How the networks reinvented the National Football League and turned it into the biggest thing on television
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?"
"You're fucking kidding me!"
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 . . ."
" . . . 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.
Of course, this surge of popularity can at least partly be explained by the game itself, which the NFL has carefully retooled into a high-scoring, high-flying contest that hardly resembles the brutal, if slow-going, wars of attrition played by greats like Johnny Unitas. "The owners and the league are willing to do whatever it takes to make sure it keeps getting more exciting to watch," says Phil Simms, the former New York Giants quarterback and longtime commentator for CBS. Indeed, the league has the strictest salary cap in professional sports, ensuring a level of competitiveness between all its teams that other sports can't match, and with only 16 games per season, the stakes are invariably higher in each matchup than in the 162 played in baseball or the 82 of basketball. "I'm telling you, if the NFL ran the NHL, they'd make the goals twice as big and have one fewer player on the ice, and suddenly the scores would be crazy," Simms adds, only slightly joking, noting how new rules have resulted in quarterbacks being far more protected from hits than ever before, buying them extra time to complete more breathtaking, TV-friendly plays. Similar rules have more recently been extended toward receivers. "That alone is an unbelievable difference, in that it gives a bigger role to the skill players who are responsible for the game's best plays," Simms says. "It used to be that most of the action took place in the middle of the field. You watched two teams line up and, boom, a car crash. Now the action extends from sideline to sideline, so there's more big plays."
When the majority of your fans are watching these plays from home, devising the best, most nuanced ways to capture the action is as important as the action itself. Back at Gillette Stadium, the game is now under way, at which point the mind-melting scope of what goes into producing an NFL game truly becomes evident. Rothman and Dean often refer to themselves as being part of a "traveling circus," and, indeed, it's easy to see why: Eleven trucks spend the season transporting their gear around the country. From the confines of their trailer, they are charged with overseeing a crew of 200 that includes graphics producers, assistants, statisticians, a sidelines reporter, sound editors and mixers monitoring the 50 microphones deployed around the edge of the field, and the 20 cameramen positioned throughout the stadium. There are those stationed high above the stands (for wide shots), others on carts that zoom along the perimeter of the field (close-ups, sideline drama), two in the corners of the end zones (red-zone efforts) and a handheld that can be used, say, to join a group of players celebrating a touchdown. Tonight the crew is especially jazzed to test out ESPN's new "Spidercam," a lighter, faster version of the Skycam, the joystick-controlled device that flies around the stadium on shoelace-thin cables, offering a number of fresh angles that didn't exist only a few years ago. "Oh, I love this thing!" says Dean, deploying the camera during the opening shot: a close-up of the Patriots jogging out onto the field that fluidly swoops up high above the stands, presenting a gorgeous panorama of the entire stadium. "We're gonna have some fun with the Spider this year."
Being a preseason game, tonight's production is something of a scaled-down affair – 31 cameras are used during regular-season games – though it's no less hectic than a regular-season matchup. Last year, ESPN renewed its contract with the league, paying $15.2 billion to keep MNF through the 2021 season, a figure that breaks down to more than $111 million in rights fees per game, or roughly $600,000 per minute – placing a staggering amount of pressure on the shoulders of Rothman and Dean. Seated side by side, they take in the action on a wall of 24 monitors, many divided into nine boxes, meaning they must process as many as 200 moving images at once and integrate them into a single experience. Assisting with this task is the team of "isolation" producers who occupy another trailer, each responsible for culling the best shots from each of the cameras and feeding them to Rothman and Dean for consideration. Lose focus for a second and suddenly you have a catastrophe – the screen filled by a running back, for instance, when the announcers are discussing a receiver – which is why Rothman pounds a rancid shot of licorice extract before every game. "It's supposed to go to the adrenals," he says. "Maybe it's absurd, but like the players, I'm always looking for anything that gives me a little boost."
It is Dean's role as director to dictate the best angles to complement the game, deciding which cuts present the action as optimally as possible while also keeping the general pace of the game swift and lively. During the Eagles' first three plays – a humdrum short pass by Vick, a five-yard scamper by Vick for a first down and a shifty run up the middle by LeSean McCoy, the running back – Dean uses a total of 12 different cuts in two-and-a-half minutes. There are the close-ups of Vick before the snap; a quick cut to Andy Reid, the Eagles coach, consulting his playbook on the sideline; a close-up of the running back after his jaunty gain; the Spider hovering about the huddle before each play, then zooming out wide as Vick prepares for the snap; and finally, the standard wide shots for the unraveling of the plays. Dean makes these decisions on instinct, ensuring that what's on the screen highlights either a statistical graphic or whatever Gruden and Tirico are discussing in the booth. The overall effect is the seamless and cinematic aesthetic that viewers are accustomed to, but which in the trailer is communicated by Dean via a frenzied shorthand that sounds like gibberish to the uninitiated: "OK, gimme nine. Now 11. Wider, three. Yeah, nice. Hold, hold. Eight, anything in the stands? Pan. Dissolve. More tilt. Go wide . . . ."
