You’d think Lisa Salters would have seen everything by now, but the woman who holds the distinction of being the longest-serving sideline reporter in the history of “Monday Night Football” will soon encounter something that has never been part of covering an NFL game.
When ESPN launches this season of “MNF,” Salters will likely find herself working the game from empty stadium seats, in an area now being referred to as “the moat.” Other reporters who have her role, like CBS Sports’ Tracy Wolfson and NBC Sports’ Michele Tafoya, are in a similar position: reporting from a game’s sidelines when that area will be off-limits due to restrictions posed by the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s going to challenge me to think outside the box, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” says Salters, getting ready for her ninth season with the football broadcast. “I have to find a way to do my job as good if not better under new constraints.”
So too do four major media companies counting on football games to keep consumers flocking to their various TV offerings. This year’s NFL season isn’t a game for ViacomCBS, NBCUniversal, Fox Corp. or Walt Disney – all of which will try to demonstrate their expertise in gridiron television, with the knowledge that their contracts with the NFL to carry the game are coming closer to the end of their term. NBC will be the first to put its sports-broadcasting skills on display tonight, when it telvises the first game of the season between the Houston Texans and the Kansas City Chiefs.
Everything about this season’s football production “had to be rethought,” acknowledges Fred Gaudelli, executive producer of NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.” “The biggest challenge is that the routine you’ve been in and really didn’t have to think about is no longer there for you.” At NBC Sports, he says, about a dozen “SNF” veterans have opted out of taking part in the production during the pandemic. “These are people that have been on the team for 15 years, and there’s a lot of unspoken language that occurred.”
The networks can’t live without football, particularly in an era when more of their viewers are migrating to on-demand streaming. Live NFL games bring the industry’s biggest audiences and highest ad prices, and remain one of the few thriving TV platforms where viewers will watch the commercials that interrupt the action (though the NFL in recent years has taken steps to winnow down such stuff).
“The start of the NFL season should hardly be ignored by media investors,” says media analyst Michael Nathanson in a recent research note. “In a normal year, over the weeks of the entire NFL regular and post-season (except the Super Bowl) the NFL delivers 28% of the national audience impressions at NBC, CBS and ESPN and 60% of Fox’s impressions. However, given the lack of new Fall 2020 scripted content and the continued impact of SVOD viewing on linear viewing, the share might be even bigger this time around.”
But to prevail this year, the people who produce NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” the Sunday afternoon games on CBS and Fox, Fox’s ‘Thursday Night Football” and ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” must work through a litany of challenges. How do they beam the same level of production into living rooms when many of the sights and sounds of the games won’t be available to them? How much should they focus on athletes and others who may call attention to issues of social justice? And can they roll out new programming concepts and production techniques in such a roiled atmosphere?
They are going to try. NBC Sports plans to offer unique overhead views from a high-tech camera that shoots in 8K and records 180-degree views of the field. ViacomCBS is planning an NFL broadcast aimed at kids on its Nickelodeon network. ESPN is trotting out an entirely new on-air team for “Monday Night Football” – a booth filled by Steve Levy, Louis Riddick and Brian Griese.
Before the first shot of game play, each network may have to grapple with decisions about how to chronicle views of players protesting. With America dealing with social unrest and questions about how people of different races are treated by authorities, the chances of players making social statements with their uniforms or during a rendition of the National Anthem are high.
“Our policy has been to cover the anthem when it’s newsworthy, and that’s not going to change. We are going to continue, as we’ve done with the NBA as they’ve played, and the WNBA. We will cover social justice movements, actions as they happen,” says Stephanie Druley, ESPN’s executive vice president of event and studio production. “We’re not going to shy away from that.” CBS Sports is also prepared to talk to viewers about social movements taking place around the games. “I expect that to happen and we will be prepared for it,” says Jim Nantz.
There’s some sense the TV teams will not get into commentary. Announcers “are certainly allowed to talk about what is happening on the field, whether it’s the National Anthem, or it’s something else – a name or a phrase on the player’s jersey or shoes. They are free to talk about that, but they are going to do so objectively. They aren’t going to interject their opinion or their philosophy,” says Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports. Viewers should expect to see attention paid to some social issues during pre-game shows, he adds.
One very basic question still needs to be answered: Are they ready for some football? The networks must contend with game conditions they’ve never experienced in the past.
Some teams won’t allow fans in the stadium. The NFL has gone so far as to curate the sounds of individual arenas, using cheers and reactions collected over the years by its NFL Films unit. Those fan reactions to touchdowns, passes and penalties will play underneath the telecast.
Broadcast teams can’t watch tapes of pre-season games that might help them offer more colorful analysis. Production rigs have had to be overhauled, with NBC Sports adding a production truck to its compound so its staffers can work in socially-distanced fashion. ESPN has moved a significant number of production roles off the field and back to its headquarters in Bristol, Conn.
“It’s like playing the game,” says Druley. “Until you hit the field, you don’t know.” For this season, at least, networks that want to put their best foot forward will be forced to do it one step at a time.