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The NFL: More Show Than Game

How the networks reinvented the National Football League and turned it into the biggest thing on television

More Show Than Game
Illustration by Sean McCabe: Brady: Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images; Belichick: Jim Mciassc/Getty Images; Vick: Jim Rogash/Getty Images; ESPN Images
September 27, 2012

Tom Brady is missing. The star quarterback of the New England Patriots, husband of supermodel Gisele Bündchen, prototypical All-American Golden Boy and catnip to NFL fans of both genders, is nowhere to be found. This is a problem. Brady is what people want to see when the Patriots play football, and tonight, a temperate Monday in late August, the team is gathered on its home field inside Gillette Stadium, in Foxborough, Massachusetts, seconds away from the opening kickoff against the Philadelphia Eagles. The fact that this is only a preseason game is irrelevant to Jay Rothman and Chip Dean, the producer and director, respectively, of ESPN's Monday Night Football. Sequestered inside one of the network's three windowless production trailers parked in the stadium's bowels, they are responsible for making this and every Monday-night matchup of the NFL into the kind of riveting programming that has turned football into the single most-watched entertainment on television. It is a mammoth, nerve-shredding task – a "crazy rush of creativity and adrenaline," as Dean puts it – that at the moment has the two men barking into their headsets, urging the cameramen positioned around the stadium to find Tom Brady and to find Tom Brady now.

"Anyone see him?"

"Nothing?"

"You're fucking kidding me!"

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There is a reason getting a fix on Brady is proving to be a challenge: Bill Belichick, the opaque gridiron sensei who serves as the Patriots coach, has decided to give his starting quarterback the night off in favor of using the game to assess the team's backups. This, however, only makes getting Brady on camera more vital to tonight's broadcast, and to understand why is to begin to understand the behind-the-curtain wizardry that goes into producing an NFL game for TV. Along with their counterparts at NBC, CBS and Fox, Rothman and Dean are best understood as members of an invisible, unheralded fraternity who have mastered the art of elevating the game's natural drama and manufacturing it when it's lacking – a skill set the two men, both affable, no-nonsense personalities, have honed in the 20 years they've been working in tandem. For instance, should one of the Patriots' backup quarterbacks, Ryan Mallet or Brian Hoyer, complete a deep spiral downfield – well, that's lovely and all, but Rothman and Dean know the moment could be ratcheted up by cutting to Brady's reaction, allowing the viewer at home to speculate on whether he's proud of his teammate or jealous he didn't make the pass himself. (It also provides an excuse to fill the screen with a very pretty man – a bonus for the female audience.) The same rule applies if Michael Vick, the Eagles' evasive quarterback, makes a logic-defying conversion after escaping pressure: What's Brady think about that? Jon Gruden and Mike Tirico, calling the game from the booth, could then pepper in their thoughts during such moments, keeping an inconsequential game slyly focused around the star who isn't even playing.

"Camera eight, check for Tom in the owner's box. Sometimes the Pats like to hide their players up there."

"Guys, the game is about to start."

"Eleven, keep scanning the sidelines."

"We're live in five, four, three . . ."

"Shit."

" . . . two, one!"

Countless such dramas will unfold inside the production trailer over the course of the three-hour broadcast, and the deftness with which they are handled serves as a reminder that men like Rothman and Dean are as accountable for the NFL's pop-cultural dominance as any of the players they put on television. After all, there are millions of Americans who consider themselves serious football fans, yet the majority will never in their lives set foot inside a stadium – and those who do increasingly come away thinking the game is better experienced from the confines of their living room. You don't hear this about professional basketball or baseball, sports that are thrilling to even casual fans when witnessed live, but which today have come to be lugubrious and soporific affairs when televised. Football games, meanwhile, have evolved into some of the most technically and dramatically sophisticated broadcasts currently being created: as rich in story as an acclaimed cable TV series, as gripping as a Hollywood blockbuster. "I remember when Jimmy Johnson" – the former Cowboys coach and current commentator on Fox – "left the league to work in television, he said to us, 'You guys can make a three-yard run look like Armageddon,'" says Fred Gaudelli, the producer of NBC's Sunday Night Football. Indeed, Peter Berg, the creator of Friday Night Lights and director of films like Hancock and Battleship, has noticed that today's broadcasts have refined many of the same techniques used in scripted programming: "The same way those of us in film and TV know how to manipulate a moment through editing – well, those guys are able to do it in real time. Everything from the style of cutting, to the graphics, to the sound quality, to the music – it all taps into our collective emotional vernacular, no different from what we do in movies. There's no question that most football fans are far more addicted to watching football on TV than watching a game of football.

It has been a long road, reaching this point. According to a 2010 study by The Wall Street Journal, the average amount of time a ball is in play during a typical NFL game is a mere 11 minutes, meaning the networks' main challenge has always been figuring out how to make those other 174 minutes exciting – something they have struggled with for decades. As any fan of the game older than 30 can attest, watching the NFL on television was once a tedious, stultifying affair. Twenty-two men spent 45 seconds lolling around on the field in order to set up a play that lasted seven seconds and resulted, more often than not, in the ball being moved a few feet toward one end zone or the other. The hardcore fan always found minutiae to obsess over, as hardcore fans of any sport will, but for the lay viewer it often seemed like very, very little happened. It was not basketball, with its constant flurry of acrobatic dunks, and it was not baseball, a slow game, yes, but one in which the tensions simmering between pitcher and batter were enhanced by the camera's ability to zoom in close, closer – turning every inning into a taut psychological drama. Football, meanwhile? The players were human beings, too, but they were made anonymous by their helmets and padding, and once the ball was snapped they all morphed into an indistinguishable blur of flesh and jersey. If you were lucky, something interesting happened – a one-handed catch, a gruesome hit forcing a fumble – but more often than not, you were unlucky. You just sat there waiting, which seemed to be all the players were doing. You probably dozed off.

Jump-cut to the present. Last year, Sunday Night Football averaged 20.7 million viewers a night, giving it the edge over American Idol as the most popular show on television. (Most astonishing is that the program was the third-most-popular show among women, second only to Modern Family and Two and a Half Men, evidence of how the broadcasts have evolved from the wantonly "smash-mouth" aesthetic of a few years ago.) Monday Night Football, meanwhile, has long been the most-watched prime-time show on cable, with an average last year of 13 million viewers a night. Even typical midseason football games – the ones aired on Sunday afternoons on Fox and CBS – regularly bring in the sort of audiences that the MLB and NBA generate only during championships. All this, of course, is a prelude to the Super Bowl, consistently the most popular night of television across the globe, which last year set a record as the most-watched program in American history: About a third of the nation tuned in. All those viewers equal huge profits: The NFL also projects record revenues of $9.5 billion this year.

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