Meanwhile, over this unrelenting din it is Rothman's duty as producer to shape a story out of the pandemonium. Miked into Gruden and Tirico, he prompts his "talent" to hit vital talking points while simultaneously shoehorning preproduced segments into the broadcast and editing on the fly the replay packages being cut throughout the game. Gruden and Tirico have a private channel to Rothman, which they use to highlight anything they find interesting. "Iso Cromartie!" Gruden shouts when Eagles cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie deflects a Patriots pass – meaning "isolate" him in replay, which Rothman does in a microsecond. The whole production is a dizzying, ceaseless dance on the border between chaos and control, and commercial breaks are no less fraught. Rothman, who is fond of pointing to his balding scalp as evidence of the stress his job fosters, refers to them as "our huddles," a moment to assess their progress and dictate what needs to happen next. "I'm not a slave to the ratings, but I study them and I'm pretty obsessed with them," he says. "Like, I know that I've got a much bigger audience one hour into a game than I do when it starts. So I'll hang on to the bits that I think are really great for that part of the broadcast." He taps the sheet of paper at his station that serves as his battle plan for the broadcast: a list of potential story lines (Brady's recovering from last year's Super Bowl loss to the Giants, the recent death of Reid's son) to be sprinkled in when the audience is at its peak. "I live and die by this little cheat sheet. Oh, that game's getting a little slow? What do we have to spice it up?"
Every broadcast is the culmination of days of intense planning for the game. The crew has been in Foxborough since Saturday; they have spent one day with the Patriots at practice and another with the Eagles, in order to help figure out what's likely to be the focus of the game: everything from offensive and defensive schemes to off-field interpersonal drama involving the players. (There's always a morale-boosting activity: Saturday night, the crew attended a Bruce Springsteen concert together.) Then, on the Monday morning of the game, Rothman and Dean meet with Gruden, Tirico and about 20 producers in a hotel conference room, where they break down what is likely to happen on the field, and figure out how best to capture these hypothetical moments should they materialize in reality. For instance, during this morning's meeting, Gruden had spent considerable time riffing on the talented Phillip Hunt, a second-year defensive end for the Eagles who Gruden believed was going to turn out to be a surprise star of the season. Just in case Hunt ended up making a mark during the game, a package had been produced charting his unorthodox path to the NFL (he played in the Canadian Football League for two seasons) as well as his unique abilities (a quick-footed, 248-pound bull-rusher). Later in the day, Rothman and Dean made sure their cameramen kept an eye on Hunt, all of which turns out to have been a wise decision: In the game's second quarter, Hunt forces a fumble that results in a turnover, at which point the crew is ready to go with its preproduced segment, which fills the screen so smoothly it seemed predestined.
"That's why you prepare," says Rothman. "But if we're lucky, 20 percent of what we have makes it into a broadcast. You're always left wishing you could have gotten more in."
On 1998, on the night of Sunday, September 27th, viewers who tuned in to ESPN to watch the Cincinnati Bengals take on the Baltimore Ravens noticed something different about the broadcast. During each play, a yellow line was digitally superimposed onto the field to indicate the spot the offense needed to reach in order to gain a first down: a marker subtle enough not to distract you from the action – it looked like one of the lines painted on the field – yet one that fundamentally altered the viewing experience. What had once been one of the murkiest and frustrating components to watching a game – Where are they trying to get to, anyway? – was now startlingly clear, infusing every down with the intensity that had previously only existed once a team made it inside the 10-yard line. You watched to see if they crossed that digitized line or not. This deceptively simple bit of graphical jujitsu, among the most important to ushering in today's golden age of televised football, accomplished what every innovation in sports broadcasting aims to achieve: a hardcore fan was that much more informed, and a casual fan that much less alienated.
Such breakthroughs are bred by a culture of competition among the networks that mirrors NFL team rivalries. "We 100 percent want to beat the pants off of everyone every single week," says Gaudelli, the producer of Sunday Night Football. These battles are "won" not simply through ratings – they are broadcasting the same sport, after all, and all are benefiting equally, with hundreds of millions in advertising dollars – but through being the first to come up with subtle tweaks that elevate the viewers' experience. Just as the NFL is often referred to as a "copycat league," in which coaches invariably adapt the innovations of one team into their own playbooks, the various networks will "borrow" one another's ideas, giving them their own signature stamps. As Dean put it before the Patriots game commenced, "Yeah, everyone is always copying each other, trying to one-up each other, and all that is why the game keeps becoming better television. It's incredibly competitive, but it's a respectful competition, but, yeah, we want to beat each other."
