Inside ‘Sunday Night Football’: How Primetime’s Most Watched TV Show Gets Made

Inside 'Sunday Night Football': How TV's Most Watched Show Gets Made
Kylie Callura, NBC Sports

Post-rush hour, the drive from the Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills to the Los Angeles Rams’ practice facility in Thousand Oaks, Calif. is a manageable 50 minutes. On Friday, Nov. 15, most of the core broadcast team for NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” — analyst Cris Collinsworth, sideline reporter Michele Tafoya, executive producer Fred Gaudelli, director Drew Esocoff and researcher Andy Freeland — make that trip together in a luxury van, departing the hotel shortly after 11 a.m. Laptops open, Collinsworth and Tafoya are prepping for the interviews they will do with players and Rams head coach Sean McVay after they spend more than an hour observing the team’s practice.

But they and the crew members are also talking about the news of the morning — the suspension that the NFL handed down to Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett for hitting the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mason Rudolph in the head with the quarterback’s own helmet. Everyone expresses disbelief at Garret’s actions, video of which quickly went viral the night before. But none expect it to come up during the broadcast of the Rams’ then-forthcoming “Sunday Night Football” matchup with the Chicago Bears.

If he were working on a studio show, Collinsworth says, “I would call the coaches and people involved in the circumstance, in Cleveland or in Pittsburgh, and get the story right. But you know, I’m not doing that. I’ve got to get ready for the game.”

“Sunday Night Football” has been primetime’s most watched television program for the last eight seasons. And its reign looks secure. According to NBC, the broadcast is, through 12 games over 11 weeks, averaging 20.5 million total viewers across platforms — its highest 11-week average since 2015. The franchise has maintained its dominance through a tumultuous period for the NFL, which has drawn strong criticism for its handling of domestic violence allegations against star players such as Ray Rice, Greg Hardy and Ezekial Elliott; its response to mounting scientific evidence of the long-term health dangers of playing football; and its standoff with quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who sparked a wave of on-field player protests against racial injustice.

Through the controversies, “Sunday Night Football” has remained in fundamental ways what it has been since it premiered on NBC in 2006: a straightforward, sports-focused telecast — one that also happens to be the NFL’s biggest regular-season stage. It’s “Sunday Night Football” that benefits from flex scheduling, the league’s practice of, as the season evolves, moving the most desirable games out of Sunday-afternoon slots on Fox and CBS and into primetime on NBC. The crew for “Sunday Night Football” is 150 strong — roughly 120 full-time crew members supplemented in each city by about 30 local hires. They travel with five 53-foot production trucks that serve as the base of operations on game days.

For Gaudelli, Collinsworth, Tafoya and play-by-play announcer Al Michaels, the week begins Monday with research and prep. (Collinsworth in particular is obsessive about research, creating game-film breakdowns that are shared with the rest of the team, and compiling research in a proprietary software developed with Freeland.) The pattern of watching films, gathering intel, and attending meetings leads, by design, to an overabundance of information.

“Ninety percent of what we’ve prepared does not make it to the television, just because the game takes over,” says Gaudelli. “The game has to be to overriding narrative of the show.”

The action on the field often leads to painful decisions in the truck. Gaudelli points to the previous week’s game in which the Dallas Cowboys lost to the Minnesota Vikings 28-24. With 40 seconds left in the game and the Cowboys down by four and about to receive a punt from the Vikings, Gaudelli and his crew were ready to pull the trigger right after the kick on a video package featuring Cowboys legend Roger Staubach’s famous game-winning 50-yard Hail Mary pass to receiver Drew Pearson in a 1975 playoff match-up against the Vikings. The timing for such a highlight could not have been more perfect. But then Gaudelli heard Michaels’ voice in his earpiece, saying, “Wow. He should not have called for a fair catch. He had plenty of room.” Cowboys kick returner Tavon Austin had indeed signaled for a fair catch with plenty of open field ahead of him inviting the opportunity for a return. Gaudelli made the decision to shelve the video and instead go to replay and analysis of the punt. The Staubach-Pearson clip never made it to air.

“You always have to side on the game and if Al, or Cris, or Michele make a big deal out of something, you probably need to be addressing it,” Gaudelli says.

The Rams training facility in Thousand Oaks is ephemeral — a collection of trailers on a piece of land owned by California Lutheran College. When the team returned to Southern California in 2016, it settled on this spot for its practice home in large part for convenience’s sake. It was already zoned as a playing field. The team, which will move next season from the 98-year-old Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to a new stadium in Inglewood for game days, is currently scouting sites across the Los Angeles area for a permanent practice facility. But the Thousand Oaks site — remote, set in the hills, sitting beneath a pleasant-enough-looking hiking trail that attracts remarkably few gawkers — seems to get the job done. The Rams made it to the Super Bowl last season.

