSB paths compared to 226 on previous Alphas,” said John Gluck, Sales and Marketing Director, Calrec. “As more surround sources become part of production, those additional channels are going to be desperately needed.

“The Alpha has extremely high input headroom for outside broadcasts because you are never absolutely in control of the environment you’re working in. If the announcers get really excited, they can be screaming down a microphone at levels they never did during rehearsals.”

The assignable console makes it easier for the mixer to stay seated in the sweet spot while building the 5.1 mix and riding levels for the mix during the show. SS25 will use an SRS Circle Surround encoder and decoder.

SS25’s primary production switcher is a Grass Valley Kalypso. A 10-input GV 110 HD switcher is onboard to be used as needed.

“We find the sports TDs tend to use the more advanced Kalypso features like DoubleTake and FlexiKey and really get a lot out of the switcher,” said Rick Paulson, product manager for live production solutions, Grass Valley. “We also refer to DoubleTake as split M/E technology. It lets you divide the four keyers in each M/E between two separate background transitions, effectively doubling the M/Es available.

“It allows you to take two of your mix/effects banks and have four completely different setups with different sources and different keys that are available as composites to be reentered downstream into other mix/effects. You effectively have up to six preset mix/effect banks ready to go without having to set them up on the fly. DoubleTake reduces the number of quick setups while you’re live.

“FlexiKey is a programmable clean feed feature that lets you create multi-client live programs using any combination of keys,” continued Paulson. “The Kalypso really pioneered the multi-client feed application.

“One of the most important aspects of Kalypso operation for live sports production is the user interface. It has been designed to require the fewest number of keystrokes for the most important operations in live production, and the menu system is designed with a logical flow and minimal depth of screens.”

Millions of viewers will see and will hear the results of over a year of planning and preparation when ESPN’s Monday Night Football makes its September 11 debut. They will get to meet Hank’s new friends and hear the chemistry of a new announce team. The new score clock and new graphics package will let them follow the game with ease.

The members of the seasoned crew will tip their hats to a 36-year sports TV tradition as they step into the new HD truck to launch the next chapter of sports television’s signature series. The excitement of knowing they are moments away from a new era of sports television will be with them up to and during the fax. And then it will all come down that well-known truck countdown, “Everybody—have a good show—5, 4, 3, 2, 1—roll the open.”

Bill Molzon is director of TV operations and Assistant Professor of Communication at Waynesburg College in Pennsylvania.