Yet as much as the production teams of each network are indebted to their rivals, they are all very quick to point out what they brought to the experience before everyone else, and to hold onto it for themselves as long as possible. "The year we introduced the yellow line, we had it under an exclusive contract with Sportsvision, the company that created the technology," says Jed Drake, the executive who oversees all of ESPN's live sports broadcasts. "Well, Fox asked if they could use it for the broadcast of the Super Bowl, and of course the guys at Sportsvision wanted us to, but in the end we said no."
Those at Fox, meanwhile, proudly note that the game would not be the exuberant entertainment it is today had they not come along to stir the pot. "Around the time we started broadcasting games" – in 1994 – "Sports Illustrated had just run a story calling the NFL the 'no fun league,'" says David Hill, the chairman of Fox Sports. "The games themselves were being produced like you were covering a requiem Mass. But this is a fun game, and we had fun with it." To this effect, Fox pioneered incorporating the raw sounds of the game into the broadcast, becoming the first to air games in 5.1 Dolby – hence the guys you now see running along the sidelines with those parabola microphones that resemble inverted umbrellas. "Games used to look like a silent movie," says Hill. "I wanted you to hear the sound of the punter kicking the ball, and the ball hitting the chest of the receiver. People don't realize it, but they often have a more emotional reaction from audio than they do video."
Furthermore, Fox was unapologetic with its graphics, pairing everything that shot across the screen with the sort of sound effects associated with video games. "It was because of video games that we did that," explains Hill. "I was watching my 12-year-old son play Sega and I thought, 'Why is this more compelling to watch than a live NFL game?' It was because every little move was accompanied by a sound effect, so we incorporated that into our broadcasts." Finally, it was Fox that introduced what it coined the "FoxBox," the onscreen graphic that displays the score, each team's number of timeouts, game clock and play clock, as well as scores from around the league updated in real time. Aside from keeping a viewer more informed, it gave the game a greater element of suspense, as if both teams were perpetually trying to dismantle the other's bomb. "When we first introduced that, everyone mocked us and said it wouldn't last, that it distracted from the game," says Hill. "Now everyone has a version of the FoxBox."
The most important innovation in recent years, everyone agrees, has been the advent and ubiquity of high-definition television. "Obviously, that has been a real game-changer," says ESPN's Drake. "It allows viewers to really see what's happening in a way that didn't exist that long ago." Indeed, the bodies no longer blur into one, and the more recent addition of high-speed cameras, the machinery responsible for the "super-slo-mo" shots in replay, routinely offer up awe-inspiring footage. Terry Bradshaw, the former Steelers QB and the figurehead of Fox's NFL broadcasts, jokes that with today's technology his most famous play – the so-called Immaculate Reception to end the 1972 AFC divisional playoff game, in which Franco Harris made a shoestring catch off a deflected pass and ran it in for a game-winning score – might not even exist. "You'd be able to see the play so clearly on HD, and at so many angles, that, who knows, maybe he didn't even catch the ball," Bradshaw says. In other words, sitting at home, nursing a beer, a viewer now has a better view of the game than both the referees and the fan seated along the 50-yard line. "It's amazing where we've come with all this, but no one's ever satisfied," says Drake. "Personally, I'm looking forward to the day when games will be holographically broadcast. Believe me, it's going to happen."
Anyone interested in fully grasping the impact of what is essentially an arms race among the networks should go onto YouTube and watch the final drive of Super Bowl XXIII, from 1989, in which Joe Montana famously led the San Francisco 49ers to victory in the last drive of the game, and then compare it to what the team did last year in the playoffs against the New Orleans Saints, when it emerged victorious after a nearly identical drive at the end of the fourth quarter. The former remains engaging to watch, of course: It is one of the most exciting comebacks in the history of the game. As a piece of television programming, however, it comes across as dated and slow. During the drive, which lasted two minutes and 35 seconds of game time – or just over seven minutes in real time – there are 50 cuts, a number that sounds large but that would likely be doubled if the game was being produced today. Furthermore, there are no sounds of players colliding, and the score is never visible on the screen. Most jarring, in just over seven minutes of screen time, there is not a single replay: Jerry Rice's magnificent 27-yard reception on second-and-20, the drive's most pivotal play, is seen once and only once. If you happened to be reaching for a potato chip – too bad. You missed it.