At practice, Collinsworth, Tafoya, Gaudelli and the other crew members drop their bags in the tight ends’ meeting room, where they and Michaels will later conduct their interviews with the players and McVay. These sessions are a critical part of the week, especially for Tafoya. While Collinsworth, Gaudelli, Esocoff and Freeland make their way to the field, Tafoya peels off to interview Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald.

“I love these one-on-one interviews I get to do,” says Tafoya. “I have a general sense of what’s going on with the team, or a person, or a player, or a situation. But in the interview, I get so many more specifics and that can really help shape things.”

Michaels, an L.A. resident, is already at the practice field when the others arrive, having been granted by the schedule the luxury of sleeping in his own bed on a Thursday night. He and the rest of the crew are mostly watching for the same things — clues as to what schemes the Rams’ struggling offensive line will employ as it attempts to contain the Bears’ prolific pass rusher Khalil Mack; which injured players are practicing and which are on the sidelines in civilian clothes.

But whereas Collinsworth takes a detail-oriented approach to prep, Michaels — who spent two decades calling ABC’s “Monday Night Football” before making the leap to NBC with Gaudelli and then-analyst John Madden in 2006 — prefers a zoom-out approach. That contrast manifests itself in how they tackle meetings with players and coaches.

“Cris gets into a lot of the nuts and bolts with those guys of what he sees on film,” Michaels says. “I really like to take an overview in those meetings and go, ‘OK, at the beginning of the year, this is what it looked like. This was what was going on. How did we evolve to where we are right now?'”

This narrative approach undergirds “Sunday Night Football.” Talent and crew are all conscious of what they view as the franchise’s role as the premiere national NFL telecast. As such, there’s a concerted effort to make the Sunday-night product one that appeals to both dedicated and casual football fans.

“Al will hit me in the back of the head every once in a while, and say ‘stop’ when I start getting too football-detailed,” Collinsworth says with a laugh. “Grandma’s on the couch. We’re in a battle for the family remote. Sunday night is a night for the family to watch TV.” Go too far down the football-wonk rabbit hole, he says, “and people walk out of the room.”

On Sunday, Michaels, Collinsworth and Tafoya arrive at the Coliseum at 2 p.m. for a 5:20 p.m. kickoff. Gaudelli and his crew have long been on-site when the broadcast team arrives.

At around 3:30 p.m., Michaels heads upstairs to sit in the booth and review his research. The Coliseum is a relic, but it’s a recently refurbished relic, and the booth is a good deal larger than it was during visits to L.A. in previous seasons. Michaels’ station has three screens in front of it. Collinsworth, who is downstairs shooting a pregame segment from an outdoor studio, has a somewhat bigger setup with six screens. On one of them is a Microsoft Word document containing 55 pages of searchable notes. A half an hour later, Michaels is downstairs, filming a hit from the sideline for the pregame show, “Football Night in America.” Among those nearby, roaming the field pregame, are tennis legend Venus Williams and a young man carrying around a giant check made out for $10,000 to the Bob Hope USO. After Michaels’ hit, Tafoya records her own segment. Shortly thereafter, she can be spotted chatting with the teams’ kickers, presumably gathering information, literally, on which way the wind is blowing. As Michaels and Collinsworth roam the sidelines, each is greeted in turn by former quarterback Michael Vick, who is being followed by an NFL Films crew. Later, Michaels and Collinsworth are spotted talking together with Rams president Kevin Demoff.

By 5 p.m., the main production truck, where Gaudelli and Esocoff will be joined shortly by about seven crew members, is mostly empty. (This is the last opportunity before halftime for a run to the portable toilets outside in the Coliseum parking lot, where NBC’s trucks are set up.) But within minutes, staff is in place. Gaudelli and Esocoff are positioned front-row center, before a bank of monitors. Each man’s ear piece is positioned such that his free ear is facing his colleague, so that they can hear each other, when necessary, over the multiple audio feeds coming in through the headset. Five to 5:15 p.m. is the most watched segment of “Football Night in America,” broadcast from Stamford, Conn. Analysts Tony Dungy and Chris Simms are using the time to discuss Kaepernick’s workout Saturday for a group of NFL staff, which shifted venues after the quarterback refused to sign a reportedly onerous waiver that the league attempted to compel him to sign.

Control of NBC’s feed will transfer from Stamford to the truck at 5:13 p.m. Six minutes before liftoff, Gaudelli is making suggestions to the graphics department. Michaels makes a joke about the Rams’ public-address announcer, and somebody somewhere plays a sound-effect of a chainsaw, prompting laughter in the truck and the booth. A minute before the handoff, Esocoff says, “Have a great show, everybody.”

The Rams will go on to win an ugly-ish game 17-7, improving their playoff chances in what has thus far been a disappointing year. The focus throughout the telecast is on the action inside the Coliseum. As Esocoff, an industry veteran who worked at ESPN and ABC before joining “Sunday Night Football” at launch more than a decade ago says, “The loudest thing in your headset should always be program audio.”