Now take a look at the footage from last year's game. The drive was much shorter – one minute and 22 seconds in game time, three minutes and 25 seconds in reality – yet there are only 17 fewer cuts, meaning the action feels much faster. In both games, the team ran a no-huddle offense to conserve time, but in the latter the quickness of the pace is enhanced by the greater number of cuts between plays. And despite the drive taking less than half the time of the former, there are two detailed replays. The first is of a deep near-completion that is composed of three cuts: first, the receiver running his route; then, a look at the fearsome rush the quarterback was facing; and, finally, the "emotional" super-slo-mo of the receiver as the ball flies just past his fingertips. The second is of Vernon Davis' stunning 47-yard catch – this game's version of Rice's reception – which is broken into an isolated cut of Davis' route and a slow-motion shot of him fighting off a tackler while going out of bounds. Meanwhile, throughout, the sounds of the on-field collisions are as piercing as the roar of the fans, and aside from the yellow first-down marker, there is a similar digital graphic in red that marks the point the team needs to reach to be in field-goal range. After Davis makes the game-winning catch with 10 seconds remaining – and after it is shown in replay from two angles – the on-field camera rushes into the fray of the celebration: You can see the tears streaming down Davis' face, one of the most memorable "scenes" from the 2011 season. Montana's drive may be the more important moment, but no one will argue that it makes for better television.
Eventually, Rothman and Dean learn why they can't find Tom Brady, which has remained a top priority, with Dean directing his cameramen to keep searching and then yelling, "Reset!" moments before each play, cuing them to get back into position to capture what happens on the field. But in time, a representative of the Patriots, notoriously one of the league's least transparent teams, calls the trailer, letting everyone know that Brady is not at the game tonight. Knowing the game is likely to lack the on-field drama of a regular-season game, the crew has planned a number of graphics devoted to Brady's commitment to the team, to how his obsession with the game is as strong today as it was when he entered the league. This is what Gruden took away from his time with Brady at the Patriots' practice two days earlier, though it's not an easy thing to convey when Brady is not even watching his team play. "Great!" quips Rothman. "Just what we need."
However, midway through the first quarter, just over half an hour into the broadcast, something happens that makes this less of a dilemma. The Eagles have just set up for their second drive of the game: first-and-10 on their own 26-yard line. What a television viewer sees, at first, is this: Vick taking the snap, faking the handoff, scurrying backward 15 yards as two Patriots defenders stampede toward him, and then just missing DeSean Jackson, the Eagles' lightning-quick receiver, on a 54-yard pass. Rothman and Dean, of course, have eyes everywhere, which is to say they can see that Vick took a punishing hit: "Holy shit!" "He's down!" Dean cuts quickly to two defenders celebrating the hit, and then to Vick, who is still on the turf, holding his ribs in agony before staggering to his feet in a daze. Rothman and his deputies have used these three seconds to put together a replay package: first, a close-up of the hit from one of the sideline cameras that was focused exclusively on Vick, and then the same play from the reverse angle – this one more dramatic because the cameraman stayed locked on Vick as he writhed on the field. Meanwhile, back in real time, Vick has gone back down, and is being attended to by the training staff, so Dean cuts from the replay back to a live shot. Hold here. Now fade to a commercial. Perfect: a cliffhanger to ensure the viewer is so eager to learn what happens next that he doesn't change channels.
The moment, of course, was spontaneous: The Eagles could have run the ball, or completed an unremarkable short pass. Yet it comes across so cinematically onscreen because the crew has planned for it as if it were an inevitability. Gruden, in what now seems an act of foreshadowing, had even primed the viewer for this possibility. "It's very important that Michael Vick takes better care of himself," he said at the start of the broadcast, quoting himself verbatim from the meeting that morning in the hotel conference room. "Andy Reid told us, 'Vick is still gonna scramble for first downs, he's still gonna scramble for touchdowns, but you're also gonna see him scramble to get down and avoid a lot of the punishment he's taken over the last couple years.'" Somewhat ironically, just before the injury occurred, the crew had been putting together the finishing touches on a package about Vick's struggles to stay healthy, a little something to show should the drive turn out to be uneventful or slowed by penalties. Now, with a few tweaks, it becomes the ideal package to complement the injury.
There are still three more quarters to play, but it is Vick's injury that now becomes the major plotline of the game, the moment Rothman and Dean circle back to when the action slows, understanding that they've captured the first chapter of the story of Vick's entire season. When the game ends, at nearly midnight, Rothman, Dean and the crew have been working for 15 hours straight, and it shows. The men are bleary-eyed, eager to get horizontal, and now that the rush of production is over they have the dazed demeanor of two people coming down from a very potent high. After congratulating their crew for a job well done, they head toward their hotel, letting the "ops guys" responsible for breaking down and packing up the equipment get to work. Come morning, Rothman and Dean will each watch the entire broadcast on their iPads, studying it with the same scrutiny as NFL coaches. "I try to force myself to take a moment and see everything we've done right, and to remember how awesome it is, this thing we get to do every week," says Rothman. "But that lasts about a minute. Then I start noticing everything we did wrong, everything we should have done, and could have done, and I just look forward to the next game, hoping we can make it that much better."
This story is from the September 27th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.